Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/18 2014

Nursing Home Ministry

Nursing-home-ministryNursing 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.

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6/26 2014

The connection between melody and memory, the role sacred music plays in nursing home ministry

When I graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s MDiv/MSW program in 2005, theology and sacred music was not something that I had thought much about. I love music. But considering how it would be a part of my ministry was really not something that I had been challenged with during the course of my studies.

I began my ministry as a chaplain in a nursing home soon after graduation. Over the course of my five years of ministry there, I grew in my understanding of how important music is to our worship. Even though my residents were weak in body, they loved to sing. The familiar church music lifted their spirits and allowed them to join in the community of believers that they remembered from childhood, youth, and adulthood. You could watch their faces as they were transported to another time, when they were not confined to a wheel chair or a nursing home.

Those familiar words and melodies that transcended much of the rest of their memory were vital to the quality of their spiritual life in their last days. One resident in particular, Vonelle, was a Julliard-trained pianist. She had taught music her entire adult life. Vonelle, had dementia. Much of her memory was gone. But when she sat down at the piano to play familiar hymns, she led us all in glorious worship.

I know the same is true for those of us not confined to nursing homes. Whether you are living in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the country, sacred music will enrich your worship. Music is powerful, it is how we teach our children, it is how we remember mundane things, and it gets stuck in our minds and hearts (for better or worse). My time as a chaplain in a nursing home taught me much, but one of the surprises was the importance of music for all of us.

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.

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