Posts Tagged local churches
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!
You wouldn’t be the first leader to share this frustrating scenario: You spend months, even years, attempting to get you church leadership on board with reaching out to those with special needs. You finally get a ministry up and running. And suddenly, your church decides they don’t have room in their budget for special needs ministry. The program gets cut.
While disability and special needs ministries have made enormous strides, there is no doubt that there is still much to do when it comes to changing hearts and minds within the church. Frequently, unless there is a God-given heart for the need or someone in the pastor’s circle affected by a special need, it is difficult to inspire passion for this area of ministry. Persuading the church leadership that this is an essential part of their overall ministry can be like pulling teeth. And if they acquiesce, there’s no guarantee that they have a long-term commitment to welcoming those with disabilities and their families into the congregation.
How do you battle this sort of adversity from within the Body of Christ? Here are some thoughts:
- Never stop casting the vision. You can never remind church leaders enough that an estimated 1 out of 6 children are diagnosed with some sort of developmental disability. Christ calls us to love the lost and the least, and there is a huge mission field right in our midst. Tell the story over and over, one at a time to as many people at the church as will hear.
- My friends at Key Ministry never stop reminding that inclusion is a terrific approach because churches are reluctant to add another program. If you can convince your church to bring someone like Key in to offer one of their JAM Sessions (Jump-start an All-Inclusive Ministry), you may have greater success at sustaining the pattern and practice of welcoming those with unique abilities.
- Invite your pastor and the main decision-makers at the church to come join you in one of your activities. If it is Sunday School or a respite program, have these key leaders come for an entire session. This way they can see what is going on and what a difference it makes in the lives of these families. Nothing moves hearts quite like rolling up sleeves together and serving.
- Prove the value special needs ministry, of any kind, brings to this specific church as a whole. In a time where numbers matter, document how many new attenders are drawn to the church by your program or inclusion. Demonstrate the overall participation rate by families. List the number of volunteers who have found a way to express their Christian faith in action by serving in this ministry. When there are many worthy ministries all competing for the same manpower and dollars under the roof of one church, clearly lay out where disability ministry makes a difference and how dollars are specifically spent.
- Add value to the church by bringing in added funds. Whether it be a bake sale or a grant written, the pastor and his key decision makers will give you more credibility if you pull your weight in the financial realm. Strangely, many people see churches, especially large ones, as a cash cow. That is not usually the case. Churches struggle to bring in every dollar on a weekly basis. If you can show your willingness to help bear your part of that load, it will make a huge difference with the team.
These are just a few suggestions. Remember, we are ever-educating church leaders, attenders and the public at large to the need for inclusion in the Body of Christ. Some seasons go better than others. If you believe in this mission, don’t feel sorry for yourself, acting like the outcast step-child of ministry. Make a difference right were you are, with passion. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and commit the rest to Him.
What are YOU doing to prove your value to a pastor or church that might not fully embrace the need for inclusion or special needs programming? We would love to hear!