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Six Ways to Let Those with Chronic Illness in Your Church Know You Care

by Lisa Copen, Rest Ministries

*Editor’s Note: This is a great article to share with your pastor. Most pastors and churches lack an understanding of what those living with chronic illness go through on a daily basis. Use this article as a catlyst to initiate a converstation with your pastor and others in your church.

One in three people in the U.S. have a chronic condition. If it’s not you, it’s someone near you.

Too often, a chronic illness, such as fibromyalgia, or a chronic condition like back pain from a car accident, is invisible. Those who live with chronic illnesses do everything they can to look presentable, get to church, and sit through the service. But as someone with rheumatoid arthritis, I recently grasped onto the pew in front of me to balance my knees that need joint replacements, and nearly laughed as the worship song said, “I will stand in spite of pain.” Surrounded by church I loved, I still felt lonely and misunderstood.

Churches have an overwhelming amount of needs that must be fulfilled. So of people aren’t saying anything about their pain, doesn’t that mean they are coping with it fine? Their faith and the ability to pray for strength should be plenty, right?

Let’s look at some staggering 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 concern. Whether you see it or not, your church body has a lot of ailing bodies, and with them come many broken spirits. So, if people aren’t talking about their pain, how do you know how to reach out to them?

(1) Conduct a survey on the needs people may have that they are not speaking out about. If a van was provided, would they be able to get to church more easily? Would they listen to church on the internet if they were too ill to attend? Do they feel they can call and ask for occasional assistance even though their illness is chronic and not acute? Would they like the worship song lyrics in the bulletin and not just on an overhead? Are the seats comfortable or could a few rows be saved for them 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)Provide a small group/Bible study setting for them. For example, Rest Ministries has a small group program called HopeKeepers which provides a wide variety of materials and Bible studies for this purpose. You may find that although people enjoy the small groups they are in, they feel that talking and praying about their illness week after week is a burden. Having a place where they can “speak the same language” and even laugh at the same jokes can be invigorating. And if only a few people come, that’s okay. It brings people comfort to know the church has this oasis when they need it.

(3) Have special speakers. There are dozens of people who have physical disabilities that go to churches and share their testimony. Allowing them to be at the pulpit and share what God has done in their lives despite physical challenges, 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.

(4) Consider adding a parish nurse to your staff, especially if your church body has a lot of seniors. Many retired nurses are finding this area of ministry appealing and most hospitals now offer training. Parish nurses have a variety of duties, depending 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 health fairs and screenings, help provide walking groups, etc.

(5) Provide helpful resources that are available for borrowing. Many people with chronic illness are on a fixed-income and yet they need the encouragement. Stock your church library with books on living with chronic illness such as Why Can’t I Make People Understand? by Lisa Copen or When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada. Buy a few subscriptions to magazines such as HopeKeepers, Guideposts and even Arthritis Today. Remember to have books on tape, audio presentations and large-print whenever they are available.
Post flyers or have brochures available about chronic illness or disability ministries, such as Joni’s “Wheels for the World” program or Rest Ministries’ annual outreach, “Invisible Illness Week.”

(6) Lastly, and most importantly, remember people with illness want to serve-not just be served. “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25). A woman may have to resign from teaching Sunday school, but tell her she is welcome to serve in other ways whenever she is ready. She may love to write notes to others who have illnesses and encourage them. A man may find he can mentor another man with a chronic illness 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).

In Luke 14:21 Jesus shares a parable of a great banquet. When the man’s friends all turned down his hospitality he commanded, “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 mandate today, but we must remember that to provide a place where we offer hospitality, we must first “go out” into our own pews and provide a place of refuge; then these people will welcome in the rest of the community with open arms of understanding.

©2006 Lisa Copen. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries, serving the chronically ill, and editor of HopeKeepers Magazine. http://www.restministries.org . Get 3 copies of her 94-page book Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend for just $10, http://www.comfortzonebooks.com.