James has been a loyal founding member of his large church family for many decades. For much of that time in the early years, he was the one to check up on missing members who had not been seen for a while. He would try to phone them and send a card if he could not get hold of them.
Now James has fallen ill and unexpectedly he hasn’t bounced back to his usual self. It was in the holiday period over the year-end and he noticed no-one was checking up on him while the church pastor was away. It’s now been a month and still no phone call.
Those once center stage in the past by founding the local church can fade into the distance as new families come and take on the main roles. Church life can easily focus on celebrating milestones of weddings, births, dedications, baptisms, and graduations. These are the happy times that we prefer to dwell upon. But what about the sad times of illness, the ongoing decline in health, and incapacitation?
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Church congregations change over time as life events move people along a continuum in the life cycle. Prayer is a powerful process in focusing us on the needs of those around us. Inevitably we know that this finite life on earth will bring us all undone. Yet the presence of God in our lives brings a newness to our struggles shared as a Christian community.
Collectively we can make a difference as a community of faith in the lives of those around us. It’s the lived experience that matters, the ups and downs of life, the journey through pain and anguish that builds community. Remembrance of members laid to rest after their death at a funeral acts as a turning point in the life history of a local church.
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However, well before this final farewell (for now) a congregation often loses members from their weekly services when someone’s illness becomes more long-lasting incapacitating them longer term. Initial efforts to continue to support them through prayer, home visitation, and return visits to church services rightly focus on restoring the individual to the pattern of church attendance they once followed.
No Longer About
As the months go by and new events unfold in the congregation the now shut-in member can fade into the background. Dear friends will keep in constant contact but if these support people fall ill themselves or move away the connections become remote and lost. How can a church keep a strong vital connection to its shut-in members?
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It often falls onto the shoulders of a church pastor or the elders to maintain home visitations. When a pastor is stretched between two or more congregations and has a busy home life the schedule is easily filled with other activities.
As a shut-in’s circumstances continue to change they often have periods in hospital. Caring spouses and relatives may need times of respite. Deteriorating circumstances can bring a change with residential care becoming the next course of support. This may involve moving further away or beyond the regular travel pattern of supportive church members.
Inclusion Not Exclusion
The important factor to keep in mind is that changed circumstances need not mean a change in relationships. Yes, past patterns of involvement will need to alter. Finding ways to still include a shut-in involved in church life need to be thought through creatively so as not to unintendedly exclude. Simple regular contact can be made via telephone and a card sent including a copy of your church bulletin. Shut-ins like to still feel connected. This gives them a sense of community connectedness and fond memories relived.
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On a very practical note, shut-ins often require some special assistance with new mobility. A church funded or subsidized wheelchair or mobility scooter may bring greater accessibility for an otherwise bed bound shut-in. This also gives a congregation an active way to express their love and ongoing concern for their much-loved member.
A Spiritual Vacuum
Providing stimulating reading material such as lesson and bible studies keeps a shut-in spiritually aware. Books, talking books and magazines help the time pass with a regular input of spiritual ideas. Yet when by themselves a spiritual vacuum can form from a lack of interaction with like-minded people. The shepherd psalmist knew where to turn in seeking solace. David tells us
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:1-4 NIV).
Technological developments can help bridge this gap by providing meaningful and significant boosts when health crisis times hit. Whether it be the live streaming of church events, a Facetime cell phone held during a church service or an email chat, technology now allows a range of connections once not possible.
One of the most empowering gifts for shut-ins is to be given a tablet device that utilizes a local Wi-Fi connection. Suddenly they are not alone and are connected to what is going on in the outside world. Assistance in learning how to use these devices reduces the anxiety felt by those unused to using modern technological devices.
The Personal Touch
Nothing beats the personal touch of a visit with a homemade meal to share. Time is a precious gift we can give shut-ins. A heartfelt hug, a gentle touch of the hand and a stroll in the garden means so much to someone devoid of regular companionship. When someone has lost a spouse or loved one those anniversary times are packed with immense emotion. Finding ways to remember the good times helps create special memory events for them.
Allowing full expression of grief, through tears and sadness permits the shut-in to remain an active person of faith. Times of doubt, distress, sadness, and lack of hope invade all our minds. This is the human condition we all experience. Personal interest, understanding, prayer, and empathy at these down times helps build resilience and hope for the future.
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Time in Nature
The sight and smell of a flower in bloom can lift the spirits of anyone suffering pain and distress. The warm radiance of the sun on the skin brings a connection to the natural world and the life-enhancing benefits of vitamin D. Taking time to sit beneath a tree and watch the birds fly by or the ducks paddle along a creek reminds us all of the wonders of creation. It brings us close to the creator God as we see the web of life interact before our eyes. A companion animal can bring joy and companionship to the frail and elderly. They are a source of comfort and a reason to serve in meeting a pets’ daily need.
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When family members live far away, a shut-in often relies on the emotional, spiritual and practical support of their extended church family. For some, this is a vital lifeline as chosen friends are often closer than blood relatives. A special bond can form filling a void in someone’s life adding great depth and meaning that would otherwise be missing.
Regular visits and thoughtful actions build a richness of commonality from a faith community perspective. We all find a connectedness through our faith cultural connections. Spending time on Sabbath together adds a richness to the weekly cycle.
Short trips away to visit a special place can mean so much to a shut-in. Celebrating a special event with a memorable visit to a long-lost friend or relative will be a delight to a shut-in. Shut-ins need not feel shut-out when we are active in finding ways to engage them in our lives and those of our church family.
Explore ways you can reach out and make a difference to a shut-in today. By doing this we open our hearts to experience the full range of life experiences. This is something that will enrich the lives of our children and youth in the church reaching out beyond the generations.