One of my fellow residents has been doing a hospice rotation for the past four months. She's been visiting the patient (a woman in her 40s) and family every week. This morning, the woman died after being in the "actively dying" state for several days. She is a member of a local congregation, although obviously has not been able to attend due to health reasons. Guess how often her pastor visited her? NEVER, according to what her family told Sandy (my colleague). Literally, he never visited her. Over the past week, Sandy has called him multiple times, updating him on the patient's condition and requesting that he visit the patient and family. He finally did so on Sunday, but only stayed for a few minutes. They hadn't heard from him since then.
Hearing this (and other stories of pastors willingly neglecting their parishioners) makes me want to throw something. If someone is ill and unable to make it to church, at least attempt to visit them once a month. If a family is in crisis (which this family was/is) and someone is rapidly declining, then more frequent visits (once every few weeks) and at least a weekly phone call to "check in" seems to be in order. Most importantly, when a family is in the "hours versus days" stage of the dying process, you owe it to them to make a substantial visit (more than ten minutes!) and be available by phone.
Oh yeah, and if you know** a parishioner is in the hospital for more than overnight, try and visit them at least once. If it's a long stay, I think once a week is reasonable...more if it's a critical situation.
Congregations often have ridiculous expectations of pastoral care. SJ thought that my monthly visitation of shut-ins was inadequate, and wanted me to visit if someone had an ingrown toenail. They complained to the DS that I "didn't visit as a pastor should." My biggest mistake was not laying out expectations with them from the beginning on how much visitation I would do and how often I would visit. I will do that with my next church. But I will say this; I visited our shut-ins once a month and was pretty vigilant about hospital visitation. If I missed someone, then I'd make every effort to visit them soon after they arrived home. I had no funerals/deaths while I was at SJ (amazingly enough), but the few times someone had a member of their family die, I tried to visit them within a few weeks, or at least have a phone conversation.
So my message to those of you who are serving congregations; please, please do whatever you can to keep tabs on your people and to be there for them in times of need. If you can't make it for some reason, send a member of your lay leadership in your stead.
Oh yeah, and make sure that at least a few of your key leaders have your cell phone number, if you don't publish it for everyone to see. Even better, leave an emergency contact number on the voicemail (Yes, I realize you might get some weird phone calls. Deal with it). It's really aggravating for us chaplains to attempt to call a pastor on behalf of an individual in the ER or in surgery, and have to simply leave a message on the voicemail, hoping that it will be heard. Or be told that "it's his/her day off...no I don't have a cell phone number...I can take a message...", etc.
I'd also like to hear your perspectives on this topic. What are your guidelines and practices for visitation? For publishing for cell phone number?
**I am fully aware that sometimes pastors are the last to know about hospitalizations/illnesses/crises/shut-ins, etc. It's the responsibility of the individual/family to inform the pastor about these sorts of events. However, once the pastor does know about them, then he/she needs to provide proper pastoral care.**