'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:40 (NRSV))
Most of us at one time or another will visit a friend or fellow parishioner when they are ill or otherwise in distress. When we visit as friends, it is friendship. When we visit to extend the church community's love and care, we call it pastoral care. Of course they often overlap, and the general guidelines are pretty much the same.
You don't need an MSW, psychology, or theology degree to do this. Any caring person can extend God's love. There is a little bit of theology you do need to keep in mind: 1) God loves the person unconditionally no matter what. 2) There is no satisfactory answer to the question, "Why me?" or "Why did God let this happen?" Many answers people commonly give are hurtful if thought through. Just say you don't know the answer, but God is with us always.
Some attitudes that help are genuineness, empathy, hope and respect. Empathy means feeling with the other. Our brains are actually wired to enable us to feel some of what another person is feeling. At the same time, we must maintain an appropriate emotional separation. We aren't much help if we are just as overwhelmed as the person we're visiting. We also bring hope: hope that God will never abandon us, no matter how difficult our circumstances. God may or may not fix things the way we want, but is always with us to comfort and to care.
For hospital visits, shorter is better. Being in hospital is exhausting and being sociable takes effort. Most of what you came to do is accomplished when you show up, greet them warmly, express your care, and pray with them. On the other hand, a person who is home bound may want someone to talk to and a longer visit may be appropriate. Be sensitive to the person's energy level.
Advice on advice giving: Don't. Unless specifically asked.
Good listening is the most important skill. Truly hearing is a rare gift. Rather few people can actually drop their own agenda, suppress their desire to make wise pronouncements and share their own experiences. The essential listening attitude involves focusing on the other, genuinely wanting to hear, and setting aside our own agendas. The heart of the practice is this: listen a lot, talk only a little. This is not the time for that story about how you had a similar experience and know just how they feel. Listen. Keep listening. Listen some more.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Harries