A Training Program For Visitation Groups

By Christopher A. Holwey

This is a follow-up to the article “LOVES” by Emilie D. Lisenko, found in the Community Service section of the Resource Handbook. Its purpose is to offer suggestions for the training of those parishioners who wish to become involved with visitations to the elderly and sick.

The previous article makes mention of some very necessary aspects of such a visitation group: being financially secure through fund raisers and donations; having people present who speak the language of those being visited; and taking care packages and gifts to the people—to name a few. In addition to these positive aspects of the group, there was also one difficulty mentioned at the very beginning—that of fear. To quote, “Many people are eager to help, yet they are afraid of making the first visit to an elderly person, especially if that person is in a convalescent hospital or nursing home.” As a result, they may become very insecure and feel somewhat inadequate in fulfilling their role as a visitor. “What will I say?” “How will I act?” “What if something happens? What will I do?” Although it may not be possible to take away all the fears and inadequate feelings one may have until he or she actually begins to perform these acts of mercy, it is possible to alleviate some of their fears through a training program in the area of MINISTRY and MEDICINE.

This training program may be done quite well within a six-week period, allowing the first three weeks for academic education (2 hours, one night a week), and the last three weeks for experiential training and exposure to hospitals and convalescent homes. Since the visitation may become a permanent part of the parish, those who become involved with it, if they are really serious about it, will understand the need for it and not mind making the additional effort to learn and do what is necessary to make this program a success.

Here is an outline of the six-week program:

FIRST WEEK: Ministry and Healing with the Scriptures


- to acquire the understanding that the laity have a ministry to fulfill in their own lives as faithful Christians and stewards of God’s gifts.

- to become familiar with the many hearings done by Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.

Many scriptural references can be used to teach about ministry. The pastor (or the one doing the training) may have to be very selective, taking into consideration the needs of the parishioners and time available. The New Testament tells us that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-4). We do not have to become such, because we already are such. Our ministry, then, must bring flavor and light to others in the world, so as to glorify our Father in heaven. This must be done, however, without calling attention to ourselves and becoming prideful in any way (Matt. 6:1-4). We must continue in God’s kindness towards others (Rom. 11:17-24), bearing good fruit in all that we do (Matt. 7:18). We must use our talents faithfully and fruitfully, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, etc. (Matt. 25). As the Good Samaritan cared for the beaten man in the road (Luke 10), so too are we to perform acts of mercy and charity to others, even to our enemies (Rom. 12). Therefore, as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), we must, to the best of our ability, become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), look to the interests of others first (Phil. 2:4), and above all, love with the same love that Christ loved us (John 13:34). We must understand that the elderly are still people who need our loving care and attention (Psalm 71), and may also have something to offer to the community as part of their own ministry (Luke 2:22-38).

Concerning the healings done by Jesus, especially those involving the faith of those asking to be healed, we refer to Matthew 8-10, which involves the centurion’s servant, the paralytic man, the woman with the hemorrhage, the blind man, and the Canaanite woman in Ch. 15. Many of these are found in prayer books as gospel readings for the sick. Therefore, in addition to their own personal reading of scripture, it is necessary that the parishioners also pray for those who are sick (see James 5, 1 Tim. 2). They should also be encouraged to study these prayers as well as the service for Holy Unction for an understanding of the healing for which the Church is praying. Questions should always be encouraged with patience and understanding.

SECOND WEEK: Pastoral Concerns


- to familiarize the parishioner with some of the things he / she may be confronted with in dealing with the elderly and the sick.

This is a very difficult area to discuss in two hours, because it is something that can only be learned through experience. Nevertheless, the pastor may still be able to reflect upon some important issues he has come across through his own personal experiences. Although this may be the area of greatest fear to the parishioner—the “how” of the ministry—he or she should not be dismayed, for no one really knows what to do or how to do it in every instance.

It is important for us to realize, first of all, that we are people dealing with other people. We are not computers that can be programmed to give a response that will make everything OK. We are human beings who know how to love and care for others in our own particular way, which is something that comes naturally according to each situation with which we are faced.

It is a process whereby we listen with gentleness and patience, speak with truth and love, hold out a hand in time of loneliness and fear, sit in silence through the long night watches, and rejoice when the shadow of distress is dissolved in the warm sun of deliverance.

This shows us that it is the person we are to be concerned about and our relationship with him, rather than simply trying to solve his problems. We must always remember that if we are to help others grow spiritually, even during such difficult times, we must never allow them to lose hope in God, always striving for them to remain in communication and cooperation with God through prayer and reading of the Bible.

When visiting the elderly and sick, sometimes our presence is all that is necessary to be of comfort. We may not even have to say anything. But then again, we must also be aware of the patient who would rather be alone at the time of our visit, and for us to leave may be just as loving and comforting as staying. In any case, if we can become sensitive to their needs by putting ourselves in their shoes and empathizing with them, without losing our objectivity (i.e., one who jumps into the water to save a drowning victim should not need to be saved himself), acting out of love at all times, we should be able to serve in our ministry quite well. But, if we should happen to fail, let us not be discouraged and quit. Let us pick ourselves up and learn from our misfortunes as we expect our patients to learn from theirs.

THIRD WEEK: Medical Concerns


- to acquaint the parishioners with the medical field, giving them a basic understanding of how the body functions and what life in medical institutions is like.

To begin with, one may discuss the various departments found within the hospital and the function of each, e.g., X-Ray, Intensive Care, Coronary Care, Respiratory and Physical Therapy, Emergency Room, etc. Nursing and Convalescent home operation and life-style should also be discussed in the same manner.

As far as medical training is concerned, a very basic education can be acquired through a two hour CPR session (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation). During such a class, one may become familiar with how the heart and lungs work, and how we can mechanically work them through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compression. Following such explanations, the parishioners then actually perform CPR on a mannequin by themselves and with others. Although this may seem a bit out of the ordinary, a proper understanding and performance of CPR is a must for anyone involved with hospitals and convalescent homes in case an emergency should arise. If someone cannot perform a CPR due to age or ability, one should at least be able to recognize when a patient is in trouble and in need of assistance.

FOURTH, FIFTH AND SIXTH WEEKS: Experiential Training


- to visit hospitals and convalescent homes and become acquainted with their operations and life styles.

If these visitations cannot be done during the evening sessions, it may be better to make it a Saturday outing so as to give more time to become familiar with what happens in these institutions. Take time to look around and ask questions concerning the patients and the atmosphere that surrounds them. Most personnel are very willing to assist.

The fourth week should be devoted strictly to observation of what surrounds the patients in their institutions, without any real patient contact as of yet. Only in the fifth and sixth weeks should the parishioners be allowed to visit patients. This should be done in small groups of 3-5 people under the supervision of the pastor or one who is experienced in such visitations and has been working with the group all along. Even here, the parishioners should watch and observe, and only begin to participate when they feel comfortable doing so.

There may be much more that could be added to such a training session. It might even be organized in a more personal way to fit the needs of a specific parish. In any case, the basic approach is to correlate academic education in ministry and medicine with the application of that education. Through such controlled environments of guidance and direction during these “on-the-job” training sessions, one can slowly and effectively be integrated into ministering to the elderly and the sick and not feel such fear and insecurity when they meet their first patients in the hospital or the convalescent bed.

Christopher A. Holwey is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and is presently serving as a Lay Worker at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Wichita, Kansas.