Archive for August, 2011

Photographs & Memories

Last week’s blog on visitation prompted questions about my most memorable home visits. I have more than a few which I am happy to share with you, changing or abbreviating the names to conceal true identities.
One of my first home visits was to an elderly member of a small church I served in North Carolina. Mr. E. had been recently widowed. His wife of over 50 years had died of a stroke. Mr. E. lived in a small blue mobile home (not a double wide) about half a mile down the road from the church that I served. I stepped inside his trailer at his invitation and we sat side by side on his couch, I asked questions about his health, and found out about his children and his grandchildren. Then I asked him about his deceased wife, and he talked and talked about their years together, the things she loved to do, the love he had for her. I asked him if he had a picture of his wife, since I didn’t see any pictures of her on the wall in his den. His eyes brightened and he said, “Oh, yes!” and he disappeared into his tiny bedroom. He returned with two Polaroid pictures, and placed them in my hand. I was expecting to see candid photos of the two of them at a family event, or maybe pictures taken on his wife’s birthday. Instead, I was looking at two close up photos of a woman in a casket. Certainly, I had been to funerals and with my own eyes, seen people in caskets. But I had never seen a photograph of anyone in a casket. I didn’t know people took photographs of their loved ones in the casket. But Mr. E. did—-he had—-and he handed me the two pictures of his dead wife and sat down beside me, looking with me.
So what does one say when handed a picture of a dead person in a coffin? I couldn’t say the traditional, “she looks so natural,” since this was my first glimpse at Mrs. E. I was looking at a close up of an elderly woman lying back on a satin pillow, who could have been sleeping except for the obvious presence of the coffin lid. “Well,” I said, speaking slowly as my mind raced to say the appropriate words. I didn’t want to appear startled (this was my first visit with Mr. E. in his home, after all), or unnerved, even though I was. All sorts of things were racing through my head, including, “we were never taught have to handle this situation in seminary.” Finally, I focused on her dress, which was blue and looked lovely on her. “What a beautiful dress, “ I finally said, “Did you select it?”
Truly, God gave me those words! That question prompted Mr. E. to tell me that she had worn that dress to their son’s wedding, and that the blue matched her eyes, and the brooch she was wearing was one he had given to her on their 50th anniversary. A startling moment became an opportunity for conversation and connection.

But there’s more. After that first visit to Mr. E’s trailer, I visited him a number of times, getting to know him pretty well. As a result, it was only natural that when he was moved to a nursing home in Georgetown, SC, Will and I drove to visit him. It was en route to seeing Mr. E that we first saw the sign pointing to Pawleys Island. We took a little detour off of Highway 17, fell in love with the beautiful cypress trees hanging over the beach road, and found a real estate company with cottages to rent. We have been going to Pawleys Island, SC ever since! I owe it all to those mobile home visits with Mr. E.


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Recently, I was invited to make a presentation to a group of younger ministers-to-be, describing what I did as a minister (other than the “Sunday-thing”). Afterwards, there was a time for questions, and one of the ministers-to-be asked me if there was anything that I wished I did better or on which I wished I spent more time in my ministry. And I replied, “I wished I spent more time visiting my members.” And one of the ministers-to-be spoke up and asked, “Oh, do you have a lot of sick members?”
I thought this was an odd question, until I realized that this younger minister-to-be’s only concept of visiting was visiting someone in the hospital. So I explained that I was referring to home visits, to which she said, “Why? What’s the point of visiting people at home if you see them at church?”
In the ministry, one is always learning, and that day I learned that researchers have concluded that those of us who were trained for the ministry before 1990 carry an entirely different concept of what it means to be a pastor from those who were trained after 1990. I graduated from seminary in 1983, which places me in the category of ministers who were taught that our work involved preaching, teaching, and visiting our members—in their home as well as when they went into the hospital. The ministers-to-be who were present that day had graduated in 2010 or 2011, and were fascinated by the novel idea of going to see someone in his or her home. None of them had ever been visited by a minister in their home (although, in fairness, the majority of them had not even joined a church until their college years). And as if she was talking about something that happened in the American Revolution, one minister-to-be spoke up and said, “Oh, I remember my mother talking about how, when she was a little girl, the minister came to Sunday dinner at their house once. Weird.”
Another minister-to-be pressed me to give a compelling reason why visiting in the home was important to my ministerial generation. So I told this group that visiting where a person lived could help you know that person without having to conduct a survey or interview. (I think about the recent survey that we took at HFPC about preferred communication methods, and my mind immediately visualized particular members and their preferred method of communication—I know that person only has a rotary dial phone, or doesn’t own a computer, etc.)
I remember one seminary professor telling us that when we sat in the living rooms or dens of our members, we would see the things that were near and dear to their hearts: photographs of children & grandchildren, collections of shells or figurines, a painting above the sofa that prompts a discussion of the child, now deceased, who painted it, the lemonade one was drinking was a family recipe, diplomas on the walls which spelled out one’s degrees and sports allegiances. Every home or apartment tells a story about a person, couple or family that a hospital room simply can’t tell. What someone has (a huge carving of an elephant) or what someone does not have (there’s no television set) can help ministers connect with their members and even communicate more effectively in a sermon. And often in the comfort of a home, someone will talk about something that please him or bothers her, and an honest conversation ensues.
In a hospital visit, conversation is usually brief and limited to the current situation and the prognosis. Occasionally, there are pictures or flowers about which one can comment, but normally there’s not much more to talk about other than the program being watched by the patient (who is ometimes watching by default, because he or she can’t work the television controls).
Those ministers-to-be were interested in what I was saying, but somewhat skeptical. It wasn’t how they were trained. One commented, “I have had success getting to know my members through the various committee meetings I attend.” Well. . .ok, that works for her and I’m glad. This pre-1990 trained minister has found that my increased number of committee meetings has kept me from doing what I like to do most, even if I don’t do it best: visit my members in their homes, and by doing so, draw closer to them.

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