Baptism Without a Faith Community?

In the hospital chaplains are occasionally asked to baptize babies, particularly those who are very sick or deceased (an issue for another blog post).  Recently, however, I was asked to baptize an adult.  He is not in immediate danger of death but rather is a long-term patient on a closed psychiatric ward.  In his mid-50s, this patient has a history of being abused, some drug use, multiple suicide attempts, and borderline personality disorder, among other things.  Despite this laundry list, he is a highly functioning individual when properly monitored and medicated.  However, when released from a controlled environment he often attempts suicide, bringing him back to the hospital.

Except for the patients and staff of the psych ward he has no community, no family, no place to call home.  He is unable to leave the floor to go to worship, and will likely move to another facility in the coming months that will be equally limiting.  It’s not that the medical staff doesn’t want him going to church, but that they don’t have the resources (nurses, aides, social workers, etc.) to accompany patients to various churches on Sunday mornings.  It’s a small ward full of diverse folks – not likely "worth the time" of a church to come in and do services (sad but true).

So, given that this man does not have a faith community and will likely not have one any time soon, but has an honest desire to be baptized, what would you do?  He tells me that his mother didn’t care enough about him to get him baptized or to take him to church.  He has occasionally gone to church as an adult, but his disease and transience has made it difficult for him to truly and actively participate in a community of faith.  He prays and reads the Bible as he is able.

Baptism is an entry into a faith community, a grafting into the body of Christ, a cleansing of sin, and a promise of salvation.  Yet without a community, how would this person be encouraged and nurtured in faith or reminded of these baptismal promises?  Does a hospital baptism become an empty gesture, a feel-good ritual that wears off in a few days? 

What would you do?

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

13 thoughts on “Baptism Without a Faith Community?

  1. I have to say I would just let go and trust the sacrament on this one. That’s not to say that Baptism automatically effects visible miracles every time, but there’s every reason to hope that it might draw him to other Christians — and others to him — in new and unexpected ways.
    After all, most of the Christian community isn’t visible anymore on earth — when we are baptized, we’re baptized not only into a physical congregation of people, but into the communion of saints as well. For some it’s ultimately that unseen host that provides them the most comfort and the greatest challenge to live into their Baptism — and that might be the case for this man.

  2. I’d do it. Can you announce it on his floor? Perhaps some of the staff could join in supporting him. And your fellow chaplains?

  3. I always err on the side of grace. I say go for it and see if you can connect him with some resources on his floor or even in his community that he will return to.

  4. I’m with the others on this one. I would ask the others in the pastoral care department to be present, to represent a faith community.
    Additionally, if your hospital is one that has mid-day prayers, Sunday inter-faith, or any other kind of worship experiences, perhaps one of the chaplains could accompany this man?

  5. Absolutely, baptize him. Perhaps there is someone in your wider community, a Stephen Minister or another interested in or capable of ministering to mentally ill persons, who could be a contact for him?

  6. I would baptize him and pray that God will provide what he needs to continue in the Christian faith. If the person is sincere, can you say no? Anyone that you baptize might not follow through; we just don’t know the future but baptize with the hope that they will follow. Even if this man cannot follow through, God will.

  7. I’m a chaplain in a state hospital. The situation is a bit different perhaps, as some of our patients stay for months or years, so they do have a real sense of community at the hospital. But even for short-timers, I will baptize them because it is so very difficult for most of our patients to find community in their local churches. Sad, but true. There are many barriers to full participation for severely mentally ill people, from not being able to get a ride to church, to being ignored when they get there, from not being able to get up on time in the morning because of med side effects, to feeling they can’t go because they don’t have “nice” clothes. Then there’s the response they get when they DO go …. Not always what we would hope.
    Our hospital settings are sometimes the best part of life for severely mentally ill people. Baptize away, I say!

  8. A lot of members of a typical congregation can’t make it to church. Is there a way you could get a local congregation to “adopt” him — that is, to treat him like they would any other homebound member? Maybe send him the newsletter, send someone out to visit him once in a while, take him the sacrament periodically, etc.

  9. Lots of great comments, all. Thanks. Like many of you, I am inclined to see this man be baptized as an act of comfort and grace, even if he doesn’t have a formal faith community.
    My wife suggested that perhaps the baptism could be presided over by a local pastor from a local congregation, thus providing more of a community context to the baptism, even if the man never goes to that congregation. This would offer some sense of community and continuity to the broader Body of Christ into which we baptize, and . . . it would allow an ordained minister to baptize this man. I am not ordained and would be permitted to baptize a patient only in emergency situations. This is not an emergency.

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