Leader to Leader, Ministry

Ministering to the Chronically Ill: The Do’s and Don’ts

October 12, 2017 | Posted by Art Scherer

“Well, you certainly don’t look sick.”

That’s a common response received by people with chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes, lupus, certain forms of cancer, MS, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, and many others.) when they speak to someone about their illness.

Because the majority of people with chronic diseases do not usually look sick, chronic illness is often an invisible issue for our congregations. Add to that our societal desire for quick fixes to problems, and we often do not know how to deal with someone who is suffering from a long-term disease that is not likely to go away.

Here are just a few dos and don’ts to consider in dealing with people with chronic diseases:


Keep people with chronic illness in your prayers.

You don’t need to list the names of all the people, but our typical prayers are for speedy healing of injury or acute disease. Seldom do we have a simple petition for grace, strength, and hope in Christ for those who suffer from diseases that control their lives and seem to have no cure.

Make your building more accessible.

Be sure to provide and mark an accessible entrance. Many churches provide ready access, although the disability entrance is often through the kitchen or some other distant point. Other, older, churches seem totally inaccessible, with steps at every entrance and no marked handicapped access. When planning to remodel, have bathrooms that can accommodate a wheelchair. Use a person with chronic back issues help pick out the pew design.

Add live streaming services to your web site.

There are days when a person with chronic illness just can’t get ready for church. Live streaming lets the person feel part of the community better than a sermon tape. Broad shots of the congregation passing the peace and coming up to communion help. Those at home like to see their friends there. It makes them feel they are watching their community in Christ, not just some religious broadcast.

Accept the fact that the illness may not go away.

We tend to think everything can be cured. There are certain “thorns in the flesh” that do not go away. If the person has accepted this, don’t chide him for “giving up” or not having enough faith. His faith trusts that God’s grace is sufficient, and that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8)


Don’t say thoughtless things.

Do not say things like, “I understand.” The truth is you probably don’t understand. Healthy people understand tiredness. They probably don’t understand life-controlling fatigue. Healthy people understand the pain that comes from an injury or an operation. They may not understand the nerve-based pain that comes from nowhere and wakens one in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

Don’t say “It could be worse.” It will probably get worse. “You need to have more faith that God will heal you.” That loads a person up with guilt and turns faith into a work. It also ignores the tested wisdom and character of people who have identified with Christ’s way of the cross, who, like St. Paul, have found that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” (Rom. 5:3-4) and that hope does not disappoint us because it is based upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Don’t make a person into a project.

People with chronic illness may need help with various aspects of life. Offer that help, but do it in a way that maintains the person’s dignity and control of what they can control. Don’t organize a project to “take over” the person’s problems.

Don’t make people feel guilty about things they cannot do.

People with chronic illness mourn the loss of ability to do what they used to do. They are frustrated by the inability to plan or commit to events because of the uncertainty of how they feel from week to week. As a result, they cannot commit to a position in the church or check off a list of jobs that are needed, but they do have talents that can be used according to their time schedule. Make every effort to involve them in the life of the congregation according to the use of their gifts.

Art Scherer
Art Scherer is President Emeritus of the Southeastern District, LCMS, and a consultant in stewardship and capital funding for LCEF. Dr. Scherer is developer of LCEF’s popular Consecrated Stewards series and author of the Living as Children of a Generous God Bible studies.