Sixth: Chronic Suffering, the Leader’s Perspective


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Make the decision to do
what Jesus Christ has asked you to do.
~M. Russell Ballard~

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  1. What kind of ministry(ies) does your church have for those who have chronic needs?
    We’re a new church plant of about 55 people where internal needs are voiced and people rally to serve. We regularly support a local ministry called Vision House that provides housing and programs to homeless women and children, and our church sponsors Creating Friends, a program that provides fellowship and learning to children and young adults with special needs. 
  1. What kind of specific things would you find it personally helpful for individuals in your church body to step up for, rather than waiting for an official ministry?
    People already do this (serve one another’s physical needs for meals, prayer, companionship, or other assistance) consistently. I’ve been blessed to see it over and over. At this point my exhortation is like Paul’s: keep it up. 
  1. What do you do, as church leaders and shepherds of a particular flock, specifically to minister to a person/family suffering chronically?
    Ask how people are doing, pray, visit, and do regular counseling, in addition to keeping focused on prayer and teaching. I do ask others to check in on people when I know I’m out of the loop.
  1. As leaders of a church body, how do/did you perceive the difference between needs & desires in a family who is chronically needy? And what process do/did you go through in order to maintain relationships with these people so that you can assess their needs, and use godly wisdom in discerning how to offer aid? How do you seek to fully bless those who need help of multiple sorts without depleting the congregation on a chronic basis?
    This is very organic at this point. No official process. I think the best foundational thing is to preach the gospel in such a way that shapes people to love one another, and ask the Lord to raise up leaders/deacons to assist as they did in Acts 7. Relationships are maintained because everyone comes to worship the Lord together.
  1. Are there lessons for us (or not) in serving the needy by expounding on the principles in 1 Timothy 5 about widows? Are there other more pertinent Scriptures to give wisdom here? How should people in need balance seeking aid from family members versus seeking aid from the church?
    Family members are a natural first source of help, but believers should also seek the body of Christ. Everyone in the body of Christ should be fundamentally a giver and provider, as Jesus’ example with the widow’s mite. She is portrayed as massively generous, not chronically needy.
    Widows funds can be good if a congregation has that demographic.

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A church full of servants
will have unity & growth.
~Pastor Rick Warren~

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  1. What kind of ministry(ies) does your church have for those who have chronic needs?
    Our church has a mercy ministry team, led by our deacons, that are in touch with both acute and chronic needs in our body and, to some extent, outside our body in broader community. These men, at times helped by ladies in our church, stay in touch with those with chronic needs, to learn the status of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. These are discussed at deacon’s meetings and plans for intervention made. To a lesser extent, this may also be addressed through our small group ministry. As folks learn of/identify needs among others in their small group (consequences of illness, loss of spouse, etc), these folks, usually without prompting, reach out to the needy person/family. The key here is small group intimacy/sharing that should be fostered.
  2. What kind of specific things would you find it personally helpful for individuals in your church body to step up for, rather than waiting for an official ministry?
    Key here is being able to discern needs before they become large problems. For example, in two families in our church (both with a large number of children), they often teeter on the edge of financial problems. In one family the mother just had a major hospital stay/procedure and their primary vehicle just died. In the second family, two of their four vehicles were totaled in separate car accidents involving their teenagers (although neither accident was the fault of their teens) in the last two weeks. Recognizing these events among the body and their potential for financial disaster and acting quickly to help is important. Thankfully both of these families are among those being regularly cared for by our mercy ministry team.
  3. What do you do, as church leaders and shepherds of a particular flock, specifically to minister to a person/family suffering chronically?
    No one answer; needs vary widely and so many things are relevant. As elders we minister to people in whom public sharing of the situation is appropriate and needed, as well as other situations where the details cannot be shared publicly for a variety of reasons. This requires particular discernment on the part of church leaders. Important in this as leaders is being able to love and care for people personally – to take the time to sit with them, to hear their concerns, and to pray with them before Him who is able to truly change hearts, lives, perspectives. Sometimes this involves the hardship of understanding the spiritual realities of discipleship and also hard choices regarding how we live our lives.
    t times, it is hard to discern, communicate, and accept the realities of what we are all called to as disciples of Christ – specifically that suffering should be expected rather than living on “easy street.”  I am reminded often of Paul, who in 2 Cor 12:7, described his chronic thorn in the flesh that God chose not to take away despite his prayer, so that he might learn dependency on Christ. And in the chapter before (2 Cor 11:25, 26) he describes the suffering he endured in ministry. Countless places in the Psalms, we see David’s laments and fears, often followed by his realization that his hope is in the Lord, not in the circumstances around him. No one wants to suffer (me included) but we all need to understand that this is the life we are called to as disciples, including those with chronic needs.
    Also related is sometimes helping people understand that their suffering is not necessarily a specific “punishment” for some bad choice. Nor that grace only comes as a result of our doing something “right” or “good” for the Lord. Grace is not grace if it must be earned. Others struggle so hard to understand/discern God’s “plan for their life.” We, in our church, have been learning again and again that it’s not so much that God has a plan for His people, but rather that God has a people for His plan. It’s so much more about our relationship with our loving Father and the thanks/worship He merits.
    Our job as leaders is to help those in need (and frankly all of us) understand all of this. To be reminded that, in spite of the circumstances, we are still incredibly loved and cared for and that Christ experienced infinitely greater suffering (undeservedly) on our behalf. Further, our ultimate deliverance is fully paid for in Christ and that our citizenship is not here but rather with Christ in glory. In addition, this sometimes involves, as leaders, communicating advice that may be hard to receive – encouraging people to live within their means, to be satisfied with what God has provided, discern carefully who you should marry, and, where appropriate, to not expect handouts but to work hard (Genesis mandate; Ruth 2:3 – gleaning) for their daily bread. These are the harder and deeper issues that can only be communicated in the context of a loving relationship (speak the truth in love) with a person or family, and that are often very hard for them/us to receive. Sometimes this even results in people leaving the local body if they have trouble accepting the truth. Leaders should not be deterred from sharing the truth in love for fear of losing congregants.
  1. As leaders of a church body, how do/did you perceive the difference between needs & desires in a family who is chronically needy? And what process do/did you go through in order to maintain relationships with these people so that you can assess their needs, and use godly wisdom in discerning how to offer aid? How do you seek to fully bless those who need help of multiple sorts without depleting the congregation on a chronic basis?
    Being able to communicate with needy persons/families must be done in the context of loving relationships. This relationship comes by spending time with people as described above, which is the job of a shepherd. For those with multiple needs and being sensitive to not depleting the church, I think it appropriate to talk openly about all of the things above: spiritual perspective/understanding, choices and consequences, living within means, pursuing work, assessing resources and relationships from the individuals broader family and the extent to which they are committed to helping. At times, women in the church may be more able to discern needs and stay in touch with needy women, widows, etc. and then to communicate specific needs to the deacons or others in the church. We have several widows in our church and, while our deacons and other men are sometimes in touch with them, often there are one or two women in the church (known to the deacons) who specifically reach out and have the level of intimacy with the woman/widow that they can discern need and get permission to share specific needs with deacons/others. This is a very helpful and important ministry for several ladies in our body.
    I think there is biblical precedent for people to seek aid from family members for real needs (not wants). In addition, as shared above, there are many examples in Scriptures about caring for the poor and widows. From the church’s perspective I have always been struck with the description of the early church in Acts where they “had things in common” and “shared as each had needs.” The passage illustrates that this occurred in the context of close and intimate relationships within the body, living “life on life” together; viewing what God has provided to you with an “open hand.”  The church really needs to invest time and resources into building small group ministries where these type of relationships can be cultivated/fostered.  And this approach to material possessions, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, to understanding needs vs. wants, etc. needs to be taught from the Scriptures in sermons, Sunday School, small groups, recommended bible study materials, etc.

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I have thought about this much over the years, and one particular passage seems often to bridge the gap between “wants” and “needs”.

Matthew 6:31-34
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

 When many Christians consider verse 33 [But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you], they seem often to lament that though they have been singularly seeking the kingdom of God, not all the things they have expected have come their way. “I’ve been wholly dedicated to God, and yet I haven’t the money to send all my kids to college, and my husband has to work two jobs so that we can keep up… The kids so desperately need braces, and we haven’t had a family vacation in three years. Why would God keep from us ‘all these things’ that He promises when we are so faithful in petitioning Him?”
But, what is promised in this passage? Food, drink, clothing. Although there are, to be sure, many of our brothers and sisters around the world who truly are lacking much, those in our American churches certainly are not. Even the poorest parishioners in American churches are amongst the richest few percent of the world’s population.
Jesus nowhere promises health, wealth, and an upper middle class standard of living for everyone who goes to church. “The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing.” [Psalm 34:10] If God is true—and He is—then those that seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing. And, if godly Christians believe that their lives do lack certain good things that they believe the LORD has withheld from them, “let God be true but every man a liar.” [Romans 3:4] Either they are not seeking the Lord, or what they are presuming to be good things are not good things for them, from God’s perspective.
Is not a particular definition of envy, my desiring of things which others have and which God has denied to me? Is it not quite often the direct, predictable, and inexorable results of choices I make which have given me the lot which I now lament? Is it not also an ungodly envy which would covet those tangible blessings others might have who took a different path early on? While not downplaying the blessings of large families, children are predictably very expensive to raise in the fashion which our modern yearnings have accustomed us.
I do believe it is a blessing for brethren to help brethren where help is needed. However, egalitarianism within The Church is as great a cancer as it is the world. And, the expectation that all things being equal all things ought to be equal, all too often transgresses the tenth commandment.
This is a very challenging topic.

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Moving forward implies motion
when in all actuality it may be
simply standing still & seeing the salvation of the Lord.
~John Paul Warren~

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From a financial aspect, we have a second offering once a month for our Mercy Ministry efforts. This is what we use to help those in need (acute and chronic needs), both in the church and in the community. We’ve had a few repeat but not really chronic community needs. Not all needs are money related, but this is the pool of funds we use to meet those needs. For those in the church with chronic needs, we tend to limit the number of Deacons interacting with the individual. This is really only for communication about the needs being met. That way folks don’t have to repeat needs/stories and the couple of Deacons involved can build relationships better. This isn’t to keep others, including non-Deacons, from getting involved. We encourage that when appropriate, and it often is. It’s not like you have to be an ordained officer to serve someone. We have just found that familiar faces ease pride and embarrassment.

We try to encourage the generosity of the congregation. I know there are people helping people all the time that we as Deacons never even hear about. A lot of this comes from small groups helping each other. A lot also comes from the ladies in the church helping each other (i.e. childcare when sick or moving, rides, etc). Most of the larger financial needs go through the Deacons. I do know of some folks that have sponsored other men/women for retreats/conferences. This is frequently done without Deacon involvement, although our Mercy Ministry fund is occasionally used for this as well. We give a monthly update on the Mercy Ministry offering to the congregation to show how the funds are being used. We keep personal details private but give generalities. We often take that time to encourage service and mercy also. It also informs visitors and others that don’t know about what we do. It has just seemed odd to folks when we pass the plate a second time if you don’t consistently remind and inform what its purpose is.

Sermons are online, and CDs of sermons can be made and delivered. Our elders will visit the sick at home. We have a public prayer list emailed and printed weekly in the bulletin. All public information is only given out with permission. We offer rides to church for those that need it. Elders counsel when needed or requested. Counseling is frequently done by the teaching elders (i.e. paid pastoral staff). This isn’t driven by the elders but many just feel that they have to go to a pastor for counseling, but all the elders too are shepherds and are qualified for this.

Needs versus desires are tricky. This is where building relationships helps. It is where needs can be discovered even if not expressed/requested. It’s also a place were special gifts from individuals can help. Approaching a few individuals for help getting a kid a bike is an example. Sure, a bike is a desire and not a need. But the joy of a bike for a kid and to the single mother that could not provide or felt awkward asking for aid for a non-essential item is great to see. We recently had a person in the church with construction skills. He donated skill and the church paid for a bathroom renovation for a wheelchair bound member. We would not have known about this need without the close friends hearing about the strain it was to bathe and toilet this individual. If funds are available for desires, then we try to accommodate. We just recently helped a family travel to see the wife’s brother. Others in the family were gathering and she could not afford to go. She hadn’t seen her brother in several years and her family did not have the means to help her. We were thankful that we had enough to do this. When multiple needs arise, especially a large or recurring need, we try to prioritize somewhat roughly as follows: members, regular attenders, outside community.

We refer back to Micah 6:8 frequently.
There is a good book as well that the Deacons studied together along with our senior pastor: Generous Justice by Timothy Keller. One of my favorite quotes is the following: “If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?” The book also mentions Deuteronomy 24:14-19. “If we read this text closely, we see that part of the landowner’s harvest was “for” the immigrant and poor. That means that in God’s eyes, it was actually theirs. If the owner did not limit his profits and provide the poor with an opportunity to work for their own benefit in the fields, he did not simply deprive the poor of charity but of justice, of their right. Why? A lack of generosity refuses to acknowledge that your assets are not really yours, but God’s.

Here is a Jonathan Edwards sermon as well that we discussed at one point. It was a little tough to get through at times for me. And there was another book (Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn) that I enjoyed, although not as much as Keller’s.

It’s a hard battle with the idea that some people are not worth the effort or not deserving of help. It’s especially hard when the needs arise from repeated mistakes or mismanagement from the one in need. We must remember that there are no gradations in the image of God. All are our neighbors (even if not our brother/sister), and we are commanded to love our neighbors. From a spiritual standpoint, we were not made to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. If God provided for us when we didn’t deserve or earn it, we shouldn’t withhold mercy/justice.

As far as seeking aid from family vs the church, that’s a case by case basis. Many don’t have family that can help or are willing to help. Others are not in a relationship with their family that would allow or be beneficial for them to seek aid from their family.

A lot of this is generic and not specific to the chronic situations. The basics (at least as I understand) are love God and love others. No restrictions. No partiality. Mercy isn’t deserved and it isn’t earned. Relationships are important but they are also messy and complicated.

From Generous Justice, “Always try to err on the side of being generous, and always keep your policies flexible and open to cases that don’t fit your categories.”

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If we do not lay ourselves out for the service of mankind,
whom are we to serve?
~Abigail Adams~

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~part of our series, Serving Those in The Church with Chronic Needs~

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2 Replies to “Sixth: Chronic Suffering, the Leader’s Perspective”

  1. I especially enjoyed this post from different leader’s perspectives. It’s encouraging to see how the churches are striving to meet the needs! I found it very humbling too.

  2. Yes, isn’t it good to know that church leaders take serving the people in their congregations seriously? And not flippantly or lightly or haphazardly. And oh, it reminds me how much we need to pray for wisdom and grace for our church leaders, not only in our own church bodies but really just throughout the world. The body of Christ is so, so big!

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