Nursing home ministry is different. Whether serving with an MDiv/MSW in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., or Orlando, Fla., I found that all ministries are intimate. Pastors are involved in weddings, funerals, divorce, baptisms; they are there for the key moments of the lives of congregants. In nursing home ministry, pastors experience these same things except they are working in their congregant’s physical home each and every day. This is where the residents live; some of them for 30+ years, some of them for just a few days. But regardless, it is their home for the time they are there.
In my time in nursing home ministry I learned the unique daily routines of my residents. I learned their physical needs and ailments as well as their spiritual ones. I learned that Marg was unavailable at 1:00 p.m. because she was watching her soap opera. I learned that Betty sleeps most of the day, but around 6:00 p.m., this 103-year-old was ready to talk. Being there, with them daily, allowed me to be a natural part of their daily routine. In these moments of their daily lives my calling was to proclaim the gospel. In every interaction, to show love, mercy, care, and grace.
I think there are two great misconceptions about nursing home ministry. The first misconception is that nursing home chaplains aren’t pastors. They are. In a normal week I preached three times, led two Bible studies, officiated communion monthly, and officiated several funerals a month. In addition, I spent countless hours in family meetings and with my congregants at meals, activities, and in their rooms listening to their stories and praying with them.
A second misconception is that nursing home ministry is all about death. It isn’t. It is about life. Living daily life with residents and insuring that they have the best possible life for the days, weeks, or years that they have left on this earth. Certainly I was there with Marg as she died, and I had the honor of officiating Betty’s funeral. I was present as many of my congregants took their last breath. But I rejoiced with them and their families, because of their amazing life on earth. And the many, many hours that I spent with all of them in their home, before they died, made those moments of death peaceful, confident that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Nursing home chaplaincy is different. But different can be really, really good.
The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.