In my work as hospice chaplain, I often ask my patients and their caregivers to tell me about their circle of support; those people who are helping them get through this extremely difficult and profound time in their lives. They often talk about their faith in God, family members, and close friends, but rarely the members of their church. Sometimes I’ll specifically ask them to tell me how their faith community is supporting them.
I tend to get similar responses each time I ask this question. They talk about how they have been committed to their church in the past, but lately their illness or the demands of caregiving have kept them from being active in the life of the congregation. They look at me earnestly and say, “I haven’t seen them much, but I know they are praying for me.”
As a chaplain, I see the problem. As a ruling elder in a PC(USA) congregation, I have been a part of the problem. When I heard that a Sunday school teacher was facing a difficult diagnosis, I worried that I would say the wrong things. When I suspected that a choir member was experiencing stress or burnout due to caregiving responsibilities for an ill spouse, I wondered if my offer of support would be perceived as intrusive or offensive. I worried if it was my place to reach out to someone who had not attended church in a while. All too often, my worrying and wondering would turn into inaction.
I consoled myself with the thought that the pastor was handling it. I let myself off the hook and allowed the term “pastoral care” lull me into thinking that it is solely the job of the pastor. But encounters with my patients taught me that pastoral care is not simply the domain of the pastor; it is our congregational commitment to one another.
One of the most powerful parts of the worship service for me is the congregational vows during the baptismal liturgy. In those vows, the congregation promises “to guide and nurture ... by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church” (Book of Common Worship, Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 1993, p. 406). The only way to live out this promise is to show up when others need us. When we practice pastoral care, we get better at it. We also learn that our relationship with Christ is nurtured and deepened in the process.
While there is certainly etiquette of illness and crisis, I’ve observed that people in the midst of difficult situations can overlook a well-meaning, but clumsy comment. But it is more difficult to forgive not showing up at all. The more we show up the more we learn that we do not have to say the right things; we just have to be there to listen.
One of the things I always ask God when I pray for families in crisis is that God will give insight and grace to those who surround them. I pray that the family will receive the support they need from their family, friends, and faith community. This support can take many forms: a phone call, a card, a meal, a kind word, and, perhaps most of all, a listening ear.
Recently, I witnessed a church member answer an unspoken prayer by visiting with a cooler full of water and healthy snacks for a family who was living on hospital vending machine food. May we all avail ourselves to the stirring of the Spirit and let God use us to answer someone’s prayer.
Zeena Regis is a ruling elder and member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. She is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and currently serves as a chaplain with Hospice Atlanta/Visiting Nurse Health System. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her spouse, Rahjahn, and two pups, Bella and Chip.