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Serving congregation members in a nursing home

Columnist Bill Herr taught high school mathematics and science for 32 years before serving as a volunteer and then as a staff chaplain at two nursing homes.

By Bill Herr

This article is written especially for preachers. I’m certain that one responsibility of a pastor is to bring spiritual nourishment to every member of the congregation. Providing this means the pastor is responsible not only to those that attend worship services, but also to church members that are not able to leave their homes due to aging or health issues, and also to members residing in elderly care institutions.

My uncle lived in a nursing home in his later years.  He was a veteran of WWII, a father of four fine kids, a good man who was not given to talking much. I used to visit him on Sunday afternoons and we would watch NFL football games together. He had been shot by a sniper in the Philippines during the war and came home to recover in a Veterans’ hospital. He was given drugs and became addicted to them. Being divorced and not having a home, his brother, my father, invited him to live with us. He helped us farm and became clean from the addiction.  

After a few years, he moved into town and bought a small tractor and plow.  Town folks that had gardens hired him to plow their gardens in the spring. He once plowed 40 gardens. My mathematics classroom bordered on Jackson Street. One fine spring day I heard the sound of a tractor. I looked out the window and there was my uncle driving by with his tractor and plow. I loved my uncle.  

When he came to live in the nursing home where I was now chaplain, I asked our family pastor to come and visit him. He did, and when he was about to leave, I asked him how the visit went. The pastor smiled and said, “I’ll never do that again.” He meant he didn’t appreciate that my uncle, who was especially reticent with strangers, had hardly said a word to the pastor during the visit. Pastoring is a chosen profession to administer love and understanding and acceptance of a situation. It is not always easy to do.

One of the joys of working in a nursing home is witnessing the love between couples. There were numerous examples in which a resident was visited by his or her spouse every day. They brought favorite foods, sweets, news of the family, and especially love, fulfilling their wedding vows to the end. One lady came to see her husband and spent hours with him every day. Then I was told he had passed away during the night and his family was in his room. I knocked on the door and his wife and her brother came out. I expressed my sympathy and the wife asked if I would do her husband’s funeral. I said I would be honored to do it, and would she like me to ask the pastor of her church in a neighboring town to have a part in it. Her brother said, “No, we don’t want the one that never came.”

It was my experience that many pastors did come to the nursing home to visit members of their flock. Thank God for that. It is a service that benefits two. The first is to the resident in the nursing home. The second is to Jesus, a service to what he calls us to do.