First, the mainline and historic traditions usually have excellent resources for ministers. The contents of the best of these prayer books and pastor’s manuals reflect the wisdom of the ages as they guide the visitor in various situations. I’m assuming that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have resources ready and at hand. Protestants: check with your local Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA), American Baptist, UCC, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, or Reformed Church (RCA) minister and ask him or her what guides are available. I haven’t looked at all of them. My favorite is:
- The Book of Common Prayer: The link will take you to a text edition, but you can also access the BCP on the web, in Kindle editions, etc. Rarely will you find more thoughtful and beautiful prayers.
As a Lutheran, I have used some of the ELCA prayers, but am only beginning to become familiar with them. Their guide for ministers is:
These guides are available through the denominational publishing houses, bookstores like Cokesbury, or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
- The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, by Henri Nouwen.
- The Art of being a Healing Presence, by James E. Miller with Susan C. Cutshall. I will be reviewing this book soon.
- Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life, by Kenneth C. Haugk. This is the basic text for the Stephen Ministry, a parachurch organization that exists to set up caregiving programs in congregations, training people to visit and provide Christian care for others in need.
- The Power of Presence: Helping People Help People, by Doug Manning. Check out the full catalog of excellent resources for caring, elder care, funerals, grief, etc. at Insight Books.
Third, here are a few resources on death and dying. One need not be a medical expert, and whatever knowledge the visiting minister does have should not be presented as though he or she has “answers” regarding a sick or dying person’s needs. However, some familiarity with the end of life season and what it involves, as well as the grief process, can help a visitor be more sensitive to patient and family needs.
- Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, by Henri Nouwen.
- How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, by Sherwin B. Nuland.
- Special Care Series, by Doug Manning. This set of four booklets is designed to be given to grieving folks at various intervals throughout the first year of grief. They are excellent in terms of educating those dealing with the grieving as well. Another who provides excellent grief education is Alan D. Wofelt, Director of The Center for Loss & Life Transition.
- Many memoirs of grief are available. The classic is C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed.
Finally, let me share with you my own simple approach to praying for the sick and dying and their families.
- First, I always incorporate Scripture into my prayers. Psalm 23 is the most common text I use, and on occasion, I will simply pray through it, putting it into my own words. I like to use phrases such as Psalm 46:1 — “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” as well as allusions to passages that speak of God’s everlasting love for us and his promises to never leave us or let anything separate us from his love. What I want them to know and feel most of all is that God is with them and for them, and his love is available even in the challenging situation they face.
- Second, I try to use people’s names whenever possible and make my prayers personal. I have found that a combination of the formal and the personal helps people. They need the formality and structure of ancient, well-written words with depth and weight to them when they are in a time of chaos and instability. They also need to know they have a friend who cares about them. So use names when possible, and incorporate a few details about what you have heard during your visit so that they know you’ve heard their needs and concerns.
- Third, I make my prayers as brief as possible. People in these situations find concentration difficult. Meet them where they are.
- Finally, after praying, I offer to do something practical for them. I suggest that you don’t ask in such a way that they can give a simple yes or no answer. Instead of saying, “Is there anything elso I can do to help you right now?” say, “What else can I do that would be helpful to you right now?” And don’t just disappear then. Let them know if and when you or someone else will be available and how they can get in contact if they need help.
We’ll return to these themes in days to come.