Pastoral Care In The Midst Of Health Crises: In Ministry, A Family Member, Or Yourself

Rose Swetman, Northwest Regional Leader shares stories of her journey of pastoring amidst health crises.

Rose Swetman

Co-Pastor, Vineyard Community Church, WA

Pastoral Care In The Midst Of Health Crises: In Ministry, A Family Member, Or Yourself

After 25 years of pastoral ministry, I have witnessed the pain a health crisis can bring, for those I serve and in my own life. What is the pastoral response to such devastating events, in our communities, in our families, in ourselves? How are we present in times of suffering? I don’t have all the answers but I can share what I have learned about handling the agony of the human experience in the midst of suffering.

A Health Crisis In My Congregation: Jacob’s Story

The night before leaving on retreat, I received a message from a woman in our church. “Hi rose, I’m in the hospital n might be here until the baby comes. I’d appreciate prayer. Baby is too small and might be very premature.;-(“ We exchanged several texts that evening. The baby was 27 weeks, weighed 1lb 12 oz. Five days later we learned that the baby was coming.

We rushed to the hospital and found Evelyn’s parents. They were visibly shaken. We waited in awkward silence praying for good news. The call came: Jacob was born in critical condition.

Over the next 3 months we received numerous messages requesting prayer for Jacob. It was day-to-day prayerful waiting for improvement through many complications. We mobilized the church to come alongside the family for whatever they needed – meals, baby clothes in preemie sizes, meeting with the family for prayer – until Jacob was home and they had stabilized.

A Health Crisis In My Family: Ben’s Story

We received a Facebook message, “Family, I don’t want to worry you but I found a lump in my thigh. Seeing a doctor tomorrow, please pray nothing serious.”

The message came during our home group. It was from our 35 year-old son living in Seoul with his family. We were in shock! Tears rolled down our faces.

The emotional turmoil of the cancer swirl, the endless waiting for test results and the not knowing if the death sentence the doctors delivered would be commuted thrust our entire family into a wilderness of unbearable pain. Now we were dependent on the love and care of our community.

Ben’s treatment was brutal. It was seven months from diagnosis to death. His daughter was born eight weeks before he died. I cannot describe to you the juxtaposed positions of watching Ben decline moving toward death at the same time waiting in expectation for his daughter to arrive.

Our church and wider community surrounded us with prayer, meals, and gifts to provide everything needed for a new baby. Our leadership team led the church during the time our son was ill and after his death. The support of so many allowed us to have the emotional space to process an inconceivable loss.

A Personal Health Crisis: My Story

In February 2016 I was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. I was told it could take weeks to improve. Eight weeks later I was admitted to the hospital facing a struggle for my very life. I had been misdiagnosed. I never had bronchitis; I was in Congestive Heart Failure. It was a miracle I was alive. The stresses of pastoring and unimaginable losses had caused a condition, “Broken Heart Syndrome.” No blockages, only severe heart muscle damage due to sudden or prolonged periods of stress. Rushed into surgery, I received an implant to help my heart beat. The eight nights I spent in the hospital were filled with family and friends, prayer, tears, and laughter.  I was completely in the hands of God.

I was disabled from continuing as a lead pastor. Our associate pastor immediately stepped into the role. Unspeakable loss and confusion set in for me. I spent a year surrounded by people who prayed, brought meals, and contributed financially to our sudden loss of income. My new posture was one of needing care rather than giving care.

Giving The Gift Of Presence

Health crises interrupt our best-laid plans, but showing up for people in pain is some of the most important work of our pastoral calling. This is also an opportunity for the congregation to practice caring for each other as you work together to provide for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of your community members. Prayer is central to all of this. Prayer grounds us: pastors and communities and people in crisis. Prayer says to the sufferer, I care for you. You are not suffering alone. Prayer is hope. It is during these times you are truly with family of the person in crisis.  Your presence, prayer and calmness together form a gift of grace from the One who is the giver and sustainer of life.

Receiving The Gift Of Presence

The importance of community care and the centrality of prayer are just as relevant when the individual in crisis is the pastor or the pastor’s family. It can be challenging, grueling even, to assume the posture of receiving care instead of giving care, and to step back and let new leaders step forward, even temporarily. Yet that is exactly what is necessary for us – ourselves and our communities – to weather the crisis and become something altogether new.

Pain is an invitation for each of us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil. Whether the crisis results in a death, a rearranging of life, or a miraculous healing, I have learned that life is full of joy and sorrow and we must learn to live in tension. “Joy and sorrow are sisters; and they live in the same house.