The Rev. Peter Oesterlin knows from plenty of experience how to provide comfort and support to people who are hospitalized.
He spent nearly 30 years as a chaplain working in cities across the country in the hospital system of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The most important lesson he learned about doing pastoral care in a hospital setting is simple.
"We have sort of a one-liner in chaplaincy: 'Don't do something, just stand there.' You just make yourself available," says Oesterlin, who is serving as interim rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt.
Even though he's no longer a chaplain, he still visits members of his church who are in the hospital.
"A lot of my calling on parishioners is without an agenda. I always let the other person set it. I'm not good at mind reading," Oesterlin says.
"If you're not trying to push something on somebody, you can communicate a sense of calm to them. Then they trust you and can talk about things that really matter."
Visiting people in the hospital is a big part of what pastors do. It's as essential to their schedule as preparing a sermon or leading the congregation in prayer.
Rules of thumb
The Rev. Dick Pierson has learned a lot about offering pastoral care in hospitals during his 16 years in the ministry.
Pierson, pastor of West Side Presbyterian Church, 1024 Kasold Drive, has even developed a set of rules he tries to follow.
the Rev. Dick Pierson, pastor of West Side Presbyterian Church
"One of them is to keep the visit short. People in hospitals are poked and prodded necessarily by the work the hospital has to do, and rest is very difficult to get," Pierson says.
"A long visit from a clergyperson isn't needed. What they need most of the time from the pastor is comfort and prayer. That doesn't take 30 minutes; it takes five minutes."
Pierson's second rule: Hospitals are not a place for pastors to seek donations, convert people or get them to join a church.
"People go to the hospital because they're sick, not because they need conversion," he says. "Your only job is to go and comfort them."
His third rule: Remember that you're a visitor, not a family member.
"Clergy should learn to do their job, offer to do whatever the patient needs, and get out from underfoot so the health professionals and family can do what they need to do," Pierson says.
Sometimes it's important for a pastor to know when not to do something.
"I'm still learning that: what not to say, what not to expect, what to be silent about. You learn not to say things like, 'Oh, it will be all right, everything's going to be fine.' That trivializes their feelings. You need to learn never to attempt to talk a person out of their feelings," Pierson says.
Offering pastoral care to your church members in the hospital can be a hard assignment.
"You never get used to other people's pain. You never get hardened to it. You learn how to deal with it, and learn what not to do so you won't make it any worse.
"But as far as learning how to go through it without feeling distress and pain, that never happens," Pierson says.
The Rev. Vicki Penner tries to bring people the comfort that can be found in the familiar aspects of their faith.
"A primary thing is the presence of a person who is compassionate and caring at a time when people are up in the air and don't know what will happen. If you know the people well, you can call on your own Christian belief systems, of Christ being present with them," says Penner, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church, 1204 Oread Ave.
Penner has often read psalms from the Bible to patients, or just prayed with them.
"In those moments, you bring the tradition that has grounded people's lives," he says.
As pastor of one of Lawrence's largest congregation, the Rev. Charles Polifka often has a list of parishioners he needs to visit at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
"I'm over there at least three times a week," says Polifka, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky.
"I provide spiritual support, of course, in terms of (serving) the Eucharist and praying with them. I see my role as trying to uplift them, and try to get them to laugh a little bit."
He thinks visits from the clergy can boost a patient's spirits.
"It gives them a lot of confidence that there can be healing, and I think it gives them peace of mind that things are OK between them and God. And it helps them to realize that others are thinking of them," Polifka says.
Your own rewards
It's not only the person in the hospital bed who benefits from a pastor's visit.
"Strangely enough, visiting people when they are at their weakest, and being an encourager, is one of the most rewarding parts of this job," Pierson says.
"It can be hard to see your friends suffering, but there is a sense that you're doing God's work in a very important and powerful way."