Jump directly to the Content

When a Member of Your Church Is Dying

Preparing yourself and your church to embrace purpose and service when death looms.
When a Member of Your Church Is Dying
Image: Martin Barraud / Getty Images

An elder from a church in Pennsylvania called me about a young woman who had contracted a very strange neuro-muscular condition that was taking away her ability to walk, move, eat, and breathe. She was depressed. Her name was Kim, and he asked if I would call her and encourage her because she was a having a tough time making some healthcare decisions.

When I talked to Kim on the phone, her breath was so labored I could barely understand her. Still, we talked about heaven, prayer, and lot of other things. Then she said with great effort, “The doctors want to put me on a ventilator … but I’m not sure I want to stay on a ventilator. What would you suggest I do?”

I paused, deeply considering her words. And then I told Kim she had two choices—and neither one was morally reprehensible. But one might be better than the other. I pointed out 2 Peter 3:8, which says, “My dear brothers, do not forget this one thing. A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a day.”

We often talk about how the Lord looks at the last couple thousand years as only a couple of days gone by, but not many people talk about the flipside of that coin—how each day is worth a thousand years. Each day is packed full of opportunities to invest in a thousand years’ worth of eternity.

I told Kim, “You’re on your deathbed. But Jesus was on his deathbed too, on the cross. And he was serving. He was taking care of the thief on the cross next to him. He was counseling John as to what to do with his mother. He was thinking of others even from his own cross. Kim, I would encourage you to do the same.”

I heard a faint “Uh-huh” amid the whooshing sound of the ventilator. I knew Kim was listening. So I said, “Kim, the next time your mother wants to tube feed you your nutrition, ask if you can say a blessing over the food. That would just mean so much to your mother. She’s as heartbroken over this as you are. Find a way to uplift her spirits. And when the church youth group comes, and they do their brief Bible study by your bedside, ask if you can quote to them one of your verses by heart, and then pray for them. Take the initiative. Find a way to bless others.”

The Increasing Delimma of Death

It’s hard living with a significant disability. It’s difficult to find a job when you can’t even find somebody to help you get up in the morning. And it’s even more challenging when someone is dying. Many young paraplegics are warehoused in nursing homes because of a lack of good family support.

Many of my cohorts in the disability community have succumbed to a “you’re better off dead than disabled” mentality. Others were driven there by depression and despair. I’ve talked with families who have lost their disabled loved one not from a fatal illness but after disability and depression led them to refuse treatment.

Two years ago, when our state legalized euthanasia, the issue became even more personal to me. Death and end-of-life care isn’t exactly something I’m inherently drawn to, but my heart breaks to see so many people driven to six fentanyl patches on their chest or three grams of phenobarbital or other lethal prescriptions because of despair and hopelessness.

In 1997, the US Supreme Court ruled there was no inherent right to die in the Constitution. Still, individual states were driven by their populations to allow for the exercise of what they feel is their autonomy, freedom, and personal choice to end their suffering. We’ve developed supposedly rational social policy based on our fears of dying, pain, and suffering.

Christians are uniquely suited to help people understand the virtue in suffering. Unfortunately, according to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research, 42 percent of evangelicals believe physicians should be allowed to assist terminally ill people in ending their lives.

I’m not asking pastors to become experts in the terminology of voluntary/involuntary euthanasia, mercy killing, and so on. The role of pastors is to equip their people with a love and passion for life and living and to help them see that hardship and suffering are God’s choicest tools in shaping our characters—that every day is worth living.

The onus is on us to develop a practical, biblical view on suffering and start talking about it, living it, and modeling it for others.

It’s Not Bad to Be a Burden

Families are not technical, mechanistic social contracts that we make with one another. Family members all have a moral responsibility toward one another. That’s what defines a family.

It might be a good thing to be a burden to your family. Think about it: Everybody else might reject you, but your family has to take you in. Family members are supposed to be a burden to each other, a way for other members of the family to learn self-sacrifice.

My grandmother was 81 years old when she came to live with my family. My mother and father expected me to stay home on a couple of Friday nights and be with my grandma and do laundry. I remember hating it at first, resenting the fact that Grandma’s presence in our home had made my life more challenging. But when I look back, I’m so glad my grandmother came to live with us. It taught my sisters and me self-sacrifice, compassion, and what it means to go the extra mile for someone you love. We learned that normal Christian service is extraordinarily sacrificial.

I don’t think we would have learned any of these things as young people had it not been for my grandmother coming to live with us. I desperately hope my grandmother didn’t pick up on my vibes as a kid, but that experience taught me what a family is supposed to look like. We’re supposed to be burdens on one another.

How Your Church Can Serve the Dying

When 42 percent of evangelicals think it’s appropriate for physicians to hasten a terminally ill patient to their death, it demonstrates a lack of understanding when it comes to the theology of suffering. Equip your members to have a firm understanding of God’s good hand in suffering. Pastors can start now, preaching from the pulpit a solidly biblical view of suffering. Yes, sin kills; hell is real. But God is merciful, and his grace can keep you day by day by day.

Philippians 2:14 says, “Do everything without complaining.” Expect that of your congregants, especially when they are complaining about care for those less fortunate. Be willing to call people out. But be willing to help, too.

When I was first injured, my mother would never have dared to call anybody to ask for help. So many people said, “Mrs. Eareckson, if there’s anything you need, just give me a call,” but my mother would never have done that. She better appreciated the people who came by the house on the way to the market and picked up her grocery list. She preferred that people give her a call while they were at the store and say, “I’m running errands. Can I pick up anything for you?”

When there’s a terminal illness in a family, rally the church to get involved and provide support. Encourage your people to take initiative and be proactive.

There were some young people in my college and career class who learned my personal care routines at the urging of their church youth leader. They said to my older sister, “We’d like to help Joni go to Virginia Polytechnic Institute for the weekend and see one of her friends who’s in school there.” I spent a weekend at VPI and had a blast.

I never thought I could do such a thing. These young people envisioned success for me before I was able to envision it for myself—all because their church youth leader urged them to do so.

Pastors can encourage a practical Christianity that has its sleeves rolled up. Get into where the rubber meets the road of a family’s need. Whether it’s sitting with them in the dialysis center and working on a puzzle, playing Scrabble with them in the chemo chair, running to the market, or learning that routine so you can give Mom or Dad or the husband or wife a break.

God wants us to live in reality, and sin can deceive us. Sin loves isolation and keeping people at an arms-length distance. Sin sometimes materializes as fear—of getting involved, saying the wrong thing, or unintentionally hurting someone.

It makes a big difference to walk up to the mother of a child whose daughter just received a terribly bad medical report and say, “I have no idea what this new diagnosis means, but I want to learn, and I want to help. I want you to help me do all I can to encourage your daughter.”

If you don’t know everything about a situation, just say so. Saying something is better than saying nothing. Ask questions, and listen to the answers.

The Pastor’s Role in Life-or-death Decision Making

How a person dies should be a private matter between families, their physicians, and their pastor. The pastor is one of the legs on a three-legged stool. People are going to need wisdom and help discerning the distinction between providing support and treatment that will truly sustain life, and treatment that will only prolong the process of dying.

You don’t want to do anything that will hasten a person’s death. But let’s say my mother has Stage 4 cancer. She doesn’t have long to live, and morphine would help her cope with the pain. Will it hasten her death? It might. But the motive was not to hasten the death. The motive was to make that loved one as comfortable as possible in the last stages of her life.

In order to give wise advice, pastors need to get as close to the facts as possible and make certain those facts are being given to you by a physician with whom you share similar life values.

Pastors can provide an incredible amount of comfort and assurance when a family member turns to them and says, “These are my choices. What should I do?” With pastoral wisdom, they can give advice and even a kind of absolution.

Calling the Dying to Purpose

Kim lived for another three months. When her mother called me to let me know that Kim had passed away, she told me those were the most meaningful months of her life. Kim took those three months as an opportunity to invest in four or five thousand years’ worth of eternity.

Everything you do in your last few days—whether it’s putting your business in order, resolving conflicts, asking forgiveness, or ministering to the people who tend to your physical needs—are all ways of increasing your eternal estate.

Those who feel overwhelmed by their chronic medical conditions, even if they are elderly, need treatment for depression. They need good pain management. They need social community support. They need a purpose for living. That’s a real opportunity for Christians and a crucial responsibility for the pastor.

More than 50 years after a 1967 diving accident left her paralyzed, Joni Eareckson Tada leads an international disability ministry (Joni and Friends) and is a best-selling author and sought-after speaker. In addition to living with quadriplegia, Joni is a breast cancer survivor and suffers from chronic pain.

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Homepage Subscription Panel

Read These Next

From the Magazine
God Wanted Me When the Foster-Care System Didn’t
God Wanted Me When the Foster-Care System Didn’t
I bounced from home to home before finding the Father my heart yearned for.
Editor's Pick
When Churches Put Love at the Center
When Churches Put Love at the Center
How "beloved community" helps us envision tangible ways to embody kingdom values.