Currently as many as 750,000 people in U.S. nursing homes have been fundamentally abandoned, said Mark Fisher, pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Fenton, Mich. “The church has a responsibility as agents of peace [or] shalom to make sure that these individuals are afforded the opportunity for a visit,” he said.
Nearly four years ago, members of Transfiguration created a nursing home visitation ministry to help fill the void. Pathways in Compassion provides companionship to those who never receive visitors.
Today, 20 parishioners visit residents in two nursing homes. The volunteers offer a listening ear and an uplifting word as they bring joy into the nursing homes they visit.
“The Lord sometimes calls me to use my spiritual gifts in serving,” said member Sandy Berra. “The Pathways in Compassion program has been a way for me to apply my gift of listening to those who desperately need to be listened to.”
This ministry of presence creates meaning for the resident and visitor alike, Fisher said. “This ministry directs part of its attention to the caregiving staff too,” he added. “They are often overworked and underpaid. We want to be a supportive presence to these very important workers. This is compassion in action.”
The idea for Pathways in Compassion grew out of the awareness that many people the parishioners visited in nursing homes simply had no one. Fisher said he began to preach with “a bit of passion” about the situation. “Really, it was the spirit of compassion working through us that led to the development of the program,” he said.
Early on, members considered visiting people in a few nursing homes near the church. But as they began to study the situation, Fisher said, it became clear that many communities had a real need for a visitation ministry.
He then created a workbook to help other congregations develop visitation ministries.
A $2,100 grant from the Mount Zion Lutheran Church Foundation and $5,000 from various individuals supported training for volunteers.
As of November 2018, Transfiguration had trained individuals from 17 church communities, with plans to train more.
“It is our hope that every ELCA church has an opportunity to become aware of the program and create ministries similar to Pathways,” Fisher said. “We are hoping that various synods would be willing to sponsor a training program. Further, with funding, we are hoping to create an infrastructure that could support programs that have begun.”
“It gives me joy to share God’s love and compassion with the residents I visit. In some ways, I feel closer to God when I offer communion to a resident than any other time.”
Fisher said a large part of creating a visitation ministry has to do with organization. It’s a step-by-step process of establishing active one-on-one relationships. The workbook states that a church community should begin by declaring nursing homes as a mission field.
In the next step the congregation recruits volunteer leaders and nursing home visitors. The workbook recommends that the congregation contact a specific nursing home to indicate its desire to visit with residents who are alone. After this has been established, the church and nursing home create a coordinated plan for visitation.
“Once launched, everyone involved is clearly on the pathway of compassion,” Fisher said, adding that Transfiguration’s visitation ministry was a natural fit with its members’ mission.
“We see Pathways as a gift to our members, the residents and staff, as well as a gift to the larger church,” he said. “As pastor, it really has been amazing to see how much our visitors have grown or deepened their desire for ministry.”
Volunteers said they have found a calling in the ministry. “After visiting a member of our church and seeing the need—that so many people have no one—I wanted to play a role in Pathways,” said Madeline Smith. “It is one of the most important activities in ministry that I have been a part of.”
Lennie Thurston said, “It gives me joy to share God’s love and compassion with the residents I visit. In some ways, I feel closer to God when I offer communion to a resident than any other time. Nothing makes me happier than having them return my smile.”