When the Pastor is Sick

I was sick for a couple weeks in October and it turned out fine.  Just a bad cold and a test for whooping cough (it was negative), but – while most people were patient and willing to step in to help – a couple of people became a little ticked off.  My illness inconvenienced people.  It slowed down a few projects and placed others on back burners.  I’m grateful that all is well and caught up now.

In my late 40s I was diagnosed with a rare gynecological cancer that involved surgery and twelve weeks of recovery, which was tricky because 1) I didn’t really want to share the details of my lady parts with parishioners and 2) some people were Not Happy With Me for being sick.  It meant I missed meetings and other church events, and  – essentially – couldn’t take care of their needs.

There are some well-known accounts of pastors dealing with illness:  Craig Barnes was treated for cancer when he first became Head of Staff at National Presbyterian Church, documented in his book When God Interrupts.    Some of us know pastors who have struggled with both temporary and terminal illness.  Like health professionals, pastors and priests are often terrible patients.  We like to be in control.  We like to be the helpers, if not the saviors (although, of course, we already have a Savior.)

A couple friends who have experienced being The Sick Pastor have shared tips to help their congregations minister to them.  It’s quite possible that these tips could be helpful for anyone who wants to care for friends struggling with illness:

  • Give your pastor permission to be sick.  Let her take it easy.  Encourage him to follow up on all the therapy appointments.
  • Offer to bring meals, pick up laundry, run errands, but also understand if he/she occasionally declines.  It’s overwhelming when a whole congregation tries to help.  Maybe one person could be the lead organizer and set up a schedule for everyone.
  • When dropping off meals, make it quick.  Don’t use the opportunity to get a pastoral care appointment in while delivering your casserole.  In other words, don’t make this about you.
  • Please don’t give advice on “a new doctor you’ve heard about” or “a new treatment you read about” unless specifically asked.
  • Remember that pastors also have spiritual needs.

Sometimes the pastor doesn’t get well and sometimes he/she does.  It’s especially traumatic when a person who is called to preach has an illness that takes away the ability to speak, when a pastor who reads or listens to prepare for teaching becomes blind or deaf.  Be gentle with pastors dealing with these layers of loss.

Pastors and priests get sick just like everybody else.  And these are good opportunities who remember who we are and whose we are.

This post is dedicated to GFW.

Image source.



3 responses to “When the Pastor is Sick

  1. Well Done!

  2. Last (2011) fall I was definitively diagnosed with breast cancer on a Friday and approved for ordination at the next day’s Presbytery meeting. Craig Barnes had been my pastoral care professor in seminary, and I vaguely remembered something about his having had cancer, so I contacted him and we had a long conversation about it. I wondered whether it would be completely irresponsible of me to accept my call to Small Church; he said, “Of course, you should,” and went on to describe his experience – what he needed, what his congregation accepted, and how he preached.

    Fourteen months later, all is well, but even if it hadn’t been – I guess we all know what Julian says. The situation gave my congregation an opportunity to be magnificent in seemingly (but not really) small ways: praying for me, rolling with the punches, managing without drama when I was away for surgeries, welcoming me back, practicing hope, and doing all of it without crushing me with a sense of obligation. It occurs to me now that perhaps I should write about that experience. I think my congregation really set the standard for a fearless confidence in God.

  3. Julie A. Johnson

    Thanks for the post, Jan. With the internet, meals can be organized a bit easier if you check out: http://www.takethemameal.com
    The individual or family can put in allergies, preference and folks bringing the food can see what’s going to be dropped off in the 5 min -standing–in the foyer-not staying-to-long-visit. If the person is on Caringbridge they have a similar on-line organization tool.

    We’ve used it for our church and it really works..so long as parishioners have internet access.

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