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.