I spoke with my sister, a Catholic grade school principal in California, and a former assistant Archdiocese superintendent.
“Is this just something that evangelical churches are really bad at?”, I queried.
I was sharing with her the story of one of the families we serve who had a child hospitalized, yet again. This family had had contact with 3 people from their church, 2 of whom were on staff, as they rushed their daughter for another serious inpatient stay. Despite these key people knowing of their dilemma, no one from their congregation came to be with them in the hospital or pray with them. The family never made the church prayer chain or even received a card from their church home. The family was understandably upset, feeling abandoned in one of their darkest hours.
“No,” my sister assured me, “It’s NOT just an evangelical church problem. It really depends on the pastor. Some pastors are great at remembering to make hospital visits, and some avoid it at all costs. I worked with a pastor who saw the serious need, and was dedicated to making sure his parishioners were seen, but that came to a halt when he retired. His replacement, who worked side-by-side with him in the years he was there, was horrible. I often had to do visits or people would be neglected.”
We wrestled with why such an obvious, basic need of the local church would be so recklessly abandoned by Christian churches of every denomination. After all, Jesus made this one of his main ministries. Here is what we came up with:
- When a family has a member with a disability or special need, their hospitalization and medical crises are chronic. They face challenges over a long period of time. Pastors can develop “compassion fatigue” like any other human. In other words, every human, even those in typical ministry, can tire of dealing with another person’s endless health issues.
- People assume the hospital chaplain will handle ministering to the family. What local churches may not realize is that there has been a movement away from faith intimacy in hospital chaplains, instead emphasizing a “ministry of presence” with families. This is done so that a Christian chaplain can minister to a Muslim family or a Jewish rabbi can serve a Christian patient. While the “ministry of presence” is vitally important, these types of visits from strangers are not as faithfully intimate as those from our own church family.
- Sick people scare others, including pastors. People who don’t have the stomach for needles, blood or other bodily fluids, hospital smells, or even psychological institutions have an extremely hard time overcoming those aversions. They may never be able to handle such things. This amounts to rendering these particular individuals unavailable for meeting this critical need.
- Attempts at educating pastors in this area of service are rare and moving at a painfully slow rate. We, leading in special needs ministry, know of the great void in seminary training for pastoral care. Yet, there are simply not enough of us to ramp up or execute this part of these would-be church leaders’ education at this time. This leaves the void unfilled while the need continues to grow.
These are likely only a few of the main reasons this type of neglect occurs in the darkest hours of those living with disability or special needs. Nevertheless, with what we have identified here as obstacles, we can create an action plan to deal with this deficit in pastoral care. See if you might add to these suggestions:
- Put a recommended protocol in place for churches of every kind to replicate when a member is hospitalized. This should include having a pastoral care team, not just dumping the task on one pastor or staff member. It should also include the practice of having people contact the church office if they know of a member or attendee who is hospitalized. It should not be assumed that a family member has called, because they may likely be too taxed with dealing with the family member in need to make such a call. Training church members to merely ask, “Can I contact the church for you?”, can be such a tender act of kindness.
- Identify church members who have that gift of tenderness, empathy, caring and prayer, who might be willing to make such visits. A congregation should never stop recruiting or training in this area. The American Association of Christian Counselors is just one source for solid training of lay leaders in pastoral care. Many denominations also have their own training programs in place. These classes are something that should routinely be on the calendar of local congregations, so that pastoral care is never neglected, regardless of who is moving in or out of leadership.
- Teach pastors and staff to regularly ask families with a member who has special needs, “How are you all doing?” or “Is there anything we can be doing for you?”. This acknowledges the chronic struggle of dealing with disability, and renders a great sense of caring to those who are living with such challenges. While many pastors may not be inclined to ask such questions for fear that they may not be able to meet such needs, they should rest assured that it is not nearly as complicated or demanding as they might think.
- Pray. This work can seem futile if we rely on our own power to accomplish it. But when we pray, God works. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers. Implore the Holy Spirit to soften hearts, open minds, and impart wisdom to local churches. Pray that no family would feel abandoned or walk away from the church because they were not ministered to in their time of greatest need. Cry out for a Body of Christ that would be motivated to face their fears head on, get dirty doing the difficult work that Jesus did, and make lasting change in His name.
What would you add to this list? Please add to this discussion, because families in need of pastoral care amidst a life of unique challenges are desperate for this to change. Their hope is hanging on evidence that Someone truly cares!