So Much Ministry, So Little Strength

We asked many questions when my husband was stricken with a chronic, debilitating disease. One was whether we could remain in ministry.

My husband, Rick, sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. When he finally looked up at me, his eyes were full of pain.

"We can't stay at this church any longer," I said. "The stress is too much for you."

"I know," he answered, his voice flat. "But what are my options? What church would want me in my condition? Who wants to hire half a pastor at full salary?"

I took his hand. "I believe any congregation would be lucky to have you as its pastor. You have so much to offer."

He sighed. "I wish I could believe that." It was January 1997, three years after Rick had come down with viral pneumonia. That illness had long since cleared up, but his normal energy had never returned. Instead, new symptoms appeared: muscle aches and weakness, dizziness, poor sleeping, memory loss, exhaustion and a lack of concentration.

Some mornings Rick took a shower and fell back into bed, unable to drag himself to the office. Other days he worked for a few hours, only to come home and collapse in his recliner. Whether Rick slept seven hours a day or 14, his fatigue rarely lifted. His weakened immune system left him open to all kinds of infection and prevented quick recovery. He became depressed and moody.

Four months and three doctors later, the verdict was in. Rick had Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS, a disease that causes immune-system dysfunction and neurological impairment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates four to 10 cases per 100,000 adult Americans; other researchers report much higher rates. Although the illness is not terminal, many patients never fully recover, and doctors have found few effective treatments.

In 1994, life became a roller-coaster ride. On good days, Rick felt almost normal. On his worst days, which came without warning and seemingly without cause, he was unable to work at all. After two years, our hopes were raised when, for no apparent reason, his condition improved dramatically.

On good days, Rick felt almost normal. On his worst days, which came without warning and seemingly without cause, he was unable to work at all.

But then he contracted another viral infection, and his CFS symptoms returned.

Because of the daily demands that the pastorate placed on Rick's time and energy, we learned to balance our personal needs with those of the church. Rick cut back on his church schedule, and we made sure to spend time together as a couple and individually with our three children.

Day-to-day responsibilities were often shoved aside to make way for more pressing needs, simply because Rick had less energy for committee meetings, office work and visitation. In times of crisis, Rick could summon enough strength to minister, but the effort he expended visiting hospital patients, meeting with grieving family members, writing eulogies and conducting funerals guaranteed he would spend a few days recuperating.

Rick's ministry dramatically changed since he became ill. In some ways, it is even better:

We have become more vulnerable with our church family and accept help more readily.

At first, Rick attempted to mask his exhaustion. On Sundays, he would preach as usual; if he talked about his health, it was only to mention some general tiredness or the effects of the pneumonia. But he grew frustrated when church members would tell him he looked healthy or say, "You're tired? I'm tired all the time, too."

Rick eventually realized that covering up his health problems was helping no one, so he began being more honest about his condition. Some people didn't understand, but most were sympathetic and expressed genuine concern. Rick never hesitated to ask for prayers for others, and he added himself to the church's prayer list. We were happy to know many people were praying for us.

Help also came in unexpected ways. Rick took great pride in the care of our large lawn, but mowing, trimming and landscaping became overwhelming. The church trustees stepped in, offering to hire someone to do it for him. Rick was reluctant at first, but he realized the physical exertion sapped his strength for ministry, and that relinquishing the responsibility was best for everyone.

He and I have established more of a partnership.

Our small town was more than 40 miles from the nearest major hospital. Driving long distances for visitation became almost impossible for Rick. After arriving at the hospital, he needed to nap in the car before visiting patients, and still he came home exhausted. A freelance writer and stay-at-home mom, I decided the best way I could contribute to Rick's ministry was to become his chauffeur. I packed up our youngest child, Laura, still in diapers at the time, and drove Rick to doctor appointments, to visit church members in hospitals and anywhere he needed to go. I took plenty of books and toys for Laura, and she and I spent hours in waiting rooms and in the car.

Whenever I began to resent the days I gave up, God reminded me of the significance of my service. He seemed to say, "This is the most important thing you can do for Rick now. He needs your help to minister."

We let God minister through our limitations.

For the first few years of his illness, Rick found it difficult to accept his physical restrictions and grew irritated at not being as "good" a pastor as before. Over time, however, he was able to let go of his anger when he realized that, while his ministry had changed form, God could still work through him. For example, he no longer sat at a hospital all day when a church member underwent surgery. Instead, he saw the patient the night before and again afterwards, and sometimes visited briefly with the family.

Rick was able to let go of his anger when he realized that, while his ministry had changed form, God could still work through him.

While Rick was forced to do less in some "outward" areas of ministry, he spent more time than ever in Bible study, and the additional quiet reflection produced deeper, more insightful preaching. Many in our congregation noticed the change in his sermons, and they told him how much they were being challenged.

In the four years since Rick became ill, we have seen God's hand at work even in the darkest days. In 1997, a few church members began to work against Rick's ministry, raising questions not only about Rick's ability to serve the church with his illness, but also about his dedication. The added stress aggravated his symptoms to the point that he considered leaving the pastorate. He could not believe another church would want him in his condition.

Rick spent more time than ever in Bible study, and the additional quiet reflection produced deeper, more insightful preaching.

Two trusted friends and I gave him the same advice: Look for a different church, but remain in ministry. We put our future in God's hands, and Rick spoke to our district superintendent about a transfer. Within a month, Rick received an appointment (pastors do not candidate in our denomination) to a warm and welcoming church.

At our introductory meeting with the new staff-parish committee, the district superintendent discussed Rick's illness. Still, the members were genuinely excited, and Rick and I were amazed at how closely his talents matched the church's needs.

Since moving to our new charge, Rick has met with church leaders to discuss ways to help the congregation better understand his condition and the resulting limitations.

Unexpectedly, Rick's illness has also strengthened our spiritual lives. For the last few years, Rick has immersed himself in Scripture and has clung tenaciously to his relationship with God. He has gained a new perspective on what it means to remain faithful in times of suffering and has a new empathy for the suffering of others.

As for me, I have turned more and more to prayer — not just asking God for help in difficult times, but also praising him for his goodness to us. Rick and I have much to be thankful for: our thriving marriage, God's ongoing provision, our new ministry and more.

We have lived through many days of disappointment and occasional times of despair, but God gives us strength daily. We are gradually becoming the people he wants us to be, and because of this, we are better able to serve others.

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Dec 1998/Jan 1999.
Article copyright © 1998, Sandy Sheppard.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

While Sandy Sheppard still supports Rick in his ministry, she also works as a homemaker and freelance writer. Their family lives in Vassar, Mich. For more information about CFS, contact the Centers for Disease Control at its 24-hour toll-free information phone line:
(888) 232-3228.