Jun 19, 2024

How to Support the Caregivers in Your Church

4 Min Read

Years ago, a group of young people migrated to our church, filled with enthusiasm and energy. Since we didn’t have any official “ministries,” they seemed uncertain about how to serve. Our pastor addressed this before the service: “If anyone is looking for a ministry, you don’t need a formal group or title. We have lots of opportunities. You can visit the elderly, the shut-ins, or those who suffer from physical or mental conditions.”

Within days, a young man came to visit my son, who was living with a serious mental health condition. Another young man joined later, and the three became friends. It was a balm to my soul. My son’s condition tends to stifle emotions and hinder social exchanges. Most people interpreted his reluctance to engage in conversations as a sign that he wanted to be left alone. That was far from the truth.

I remember my feelings of awkwardness before that time, when I sounded like an overly protective mother looking for friends for her twenty-year-old son. My pastor’s announcement resolved this problem.

Mine is just one of many stories of caregivers looking for support in their churches. Their needs are as varied as their circumstances, but they all long for lasting encouragement and true understanding.

Lasting Encouragement

Most churches are quick to respond to immediate needs. They are ready to provide material and emotional support to those who have received a troubling diagnosis, have lost a job or a home, or have had to bury a loved one. But caregiving is often a long-term calling, and the challenges continue long after the church’s initial burst of enthusiastic help.

Pastors can do much to keep the support flowing. Besides keeping caregivers and their loved ones in their private and public prayers, they can continue to encourage the congregation to be present with visits, letters, calls, and tangible acts of assistance.

My pastor often reminded us that love may call us to step out of our comfort zone. “You have to be inconvenienced,” he said. And his life supported his words. Where there was a need, he was there—never outwardly stressed—as if visiting those in need was the highlight of his day.

“A family in a long-term caregiving situation needs more than just people cheering them on at the beginning of the journey,” Amy told me after months of sharing her nine-year-old son’s struggle against leukemia. “Just like an ultra-marathon runner, we need stops for water and Gatorade along the way. We need people with cowbells at random spots along the road cheering us on and reminding us they are on our side. This is a long, exhausting journey. Don’t forget us.”

Caregiving is often a long-term calling, and the challenges continue long after the church’s initial burst of enthusiastic help.

Forgetting is easy because everyone is busy, and caregivers often prefer to keep their struggles to themselves for fear of bothering others or of offending their loved ones by divulging details of their daily care. It’s up to each individual in our churches to remember caregivers and their loved ones, approach them at church, and seek them out when they are absent.

True Understanding

Even when we manage to step out of our comfort zone to assist the caregivers in our churches, our busy attitudes often prevent us from understanding their needs. Trina, who spent years caring for her husband during his struggle with dementia and cancer, has sad memories of people limiting their prayers to the healing of cancer, while both she and her husband thought God had allowed it as a merciful end to his rapid mental decline. No one prayed for her and their children with her present.

“We needed endurance and had concerns about pain relief, end of life decisions, and other issues,” she said. “People need to listen to or read the prayer requests and pray for those things, particularly in the hearing of the patient and caregiver. We need to feel heard by those we look to for support. And their prayers must support reality, not the wishes of the one praying.”

Many parents of people with a serious mental condition have told me they mostly need acceptance, understanding, hope, and love—including love and true appreciation for the person needing care. “Caretakers become responsible not merely for their loved ones’ physical care, but also to help them see a continuing purpose in their lives,” Trina told me. “I needed to remind my husband that he was an image bearer who could still bless his family. It’s important to thank our loved ones for how they bless us and go before us. I am realizing more and more what my husband’s example of suffering means to me and those who witnessed it intimately.” The church can assist in this work of appreciation.

Love, understanding, and appreciation require a commitment of time that is rare in a pragmatic society that emphasizes quick solutions. If we visit a person in need, we often feel compelled to resolve their problems or at least provide useful suggestions. Yet, this might be the worst thing we can do for people who have been trying to navigate, through a careful exercise of wisdom and attention to professional advice, the complexity of their situation.

The best thing to do is to be present as faithful friends, ready to stick around, listen, and learn. Getting involved in the lives of caregivers and their loved ones may seem like a sacrifice, but it’s well worth it for everyone involved. If we are convinced that “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14), and each is necessary for the building up of the church, we will treat each other as such and—in the process—grow in maturity, love, and wisdom.