Nearly 1 in 2 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."
I was surrounded by people who cared about me, in a church I love, and yet I still felt lonely and as though no one had an idea of what my life was truly like.
It's obvious that churches already have an overwhelming amount of needs that must be fulfilled. Some of these needs are obvious and they often rise to the top of the priority list. So when people don't even verbalize about their pain level or illness symptoms that change their lifestyle, it's hard to understand where a church could begin to help. Pastors ask, "If they aren't speaking up, then doesn't that mean they are coping with it fine? They believe in God and we have a healing service every six months. Isn't that enough?"
Let's take a glimpse at some astonishing statistics:
- Despite what we are led to believe by our media, 60% of the people who suffer with daily pain or illness are between the ages of 18 and 64. - 75 percent of marriages that have at least one person with a chronic illness end in divorce. - Depression has been found to be 15-20% higher for the chronically ill than it is for the average person. - Various studies have discovered that physical illness (not mental 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) Ask special guests to come and speak at your church. There are many people who have physical disabilities that go to churches and share their testimony; they will encourage everyone in your church. Allowing them to stand on the stage and share what God has accomplished in their lives, despite physical challenges, demonstrates to the people in your church, especially the chronically ill, that you do recognize their needs. They will feel you care, and perhaps most importantly, that you believe they are still worthy to be used by God. People such as Nick Vujicic, Lisa Copen, Joni Eareckson Tada, and many others, minister to the masses, not just those with disabilities.
(4) Consider adding a parish nurse to your staff, especially if your church body has a lot of seniors. Marquette University College of Nursing, which has an excellent parish nursing program, reports there are about 6000 parish nurses in United States. Many retired nurses are finding this area of ministry appealing and most parish nurse certification can be given by many hospitals. The parish nurse position description depends on your church's needs and goals. For example, they may go to homes to monitor diabetes or high blood pressure of church members, organize walking groups, health fairs and screenings, and even help out with the chronic illness small group. The role of the parish nurse may be a better choice than a disabilities coordinator, depending on your church's demographics. This person would help cover the disability ministry needs and work 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) Lastly, and most importantly, remember people with illness want to serve. Not just be served. This is because "He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed" (Proverbs 11:25). For example, when a woman tells you she is resigning from working in the nursery, let her know that she is welcome to serve in other ways when she is ready. She may find she enjoys writing encouragement notes to people who have an illness. A man may find he can mentor another man with a chronic illness one-on-one rather than leading a Bible study. Let them know that you value wounded healers and believe 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).
About twice a month someone tells me that they went to their pastor with a request to start a chronic illness HopeKeepers ministry and they were told, "Come back when you are healed and then we will talk. You can't very well minister to others with illness when you aren't even healed yourself." The broken hearts that arise from these comments is unbearable. It's devastating to feel like God is using your illness for His glory and then be told you are no longer useful to the church-or even to God-until you are healed.
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.
If you lead a support group or are considering it, don't miss Lisa Copen's new book, http://StartAnIllnessSupportGroup.com for your ministry needs. Over 300 pages with step-by-step instructions on how to write a vision statement, promotion and attendance and much more!
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