“I left the church because there was no place for me.”
“The church only cared about what I could do for them, not how they could serve me in my time of need.”
“When I could no longer serve because of my chronic illness, the church abandoned me. Although no one actually said it, the message I received was you are no longer a valuable member of this church if you cannot serve.”
These are comments made by actual women I interviewed for a recent article. As you can imagine, these comments never made it into the article because, as a Christian culture, we often avoid hard or controversial issues or things that might paint the church in a bad light. Denying a problem exists, complicates the pain and often alienates the suffering from the local church.
I love the church, but I have often felt unseen and unheard.
When, as a young adult of 30, I experienced a major depressive disorder, only a handful of people stood with me through a difficult and lengthy recovery. Most of my friends, even long-time relationships, disappeared, despite ten years of faithful service as a leader in that church. I struggled to understand, chose to forgive, and chose to press on.
Eight years later, I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, both chronic autoimmune diseases, for which there is no cure. Symptoms include pain, fatigue, and limited mobility. I spent the first several months after my diagnosis at home or in bed as my body struggled to adapt to the chemo drug prescribed to manage my symptoms. After serving under one church leader and alongside peers for nearly eight years, only one person from that ministry circle even checked in.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a pre-malignant blood disorder and a neurological condition, resulting in profound balance issues, numbness and tingling in my feet and legs, and disabling fatigue. During that time, the church’s primary questions to me where when did I plan to get involved, i.e., join a small group, and where was I planning to serve. Yes, they offered to bring me a meal. But I didn’t need a meal; I needed a friend.
I needed people to ask, “How are you dealing with this emotionally?” “What are you doing to manage discouragement and depression?” “Who is supporting you spiritually, emotionally, and practically during this difficult time?”
No one asked me those questions.
Many life in or near family members who can help. Others don’t. Some families are so dysfunctional that any interaction would hinder rather than help the pain. Some have spouses who, because of their own woundedness, run from difficult situations rather than come alongside to help.
Where is the church is situations like these?
The Church–God’s Chosen Vessel
Before I move on, let me say that I love the church. As imperfect as it is, it is still God’s chosen vehicle to extend His kingdom in the earth. I’ve seen the church do amazing things—show up to help in natural disasters, work to eliminate sex trafficking, care for the poor, and so much more. Because of these reasons and more, I will always remain committed to the church. I choose not to walk away.
I’m am also one not to churchhop. I spent ten years at my first church, 24 years at the second, and three years at my last church. My leaving had nothing to do with”my needs not being met.” It was more like, “I’m dying here…if someone doesn’t throw me an oxygen mask, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.”
It’s not that the disabled don’t want to serve and minister. It’s just we can no longer do what we once did. Our bodies won’t allow it. For example, I served in various ministry roles in the church for more than 40 years–women’s ministry leader, Sunday school teacher, event speaker, youth leader, speaker, prayer counselor, and more. As much as I would like to continue to do those things, I simply can’t.
In this season, I, and others like me, need the church to help us find our place in the Body of Christ and recognize that due to our limitations our life of service might look different from other, more traditional forms of church ministry.
For example, I serve through my writing. As a contributor to various online magazines, I reach thousands of people with a kingdom message, and my published work has appeared in more than 32 countries. I am also a certified spiritual director. In that capacity, I have the privilege of meeting with church and marketplace leaders around the world and working with leaders in Siberia, South Africa, the UK, Brazil, and more.
My ministry is “hidden” in this season, but it is valuable nonetheless.
As I have walked through the last two years, I see God’s provision and the individuals He has called to walk with me on this difficult journey. Sadly, not one of these individuals is from my church.
I think of Brenda, who seeing my mobility struggles, drove over one day and dropped a scooter in my driveway for me to use at an upcoming event. I was questioning whether an event I wanted to attend would be too much for me physically. To Brenda the choice was clear, “You can’t stop living just because you’re having problems walking. Use a scooter!”
Nancy—hostess and cook extraordinaire–is another person who comes to mind. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat around her kitchen table, talking late into the night—simply enjoying each other’s company. Gathering around a table with friends is healing.
So many others have opened their homes and their hearts to me as I’ve wrestled with declining physical capacity and stamina. So many hugs and so many words of encouragement. Some of the people who have supported me the most go to mainstream churches, others are agnostic, and some don’t know what they believe. Some are straight, and others are gay.
All have stopped to selflessly offer their love and support on my journey, often at great personal cost. When individuals outside of the church do a better job of loving well, something is wrong.
It’s time for the church to step up and learn how to better love and serve the chronically ill and disabled.
As one individual I recently interviewed said, “If the church doesn’t make a place for the disabled, the church is disabled.”