The Ministry of Lisa Copen

Lisa Copen, Founder of Rest Ministries which serves the chronically ill, shares about mothering, illness, ministry and more.

ARTICLE: 6 Things Churches Can Do To Really Help the Chronically Ill


6 Things Churches Can Do To Really Help the Chronically Ill
by Lisa Copen

1 in 3 people in the U.S. have a chronic condition. If it’s
not you, it’s someone sitting next to you or a friend who
has yet to reveal her greatest personal struggle.

Oftentimes a chronic illness, such as chronic fatigue
syndrome, or chronic pain like migraines or back pain, is
undetectable to those around them. It may surprise you to
know that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,
approximately 96% of the people who have an illness do not
use an assistive device, like a cane or a wheelchair. Pain
is nearly always invisible. Those that are ill usually do
everything that they can to get to church. They want to be
part of the church community and they appear to be healthy.
Still, just sitting through the service can be extremely

As someone who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, I remember
standing during worship and grasping onto the pew in front
of me to balance. My knees both need joint replacements and
my feet are somewhat deformed. And then the worship team
began singing a song that had the lyrics, “I will stand in
spite of pain.” I rolled my eyes and my husband said, “It’s
just an expression.” Of course, I knew this, but the timing
was ironic.

Even as I was surrounded by people in a church I loved, I
still felt as though no one understood what I was going
through-physically or emotionally.

It’s obvious that churches already have an overwhelming
amount of needs that must be fulfilled. Some of these needs
are obvious and they often rise to the top of the priority
list. So when people don’t even verbalize about their pain
level or illness symptoms that change their lifestyle, it’s
hard to understand where a church could begin to help.
Pastors ask, “If they aren’t speaking up, then doesn’t that
mean they are coping with it fine? They believe in God and
we have a healing service every six months. Isn’t that

Let’s look at some staggering statistics:

– We usually assume the chronically ill are the elderly, but
60% of people who live with illness or daily chronic pain
are between the ages of 18 and64. – 75% of marriages where
one of the spouses have a chronic illness end in divorce –
When you are chronically ill, depression is 15-20% higher
than it is for the average person – Many studies have found
that physical illness or uncontrollable physical pain are
major factors in up to 70% of suicides.*

Whether the need is obvious or not, we should be concerned
because our churches are filled with many people who are
living with chronic pain. And when chronic pain exists,
broken spirits are also there. People are hurting silently
and need help and encouragement. These are the
broken-hearted that Jesus says he will give comfort.

But the question is, if people aren’t talking about their
pain, how do you know how to reach out to them? How can you
understand their needs?

(1) First, do a survey in your church to find out what some
of the needs are that people may not be talking out loud
about. This is particularly important if you are in a large
church; this is because a recent Barna group study
discovered that larger churches were the least likely to
mention congregational care ministries as a priority (Church
Priorities for 2005 Vary Considerably). When people don’t
feel a personal connection to the church staff or others,
they are less likely to share their vulnerabilities. Too
frequently, they are given a list of healing scriptures and
sent on their way.

Ask, “If a van was provided, would you be able to get to
church more easily? Would you listen to church on the
internet if you were too ill to attend? Do you feel you can
call and ask for occasional personal assistance (especially
if the illness is chronic and not acute)? Do you know who to
call? Would you like the worship song lyrics in the bulletin
and not just on an overhead? Are the seats comfortable or
would you prefer a few rows be saved for you with cushions?”
Brainstorm with a group of people who have a chronic illness
and ask them for a wish list. Then sit down and prioritize.

(2) Organize a care group, similar to other small groups
your church has, for the chronically ill. For example, Rest
Ministries, the largest Christian organization for those who
live with chronic illness, has a small group program,
HopeKeepers. They have a great selection of resource
materials, Bible studies and support for group leaders. A
group like this can be a turning point for people who really
need the hands on support and understanding. Talking and
praying about one’s illness week after week in a regular
small group can feel like you are a burden to others. But
having a small group environment that is a “safe place”
where everyone “speaks the same language” and even laughs at
the same silly stories can be refreshing. The group doesn’t
need to be large. Even just having the chance to hand out
with one other person can be life-changing. Be a church that
recognizes the struggles of chronic illness and provide an
oasis for people.

(3) Have special guest speakers encourage your church body.
There are dozens of people who have physical disabilities
that go to churches and share their testimony about what God
has done in their life. Allowing them to be at the pulpit
and share what God has done in their lives, despite physical
challenges and set backs, sends a message to those that are
ill that you recognize their needs, you care, and most of
all, that you believe they are still worthy to be used by
God. People such as Dave Dravecky, Renee Bondi, Joni
Eareckson Tada, and many others, minister to the masses, not
just those with disabilities.

(4) Consider adding a parish nurse to your staff, especially
if your church body has a lot of seniors. According to the
Marquette University College of Nursing, the number of
parish nurses in United States is estimated to be about
6000. Many retired nurses are finding this area of ministry
appealing and parish nurse certification can be found at
most hospitals. The parish nurse position description can
include anything from going to homes to monitor diabetes or
high blood pressure of church members to organizing health
fairs, screenings, and walking groups. The role of the
parish nurse may cover the needs of your illness and
disability ministries, depending on the demographics of your
church. A parish nurse would also work closely with the
congregational care pastor.

(5) Be a clearinghouse of helpful resources for the ill that
are available for borrowing. Many people with chronic
illness are on a fixed-income and yet they are trying to
find encouragement. Stock your church library with books on
living with chronic illness such as “Why Can’t I Make People
Understand?” or “Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a
Chronically Ill Friend,” by Lisa Copen or the exceptional
book on suffering, “When God Weeps” by Joni Eareckson Tada.
Buy a few subscriptions to magazines such as “HopeKeepers”,
“Guideposts” and even “Arthritis Today.” Remember to have
books on tape, audio presentations and large-print materials
whenever they are available. Post flyers or have brochures
available about chronic illness or disability ministries,
such as Joni’s “Wheels for the World” program or Rest
Ministries’ annual outreach, “National Invisible Chronic
Illness Awareness Week.” A volunteer could collect materials
of local and national ministry resources for a binder; items
could include lists of local resources and national
ministries and put them in binder; lists of organizations,
magazines and newsletters on topics for Christian seniors,
those with disabilities, caregivers, and assisted living to
name a few.

(6) Lastly, and most importantly, remember people with
illness want to serve. Not just be served. This is because
“He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed”
(Proverbs 11:25). For example, when a woman tells you she is
resigning from working in the nursery, let her know that she
is welcome to serve in other ways when she is ready. She may
find she enjoys writing encouragement notes to people who
have an illness. A man may find he can mentor another man
with a chronic illness one-on-one rather than leading a
Bible study. Let them know that you value wounded healers
and believe that God comforts us “so that we can comfort
those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have
received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

About twice a month someone tells me that they went to their
pastor with a request to start a chronic illness HopeKeepers
ministry and they were told, “Come back when you are healed
and then we will talk. You can’t very well minister to
others with illness when you aren’t even healed yourself.”
The broken hearts that arise from these comments is
unbearable. It’s devastating to feel like God is using your
illness for His glory and then be told you are no longer
useful to the church-or even to God-until you are healed.

In the parable Jesus shares in Luke 14:21, a man asks his
friends to come to a great banquet he has prepared. But his
friends turn him down. Upset with their lack of graciousness
he orders, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of
the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and
the lame.” This is still a directive to us today. Too few of
our churches have recognized the needs of the chronically
ill in their own church, much less their community. We must
focus on providing a place where we offer unconditional
hospitality. We need to “go out” into our own pews and ask
the chronically ill to help us provide a place of refuge.
And then these people will become the comforters, who, with
the support of their church, will be able to go out into the
community and offer to walk alongside the hurting with

Be prepared for the hurdles. Read Lisa’s book, ‘So You Want to Start a Chronic Illness Pain Ministry: 10 Essentials to Make it Work” at The Comfort Zone Bookstore or

Get a free download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from “Beyond Casseroles” by Lisa Copen when you subscribe to HopeNotes ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the coordinator of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and host of Hope Endures Radio Podcast.


  Donna Emmons wrote @

Thank you for some wonderful practical ideas to reach out to those with Chronic Illness.

  Ada wrote @

Thanks for this awesome info. I think every church should have this info – and there should be at least one outreach person that makes this their ‘mission’ this year to develop a ministry within their church body for the ‘hurting’.

  Patricia wrote @

I have only been able to attend church
very little. A few times to a Bible Study,
a few times to a Reading Group. I have
be present barely enough but enough that
a handful of women know who I am and that
I’m not totally homebound. When I had to
quite completely I sent notes to several
including the church secretary and the prayer group. The only response I’ve
had is one lady will e-mail with me. It’s
been 7 months. I thought at least someone
would call and say they would try sometimes
to come to see me. I’ve expressed just
once a month/doesn’t have to be real regular
for fellowship, prayer, and companionship.
I would think the 6 or so that have met
me and kinda know me would have at least
called. I know everyone is busy and it is
too small a church without very many
others who need this – so I’ve been patient,
non-judgmental and keep praying. I have
thought of contact another church – but I
would be a total stranger. I just don’t know what to do but to just keep praying.

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