Having visited patients in hospitals for over 40 years, I can report that pastoral hospital visitation has changed in many ways over the decades. It used to be far simpler for a pastor to visit a church member at the hospital.
Forty years ago, a candidate for surgery was admitted to the hospital in the afternoon prior to surgery instead of the brutal practice of requiring groggy, sleepless patients to appear at 6 a.m. on the day of surgery. Under the former arrangement the pastor and church member could visit and pray prior to surgery in a much more relaxed setting.
A pastor even 15-20 years ago could slip in or out of a hospital by multiple doors. Here’s one example: I can recall in Macon when a pastor could visit church members in the old Middle Georgia Hospital, walk down the back hallway of that hospital, exit from that hospital onto the loading dock, walk down an alley and enter what was then called the Medical Center via a side door. It was efficient, simple and time-saving.
There were no keypads anywhere. Every pastor knew multiple entrances into hospitals. I used to slip into the side door of a Savannah hospital to avoid the lobby where somebody inevitably wanted to corner me to chat about the weather when I had no time for those pleasantries.
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Slipping into hospital side doors is a thing of the past. Security is paramount. I realize we can’t return to that simpler day. Hospitals, like schools or concert venues, must be secure. Even so, I yearn for the days when trust levels were higher.
OB/GYN wards once were easier to visit, too. Nobody worried about unauthorized visitors stealing babies. Often I avoid elevators in the hospital because climbing stairs provides exercise and are often a more direct route to church members. Although I still use hospital stairs, one can no longer stop on the “baby floor.” Those stairwell doors are tightly locked in keeping with heightened security. I’m grateful our babies and their mothers are safe. But once again, I bemoan a society where such precaution is necessary. Nobody trusts anybody – often for good cause.
When I first began hospital visitation a pastor had almost unlimited access to the hospital’s census. The volunteers at the front desk showed clergy a patient list, no questions asked. Hospitals trusted pastors to review the list, find church members and make visits. One Catholic hospital conveniently divided the patients by religious profession to make it easier for pastors. Thanks to that list I could visit church members I didn’t know had been hospitalized.
Nowadays, pastors could hack into electronic voting machines easier than discovering whether a particular person is hospitalized. Maybe this is for the better. Not everybody wants pastors — or others — visiting them and maybe they never did. But once it was simpler for a pastor to keep track of his/her flock.
I probably sound like the old guy I am, but the social contract used to be stronger and the trust level higher. Pastors will always visit people in hospitals; it’s just a more difficult challenge these days.
Creede Hinshaw, a retired United Methodist pastor of 36 years, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.