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6 Action Steps For Churches Who Care About The Chronically Ill

Feb 3, 2008
1 in 3 people in the U.S. have a chronic condition. If it's not you, it's someone sitting next to you or a friend who has yet to reveal her greatest personal struggle.

Too often, a chronic illness, such as fibromyalgia, or a chronic condition like back pain from a car accident, is invisible. Surprisingly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 96% of the people who have an illness do not use an assistive device, for example, a wheelchair or cane. Pain is invisible and those who live with chronic illnesses do everything they can to look presentable, get to church, and sit through the service.

I remember one specific day that I tried to make it through a church service. My rheumatoid arthritis was flaring badly, but since I had gotten there, I was determined to stay. "Please stand" they announced during worship and I took a deep breath and carefully pulled myself up, using the pew in front of me for leverage and balance. At the age of 24, fifteen years of living with this disease has left my feet deformed and painful, and my knees need joint replacements as soon as possible. I rolled my eyes as they sang a worship song and the lyrics declared, "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?

It's no secret that churches feel responsible for the many needs that already must be fulfilled in their church body and when someone shares another need it can be seen as an inconvenience. And these needs are visible ones. So the question from pastors is often, "If people aren't saying anything about their pain, then that means they are dealing with it fine? Right? We tell them to send in prayer requests or let us know if they need anything and they don't speak up, so evidently they are doing okay with it? Their faith should sustain them during those valleys."

Let's look at some stunning statistics:

- We usually assume the chronically ill are the elderly, but 60% of people who live with illness or daily chronic pain are between the ages of 18 and64. - 75% of marriages where one of the spouses have a chronic illness end in divorce - When you are chronically ill, depression is 15-20% higher than it is for the average person - Many studies have found that physical illness or uncontrollable physical pain are 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.

So, one of the first hurdles to overcome is to find out what people with chronic illness need if they are being vocal about their situation. How do we help them?

1) First, take the time to conduct a survey about the needs people may have that they are not vocalizing, especially if you are a large church where people may be more reluctant to talk about their illnesses (or lack of healing thus far). In a recent Barna group study, it was found that larger churches were the least likely to mention congregational care ministries as a priority (Church Priorities for 2005 Vary Considerably).

Ask questions on a survey such as, "If we provided transportation, such as a van ride, would it increase your ability to attend church? If you were too ill to attend church, would you listen to the service on the internet? Do you know who to call at the church if you occasionally need personal assistance (especially when the illness is chronic and not acute)? Are you able to see the worship song lyrics on the overhead, or would having them available on paper also be helpful? Please rate the comfort level of our seats." Sit down with a group of people who live with chronic pain and brainstorm ideas with them about what would increase their church attendance or connection with the church and then prioritize what they say.

(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) Invite guest speakers who have physical disabilities or live with chronic illness. There are amazing people that speak at churches, sharing their testimony and a wonderful message. By letting them be on stage and reveal what God has done in their lives, despite physical challenges, lets people in your church who are ill see that you do in fact recognize their needs. It reminds them that you care, and perhaps most importantly of all, that you believe that people with physical challenges are still worthy to be used by God (a message few hear from their church). Speakers such as Dave Dravecky, Lisa Copen, Joni Eareckson Tada, Nick Vujicic, 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) Stock up on caring resources that are available for people to borrow. Lots of people with chronic illness are on a fixed-income but they truly want the encouragement. Your church library should carry your many 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 amazing book, "When God Weeps." Purchase a few subscriptions to magazines such as "HopeKeepers", "Guideposts" and even "Fibromyalgia Aware." Don't forget books on tape, audio presentations and large-print materials whenever they are available. Put up flyers or have brochures available about chronic illness or disability ministries. These include Joni and Friend's "Wheels for the World" program or Rest Ministries' annual outreach, "National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week." Recruit a volunteer to assemble binders of information about national ministries and local resources. Also include Christian organizations, magazines and newsletters on topics of interest to Christian seniors, those who live with disabilities and illness, and caregivers.

(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).

Roughly twice a month someone shares their broken heart with me because, after much prayerful consideration, they have gone to their pastor to ask him to consider allowing them to start a HopeKeepers small group. The response is "You can minister to others once you are healed." It makes me so saddened to see people who believe they are no longer useful to their church-or God-until they are healed from their illness.

In the parable Jesus shares in Luke 14:21, a man asks his friends to come to a great banquet he has prepared. But his friends turn him down. Upset with their lack of graciousness he orders, "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 directive to us today. Too few of our churches have recognized the needs of the chronically ill in their own church, much less their community. We must focus on providing a place where we offer unconditional hospitality. We need to "go out" into our own pews and ask the chronically ill to help us provide a place of refuge. And then these people will become the comforters, who, with the support of their church, will be able to go out into the community and offer to walk alongside the hurting with understanding.
About the Author
Get a free list of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from "Beyond Casseroles" by Lisa Copen when you signup for to HopeNotes invisible illness ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the founder of Invisible Illness Week
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