Focus on the Family

Ministering Effectively to the Chronically Ill

Experts encourage churches and individuals to listen and give the "gift of presence" to the chronically ill. Learn what to say to help.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Christians get high marks when it comes to ministering in crises. But when it comes to meeting the long-term needs of the chronically ill, many fail to get a passing grade. Sure, their intentions are good, but information, tools and resources keep them from doing a job well done.

Ministering to the chronically ill effectively means walking a mile in their shoes. Ask: How can we understand those people who have to manage their pain on a day-to-day basis, and how we, as the body of Christ, meet their needs?

Voices of chronic illnesses

Elizabeth Burchfield lives with multiple chronic conditions. Myofascial pain disorder and arthritis force her make a lot of concessions in her life.

"You get lonely," she says. "You want so much to see someone else but don't have the energy to even go to church."

Rennie Ellen Auiler, a cancer survivor who lives with ulcerative colitis and other chronic illnesses, describes the fatigue that comes with chronic illness as completely debilitating.

"Not the tiredness that healthy people experience after a long day," she says, "but the mind-numbing, crawl-into-a-hole-and die kind of fatigue that never goes away."

Judy Gann, who lives with fibromyalgia and other autoimmune system disorders, describes her life as a roller coaster.

"I may feel reasonably well one day and be flat in bed the next," she says.

Symptoms like these make it difficult for the chronically ill to participate in activities others may take for granted. Attending church service, sitting through a Bible study, walking around a shopping mall and driving to a retreat can all seem daunting to someone living with a chronic illness.

We need to step outside the four walls of the church and into the homes and communities of those in pain to meet the needs of the chronically ill most effectively. We need to enter their world. It's what Jesus would do.

Learning to minister

Rev. Liz Danielsen, Chaplain, and Founder of Spiritual Care Support Ministries, says the best gift we can give to the chronically ill is time.

"Simply saying, 'I would just like to be with you.' Jesus did that," she says. "I think we need to talk less and be present more."

When we do say something, it is critical we say something that helps, not hurts, the chronically ill. Experts offer these suggestions:

Do say:

Don't say:

Keep in mind:

Tips for Churches

Lisa Copen, founder of Rest Ministries, Inc. and author of So You Want to Start a Chronic Illness/Pain Ministry and Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend, offers some ways local congregations can serve the chronically ill:

The needs of those who chronically suffer are unique. It takes effort and commitment to minister effectively. Because suffering is such an individual experience a good rule of thumb is to talk less and listen more.

"It's sometimes best to put the books aside and just let them teach you," says Liz Danielsen.

The truth is the chronically ill have a lot to offer. Their experiences give them insight and sensitivity that others may lack. When you meet someone with a chronic condition or illness, why not ask yourself, "What can I learn from this person's life?"

You might be surprised.