November 26, 2020

Pastoral Resources for Visiting the Sick and Dying

After this morning’s post, some have asked questions about resources for pastoral care, especially when it comes to visiting and ministering to the sick and dying. Let me give a few suggestions.

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.

Second, to educate yourself on the art and skill of providing pastoral presence through listening and loving by being with and for someone in need, I have found the following books helpful:

  • 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.

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.

  • 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.


  1. Dennis Voss says

    I have not used the Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pastoral Care that you mention. But I have used and highly recommend the Pastoral Care Companion for the Lutheran Service Book from The LCMS, Concordia Publishing House. Various brief orders of service and prayer for all kinds of pastoral care situations.

  2. Thank you Chaplain Mike for the ministry you do everyday. Thanks too for sharing these resources with the rest of us. As a young(ish) pastor, I have greatly grown through my reading on this site over the years, and this list of resources is quite helpful.

  3. From the Catholic side, we have the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This was formerly known as Extreme Unction or the Last Rites, and reserved for those on their deathbed. One of the good reforms of the post-Vatican II church (yes, there were good reforms!) was to recover the roots of this sacrament and remind us that it is not just for the dying, but for all the sick.

    I know my late father got great comfort from this when he was in hospital (for various reasons) before his death.

  4. I would also recommend the extensive Pastoral Care Companion ( and the App for Apple and Android devices called “Pastoral Care.”

  5. Chaplain Mike (and IM community in general), I’d be interested in your perspective on this:

    A number of my friends have been trained in a particular approach to healing (I won’t name ministry names here, but you can probably guess what I’m talking about). When they pray over someone who’s sick, their prayer invariably takes the form of “we claim healing for X … we stand against [whatever it is that is making X sick] … we speak healing into X … we release the power of the Holy Spirit into X …. etc etc.”

    Truth be told, I’m very uncomfortable with this approach to prayer for the sick. Why? Lots of reasons– many of which may just be personal quirks of mine (or attributable to “unbelief”): Borders on the shamanistic. Too much focus on achieving the miracle (and too little on providing care, compassion, support for the sick person) Sets the pray-ers and pray-ees up for the inevitable (if the prayed-for healing miracle doesn’t occur) “the reason nothing happened is you didn’t have enough faith.”

    By contrast, I find the BCP prayers for the sick to be extremely helpful and comforting. Why? No mumbo-jumbo. Simple, direct, heart-felt expressions of dependence on God and faith in His mercies. (And I’m sure most of the mainline/traditional resources Chaplain Mike references are pretty much in the same vein.)

    BTW, I’m a Stephen Minister and I agree with CM on the value of Kenneth Haugk’s books.

    • I agree with you Fred. I may make some of our Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave readers angry, but I see absolutely no warrant in Scripture for praying as you described in the first approach. I just don’t. I don’t see the pattern anywhere. I don’t see the concepts anywhere. Sorry.

      Intercessory prayer is expressing your love and concern for another in words to God. It’s asking God to be with them and for them, no matter what course their illness or situation may take. It must accompanied by our being with and for them as well.

      • Indeed!

        After spending 30 years in mainly charismatic circles, I am now struck by the intensely superstitious nature of many beliefs and prayers.

        It i8s deeply hurtful to many, and sows seeds of suspicion ands fear in the minds of those who believe in it.

        *So* glad I’m out; extremely painful exit process notwithstanding!

        • P.S.: I didn’t intend for my previous comment to sound like a blanket condemnation of all things charismatic… but again, the approaches to illness, death and other painful things in life is, all too often, one of superstition and fear.

    • I couldn’t agree more. (Hi! First time post! Ya’ll finally flushed me out!)

      I watched a precious family member die two years ago from ovarian cancer, and I wanted to yell at no less than 75% of the visitors who walked into the hospice room. They usually crowded around the bed with long, wordy prayers talking about claiming her healing, and asking for a miracle, and talking about God’s power to restore her, and it felt like we were being mocked.

      The ones who were excellent were the ones who just hung around all day, brought us meals, took people to and from the airport, took her kids to the beach so they could have a day of normalcy, and held her hand and watched TV with us. The more people try to do something, the less they usually do.

    • David Cornwell says

      I’ve seen cases where this approach causes harm rather than assisting in healing.

  6. Randy Thompson says

    I would add one thing to Chaplain Mike’s approach to end-of-life ministry: Normal conversation, as appropriate and if the person is up to it.

    Often, for the dying, one’s last days take place amid whispers and people tip-toeing in and out of the room. I’ve found that people often enjoy talking about their families, their gardens, their vacations, or what’s going on at church or in the community. These conversations are not spiritual, typically, but they provide “normal” moments in an abnormal time.

    Speaking for myself, I know that I would enjoy talking about the Yankees with someone, even if I wasn’t going to live to see the play-offs.

    A further thought, jogged lose as I wrote the foregoing: I have found that people are greatly encouraged by being reminded of the simple Gospel. Christ is risen, and what lies ahead for the believer is way bigger and better than what is being left behind. I’ve had a number of people relax appreciably when I’ve reminded them of what’s ahead–the new heavens and the new earth–and have thanked me for the reminder. Of all people, the dying need this reminder. (If you ever preach in nursing homes, talk about heaven and see how people respond; these folks get it.)

  7. br. thomas says

    In terms of resources, I would add: “The American Book of Living and Dying”

  8. I agree with Randy Thompson…death, albeit painful, IS a normal part of life (as opposed to the end of it). And for believers, those around them should “talk story” – tiptoeing or egg-shell conversations are for the comfort of the living as opposed to the dying. I have had the painful blessing of being with my own father and my mother at their deaths and it transformed my relationship with them. And I had to grieve with my partner at the still-born death of our son 10 years ago, and everyone at the hospital “pitied” us except for the nurses who were real and treated us as humans. Great post!

  9. As someone who’s often been on the receiving end of visits to sick, my two cents:

    Rarely are the people who have visited me more emotionally prepared to confront my situation than I am. Many of them obviously think it’s their duty to cheer me up or make me feel better or perhaps to assure me of salvation. They think their some special praying or something they are supposed to do for sick people. They are nervous and tend to act artificial under these circumstances. The whole visit can become more stressful than being left to myself to read a book or something.

    Remind yourself of this when you make such a visit: the person you are visiting has had many more hours a day to grapple with his situation and the possible consequences. Your visit is a few hours at best, his life a very low 24 hours a day. You probably aren’t going to spit out a brilliant and wise speech full of points he has never considered.

    What you do have to contribute is social contact. When you are stuck in bed, time passes very slowly, and things seem to happen farther apart. Having someone to sit with you and hang out and shoot the breeze is golden.

  10. A word in time is a ewer of fresh water
    A heart and an open ear; an oasis
    Then, by and by, the desert must be met
    Each must trek alone to fairer weather
    Blue skies and verdant land

  11. Clay Knick says

    Rob Moll’s, “The Art of Dying” is excellent. The only thing I did not like about it is that I did not write it.

  12. Are these various resources suitable to christian people visiting stoically non-christian family members who are dying? Without a solid hope in God, it’s too easy for conversations to be filled with vacuous platitudes to while away the awkwardness of a visit.

    • I’m mostly wanting to know how it is best to deal with someone who is dying, who has repeatedly shown no interest in God, and is almost certainy headed to hell in the near future. It really saddens me the times I’ve visited with people who are like that.

      • Andy, I don’t really do much different when visiting a Christian or non-Christian. The content of our conversation might be a little different, but the most important thing is simply being there. Of course, I have an official position, which the patient and family realizes, but my approach is still: (1) be myself, (2) be a good listener, (3) show whoever I am visiting respect, dignity, and honor as a person made in God’s image whom God loves, (4) show interest in things they are interested in and want to talk about, and (5) try to discern what God is already doing in their life and try to participate in that. I don’t go in with an agenda, I try to follow the leading of the Spirit to discover God’s agenda. Don’t assume you know it already — you will almost always be surprised to discover that God has done far more in their life than you ever imagined.

        • thank you for that, mike. Being there to be a friendly face and a respectful visitor, and being there to be a tool in the hand of God is important.

  13. “Don’t assume you know it already – you will almost always be surprised to discover that God has done far more in their life than you ever imagined.” Love it!! I say this all the time – not necessarily in your words! God loves the people to whom we minister so much more than we ever can! Let’s thank Him for all He has done in them and through them that honors and glorifies Him.

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