Running towards the Mess: Pastoral Ministry in the Foreign Land of a Complex Medical System

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We entered the hospital, headed for the elevator, and Billy Bob pressed the button for the 5th floor. Suddenly it hit me, I’m encountering an unexpected lesson in pastoral ministry.

Here’s what led up to the lesson:

I entered pastoral ministry in a strange and backward sort of way. I was a business administration major in college, with a piano minor. Covering some of the costs for school included using my musical skills for a small congregation. Playing the piano each Sunday helped pay the bills. The church was kind to me throughout my college career and members became my friends.

Long story short, some years later, I found myself in need of a job for about 6 months. I was in-between musical tours. I’d been part of 4 world tours at that point and was waiting for the next tour contract to begin.

The little college church needed a musician and a pastor as both had left at roughly the same time. The congregation asked me to cover worship again for 6 months and then oddly asked: “Would you fill the pulpit as well?”

My initial response was “I play the piano. I’m not a preacher.” Their reply: “Well, for a few weeks, could you tell us some stories from the road, from around the world? What did you learn?”

Six months later I was still telling stories each Sunday, the tour contract was about to begin, and the church asked, “Please prayerfully consider becoming our pastor.”

I had no pastoral education. I had no mentor. I had no sense of the details of pastoral ministry. Yet, strangely, I understood this was God’s call on my life. I said, “Yes.” I had no idea what pastors were supposed to do in ministry. Clueless. I sat at the pastor’s desk day after day, reading and studying, though without any real understanding of the tasks in front of me.

One day, a few weeks in, Billy Bob, one of the elders from the congregation, dropped by the office. Billy Bob said, “Did you know Helen is in the hospital? She’s been there for more than a week.”

Before he stopped by, I wasn’t aware of Helen’s medical condition, and at the time even if I had known, I would have considered that none of my business. However, Billy Bob said, “I’m going to visit her and I think you should come.”

It was a request and yet it seemed more like an order.

Twenty minutes later we were in the hospital lobby. We walked right past the information booth and straight to the elevator bank. Billy Bob seemed to know where to go. As the elevator arrived, he said, “She’s in room 511.”

We stepped in and he pushed the button for the 5th floor.

That’s when the first of many pastoral lessons hit me up the side of my face. Billy Bob was kindly pointing out that he had already been in Helen’s room. There was an expectation that I should have also seen her in the past.

Those of us in ministry are called to act as Jesus’ tangible touch in the lives of people in the midst of medical challenges, both in the tragedies and in the celebrations. We carry a responsibility that is different than that of physicians, nurses, or the various other medical professionals and technicians.

We have to step into a foreign landscape of technical medical practices that are becoming increasingly more complex and multifaceted. I do not know all the jargon. I cannot understand the language of tests and results and diseases with names that do not come easily to my tongue. I do not comprehend how all the tubes and lines and beeping machines and monitors help a person become well.

However, the hospital landscape is no longer foreign to me. Thousands of visits later, it is as natural to my pastoral ministry as preaching or praying.

I am fully convinced that Jesus’ expectation for his followers to visit the sick (Matthew 25) applies to me. Pastors are needed more than ever for this particular ministry given our present technical medical culture. If pastors find the medical technology foreign, imagine a patient’s viewpoint. Surely the cross-cultural divide between medical and non-medical is even greater for someone hooked to tubes and lines and forced to ask to simply visit the restroom. Privacy and independence are stripped away as soon as street clothes are exchanged for hospital gowns that always seem to gap in the most non-private places.

Thus, pastors touch lives. We hold hands. We pray. We declare God’s voice of hope in the midst of struggle and pain, and even in the confusion of a medical crisis. Surely it is a crisis. No one is admitted in the natural course of daily life. And, sometimes we are given a sacred trust to serve as moral advisors, as we are asked by the sick and their loved ones to help navigate the difficult decisions of technical medical care. God calls us to speak his voice of wisdom into the places of technical jargon. We become the moral voice of God serving patients in hospital rooms that beep equipment noises far more easily than prayerful wisdom. It’s hard work. We run to the mess.

Think of it this way: It is a natural occurrence that always seems to come at a bad moment. Your three-year-old child is playing quietly across the living room and looks up to say, “I’m not feeling well.” And with that, without warning, the “I’m not feeling well” quickly becomes a gag, followed by a torrent of vomit. A parent does not run out of the room, but more likely runs to the mess, sometimes even cupping a hand to catch the mess.

Room 511 had a mess within it. Billy Bob knew of that mess because he had already visited. A woman was desperately ill. She needed someone to cup some spiritual hands under the torrent that was coming from her. Billy Bob showed that I should run to the mess. Thankfully, I had a guide who called me and led me into that foreign land of Helen’s hospital room. Had it not been for Billy Bob, I would have missed an important part of ministry among our congregation, and specifically to Helen and those like her who found themselves in their own Room 511’s over the years.

The messes in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices come every day. We go to those foreign lands where the language is not familiar. We visit with those who do rarely have the luxury of understanding the medical culture.  We go to a place that may will unsettle us. Yet we go in Jesus’ name, bearing his touch and witness to his presence even in such places. We are God’s voice in each Room 511 full of mess, full of questions, then full of God’s graceful care.