How Can the Church Better Serve those Suffering from Chronic Illness?
As a senior in college, I was involved in a traffic accident that eventually left me with neck issues and chronic pain. A couple of years later, I became severely ill with mononucleosis, which I never fully recovered from. Within half a decade, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, a thyroid condition which is hard to treat. Since then, I’ve also been saddled with fibromyalgia (autoimmune diseases often piggyback on one another). I have good and bad days and feel grateful for a supportive family, helpful medicine, and a terrific team of doctors. I’ve learned to advocate for and take care of myself, rest when I need to, and surround myself with positive and understanding people.
However, I still get frustrated by the lack of education in the Church about chronic (and often invisible) illness. I’ve been told my afflictions are due to lack of faith, poor nutrition, or unconfessed sin. At times, I’ve been made to feel as though my suffering is my fault, instead of the fallout from an imperfect world groaning for redemption. I’ve also lost count of the “answers” people have suggested because their friend or relative tried something and it worked for them. And--while I know it’s impossible for others to think as much about my daily struggles as I do--I wonder if people assume that because I often look “normal” on the outside, I can’t be experiencing intense pain or fatigue.
Many chronic illness patients honestly feel that not only their struggles but also their personhood is invisible within their churches (and the Church at large). A few of my friends gave me specific input about how they wished congregations viewed and ministered to their afflictions. Below are several ideas based on their input about how communities of faith can serve this often-neglected group:
First, don’t forget about those with chronic illness.
Author Michelle Van Loon, who has common variable immunodeficiency, told me, “Many churches function with an out of sight, out of mind mentality. People with chronic illnesses are often out of sight. But if a church is committed to radical inclusion, it means that they'll find ways to care for and involve those who can't always be present.”
In addition, remember that although their bodies may prevent some aspects of service, many chronically ill people still want to contribute in some way. Ann Farley-Parker notes, “Ask HOW we want to be involved in ministries. Maybe we can be part of the prayer team or help with snacks, registration, or records. Maybe we can work with a partner to lessen the stress. Make an effort to include us and be flexible about what that involvement looks like.”
Second, realize that managing chronic illness is expensive.
Churches could implement an assistance fund just for people who are chronically ill, especially those unable to work and on disability benefits. One friend confided that her sister was made to feel ashamed because she asked her small group to help her with the cost of three medicines she regularly took. She ultimately left that church.
Van Loon shared that the plasma product on which she relies costs “well upward of a hundred grand a year.”
While insurance covers some of the costs associated with managing conditions, it rarely covers all of it. Many patients need massages from highly trained professionals in order to function well. Those can be expensive, and may not be covered by insurance.
Third, be creative and consistent about ministering to the chronically ill.
A fellow pastor’s wife has a compromised immune system after an organ transplant. She is often ill and can’t work anymore. Her church family has provided housekeeping, rides to and from appointments, and other tangible help.
Kiki Cherry’s church served her parents well during her father’s long battle with kidney disease: “Even though they are not a huge church, they organized a roster to drive my parents to dialysis each week. After each hospital visit there was a meal train in place, so Mom didn’t have to cook. And they helped with things like mowing the lawn, picking up prescriptions, and home repairs. I’d never seen anything like it. That church does an incredible job of caring for one another, and a key factor is that they have a well-organized, practical system in place.”
A ministry I support and have benefited from is Chronic Joy. They offer Bible studies, support group materials, and much more for both those with chronic illness and those who serve or care for them. Many congregations have implemented support groups with the tools Chronic Joy provides.
Make Space for Suffering
Our churches need to tell the stories of renewal and healing, for sure, but they also need to be safe places to share tears, doubt, and questions when healing doesn’t come. It’s up to leaders to honestly answer the question, “Does our congregation offer space, time and resources for those who hurt--not just those that rejoice?”
As author K.J. Ramsey writes, “The church can multiply comfort and amplify endurance through becoming a fellowship where suffering is named as normal. It is not our whole story, but it is part of it.”
To conclude, let me point you to the biblical story of Hagar. A slave to Abraham and Sarah, she escaped to the desert after cruel treatment by her mistress when Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child. But in the middle of the harsh wilderness, God met her. He told her she was seen and cherished, and He had a great future planned for her and her offspring. My favorite thing about Hagar is that she was the only woman in scripture to give God a name: “El Roi,” the God who sees me.
So many of my fellow chronic illness sufferers feel unseen, unloved, and uncared for by fellow believers as they wander in the desert of their unwanted realities. Together, we can change that as we creatively and consistently model the compassion of our Heavenly Father.
Dena Dyer is an author, speaker and coach who lives with chronic pain and fatigue due to Hashimoto’s and Fibromyalgia. In her day job, she serves as Executive Assistant to Jamie Aten, founder of Wheaton’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Find out more about Dena’s books and resources for weary people at her website or follow her on Instagram or Facebook.