By Ken Braddy
I remember it well. My wife and I were watching a movie at our local theater when she received a phone call from one of the pastors on our church staff about a family in our church.
The phone call was about Jackie, and her husband Randall, who were founding members of our Bible study group several years prior. They were faithful attenders, supportive members of the church and our group, great parents to their daughter, Jayce, and they both loved Jesus.
When my wife stepped out of the theater to take the phone call, the pastor’s first words were, “Randall just died.” I remember how my wife came back into the theater, grabbed her purse, and whispered through tears, “We’ve got to leave. Now.”
Randall’s death was the end of his multi-year struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
There are numerous crises that can affect a congregation. Divorce or abandonment is one. A sharp disagreement between two or more group members is another. A person or couple can have a grievance with church over a variety of issues.
But the crisis of a terminal illness and the death of a church member is one that tops this list—a crisis that most groups are not prepared for, but will almost certainly encounter.
Randall’s death came suddenly and unexpectedly, even though we’d known for years that his battle with Lou Gehrig ’s disease, if not healed miraculously by God, would end with his death.
We watched this terminal illness slowly attack Randall’s body. He once told me he used to lift weights, run, and prided himself on keeping his body in great shape. He had energy, stamina, and felt invincible. Now wheelchair bound, he couldn’t perform the simplest of household duties. He and Jackie purchased a special recliner that made it easier for him to be lifted up so he could stand, and his mobility was aided by a new electric wheelchair.
On several occasions our Bible study group spent Saturday mornings at their house, trimming bushes, adding mulch to flowerbeds, and doing general cleaning tasks. It was our joy to serve this wonderful family.
When—not if—your congregation or small group finds itself with an opportunity to serve and minister to a person with a terminal illness (and their family), there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Your presence is a ministry.
Coach your church that it’s OK if they don’t feel like they have words of wisdom, peace, or comfort to deliver to the terminally ill individual.
The story of Job reminds us how important and comforting our presence can be. Scripture says,
Now when Job’s three friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—heard about all this adversity that had happened to him, each of them came from his home. They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights,but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense.” (Job 2:11-13, CSB).
2. Don’t tell the person, “I understand.”
Every person’s experience is different, and even if you’ve had a disease and are in remission, you won’t be able to say “I understand” with absolute integrity.
3. Press into the person’s life; don’t pull away.
Sometimes if we’re uncomfortable with a person’s illness, we’ll tend to pull away and not minister to them. There is no reason to do that. This is the time in life they need you the most.
4. Do say, “I want to understand what you’re going through.”
This opens the door to a conversation that could reveal what the person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It puts you in the position of listener, not a guru who has all the answers.
5. Don’t forget to support the spouse.
It’s easy to focus on the person who is sick, but don’t forget about the spouse. That person will need just as much love and support as the terminally ill one.
6. Do say, “I care about you and I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
Empathize with your friend and avoid saying “helpful” phrases like, “It’s going to be alright.”
7. Allow your congregation or small group moments to pray and process what they’re experiencing emotionally.
In times when the terminally ill person is not around, take some time and help people talk about their own sadness, anger, fear, or frustration with the condition of your terminally ill member. Remember that times like this brings their mortality closer than ever.
Jackie asked me to preach Randall’s funeral service, which I was glad to do. It was a special privilege to speak about this godly man whom God had called into ministry years ago. It was easy to speak about my friend’s love for God, his heart for evangelism, his faithfulness as a church staff leader, his support as a church member and group member, and his love for his wife and daughter.
Randall was the real deal. Salt of the earth. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He was just that kind of guy. Today, Jackie and Jayce have moved forward and a level of healing has taken place.
KEN BRADDY (@kenbraddy) manages the ongoing adult Bible study department at LifeWay and disciples a group of adults at his church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Breathing Life Into Sunday School. He blogs regularly about Sunday school and groups at kenbraddy.com.