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6 Ways Your Church Can Minister to the Chronically Ill

by Lisa Copen

Over 100 million people in the USA, about 1 in 2, have a chronic illness. That means, if you are not the one suffering from chronic pain, chances are someone you care about is dealing with it silently.

Often times a chronic illness, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, or chronic pain like migraines or back pain, is undetectable to those around them. It may surprise you to know that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 96% of the people who have an illness do not use an assistive device, like a cane or a wheelchair. Pain is nearly always invisible. Those that are ill usually do everything that they can to get to church. They want to be part of the church community and they appear to be healthy. Still, just sitting through the service can be extremely difficult.

I distinctly remember trying to make it through a service. My rheumatoid arthritis was flaring a great deal. I stood up during worship when they announced, “Please stand,” but I had to grab onto the pew in front of me just to balance. With knees that need join replacement and feet that are deformed and breaking down, I nearly laughed as the worship song lyrics were, “I will stand in spite of pain.”

Surrounded by people who care about me, a church I love, I still felt lonely and misunderstood. How must those with illness who also deal with deep depression cope when they feel even their own church doesn’t understand the magnitude of their illness?

Churches already feel pushed to the brink, trying to fulfill all the needs that are obvious. Even large churches lack the amount of volunteers they need to rock babies in the nurseries or visit the elderly who are unable to attend the weekly service. So, if the people who have a chronic illness aren’t even speaking up about their needs, then that must evidently mean that they are having all of them met, right? Pastors often ask, “If they don’t ask for what they need, how can we even know what it is? It sounds to me as though they must be coping perfectly fine if they aren’t calling us or asking for more prayer. They have their faith and that should be enough during the dark moments to carry them through.”

Let’s take a glimpse at some astonishing statistics:

– Despite what we may assume, 60% of those who live with daily illness or pain are between the ages of 18 and 64. – The divorce rate among the chronically ill is over 75 percent. – Depression is 15-20% higher for the chronically ill than for the average person. – Various studies have reported that physical illness or uncontrollable physical pain is major factors in up to 70% of suicides.*

There is cause for great concern. Despite whether you can see the illnesses that are impacting people’s lives or not, your church body has many ailing bodies. And those who are hurting physically are often hurting emotionally and spiritually too. When Jesus speaks of the broken-hearted, I believe the chronically ill are a great portion of those who have fragile spirits.

But the question is, if people aren’t talking about their pain, how do you know how to reach out to them? How can you understand their needs?

(1) First, do a survey in your church to find out what some of the needs are that people may not be talking out loud about. This is particularly important if you are in a large church; this is because a recent Barna group study discovered that larger churches were the least likely to mention congregational care ministries as a priority (Church Priorities for 2005 Vary Considerably). When people don’t feel a personal connection to the church staff or others, they are less likely to share their vulnerabilities. Too frequently, they are given a list of healing scriptures and sent on their way.

Ask, “If a van was provided, would you be able to get to church more easily? Would you listen to church on the internet if you were too ill to attend? Do you feel you can call and ask for occasional personal assistance (especially if the illness is chronic and not acute)? Do you know who to call? Would you like the worship song lyrics in the bulletin and not just on an overhead? Are the seats comfortable or would you prefer a few rows be saved for you with cushions?” Brainstorm with a group of people who have a chronic illness and ask them for a wish list. Then sit down and prioritize.

(2) Start a small group/Bible study for people who cope with illness. Rest Ministries is the largest Christian organization for the chronically ill and they have a program called HopeKeepers. You can find resource materials, group studies, leader support, and books, CDs and more for training. Though a church may assume their current small groups are meeting this needs, people with illness grow weary of talking and praying about their illness week after week with people who don’t understand the daily-ness of illness. When there is a place where everyone can “speak the same language” and even laugh at the same tales can be reviving. Even if just two people show p, it can be life-changing for those two. Be a church that recognizes chronic illness is difficult to live with and provide an oasis from it.

(3) Have special guest speakers encourage your church body. There are dozens of people who have physical disabilities that go to churches and share their testimony about what God has done in their life. Allowing them to be at the pulpit and share what God has done in their lives, despite physical challenges and set backs, sends a message to those that are ill that you recognize their needs, you care, and most of all, that you believe they are still worthy to be used by God. People such as Dave Dravecky, Renee Bondi, Joni Eareckson Tada, and many others, minister to the masses, not just those with disabilities.

(4) Discuss the possibility of adding a parish nurse to your church staff. The number of parish nurses in United States is estimated to be about 6000, according to the Marquette University College of Nursing. If you church has a lot of seniors this may be an obvious need and she will help organize the ministries to this group of people. There are a lot of retired nurses who are discovering this kind of ministry engaging and parish nurse certification can be found at most hospitals. The parish nurse position description includes a variety of duties, depending on your church’s needs and goals. For example, the role of the parish nurse may include going to homes of church members to monitor high blood pressure or diabetes, organizing health screenings and fairs, starting walking groups, and even assisting with chronic illness and disability ministries. The parish nurse would network closely with the congregational care pastor.

(5) Have your church library be the source for all materials related to health, illness, caregiving, and Christian ministries. A large percentage of people with chronic illness are on a fixed-income and yet they really want encouragement. So fill up your library with items like books on living with chronic illness such as “Why Can’t I Make People Understand?” or “Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend,” by Lisa Copen or Joni Eareckson Tada’s remarkable book on suffering, “When God Weeps.” Subscribe to a few magazine subscriptions like “HopeKeepers”, “Guideposts” or even “Arthritis Today.” Don’t forget books on tape, audio presentations and large-print items when they are available. Be a part of creating awareness in the church by posting flyers or having brochures available about chronic illness or disability ministries, such as Joni and Friends “Wheels for the World” program or Rest Ministries’ annual outreach, “National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week.” A volunteer could also put together a binder of local and national ministry resources.

(6) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that people with illness want to help serve. Not just be served. Proverbs 11:25 says, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” For example, if a woman with a chronic illness explains that she must resign from teaching Sunday school, make sure she knows that she is welcome to serve in other ways when she is ready. Though she no longer is physically able to teach four-year-olds, she may discover that she loves writing notes to people who have just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. A man may discover that he prefers mentoring another man with a chronic illness one-on-one, instead of leading a weekly Bible study. Let people know that you value wounded healers and that your church believes that God comforts us “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Nearly twice per month someone tells me that after much prayer and consideration they went to their pastor with a request to start a chronic illness HopeKeepers ministry. And his response was “When you are healed, then you can minister to others. Until then you need to focus on yourself.” I’ve seen so many broken spirits because people are told, in so many words, that until God heals them, they are no longer useful to the Lord or the church body.

Luke 14:21 tells us that Jesus shares a parable of a great banquet. When the host’s friends all turned down his hospitality he instructs, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” This is still a commandment to our churches today. First, we must work on providing a setting where we offer unconditional hospitality. We need to first “go out” into our own congregation and provide a place of refuge; then the people who have experienced the comfort in our church will be available to walk alongside the rest of the neighborhood with open arms of understanding.

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