Two YDS students develop cancer care resources for congregations

By Sara Doughton ’14 M.Div.

When someone in the congregation faces serious illness James deBoer '11 M.Div and Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager '13 wondered how the church could offer care. "How are we a healing church, beyond the initial casserole phase?" asks Fitzpatrick-Nager, "What is our theology of healing, and what do we believe about church, community, and wholeness?"

Student photoFor deBoer and Fitzpatrick-Nager, these questions became the subject of an independent study they completed at YDS in 2011. Their project culminated with a healing liturgy that they oversaw in Marquand Chapel and the creation of a set of resources on congregational care and cancer for use in congregational settings.

These resources, now available on the United Church of Christ website, include a presentation guide, bibliography, liturgy materials, and recommendations for facilitating three sessions with congregants. Topics include the experience of cancer; the relationship between the church and healing; the stages of diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and recurrence; dealing with loss and celebration; and how a particular congregation can develop its specific healing ministries.

Healing is an intimate topic for Fitzpatrick-Nager and deBoer: Prior to applying for YDS, Fitzpatrick-Nager was diagnosed with breast cancer and describes her treatment and the cancer's recurrence as a "faith journey." Only after completing a memoir about her experiences – "writing was personally healing" – did she follow through on her desire to pursue divinity school and ministry as part of her journey. Likewise, deBoer, who is himself a cancer survivor, began to wonder how churches could better support members impacted by serious illness when he met congregants facing cancer diagnoses and treatment during a supervised ministry internship with Terryville Congregational Church. 

Besides membership in what Fitzpatrick-Nager terms the "Cancer Club," the two YDS students also shared membership in the United Church of Christ. With the help of their advisors— YDS Professor Janet Ruffing, OSM, and Annand Spiritual Director, Dr. Elaine Ramshaw—deBoer and Fitzpatrick-Nager set out to explore how religious communities offer care to members impacted by cancer.

They drew on the work of James L. Brooks, who describes the church as a community of care that provides an "unbroken circle" of support to those affected by illness. In contrast, deBoer describes the problem with a medical model that focuses on individual health and treatment. "[In medicine] the ‘extras' are family and community, but they aren't essential. But, research shows it's the community that heals you and the medicine that helps."

Dialogue with students, staff, clergy, and leadership from different faith traditions also contributed to their project. Fitzpatrick-Nager recalls, "We talked about their walks, what has worked for people and faith communities…We discovered the parish nurse ministry, which came out of a variety of faith traditions, and different kinds of assessment parishes can go through – what are they already doing?" They discussed healing rituals, liturgy, preaching practices, care teams, and other congregational responses to illness. 

From these conversations, they decided to focus on helping churches identify already existing ministries and learn from other practices – what Fitzpatrick-Nager calls "a ‘yes-and' approach" that lets congregations decide "how to shape a wider ministry of accompaniment and healing." Fitzpatrick-Nager emphasizes that their research, while focused on cancer, also applies to other instances of illness. "There are different stages of the cancer journey, which we saw as symbolic of what people with life threatening illness experience."

"There's a real thirst for people to talk about these questions," deBoer explains. "Cancer has been demystified, but there are not many forums to talk about cancer, spirituality, and healing." Besides that, congregants have little training in pastoral care, and are worried about how to reach out when a fellow member faces cancer. "People want to help, but don't know how," says deBoer. 

Communal worship and ritual can also play an important role in creating a healing community, continues deBoer. "Ritual integrates the personal and the communal experience, and the hospital and community experience." As illness impacts the whole person, ritual may reach people through "multiple intelligences," using art, music, and other sensory stimulation. "We even had food in our ritual!"

Just as liturgy should meet diverse needs, Fitzpatrick-Nager and deBoer note that congregational response should consider the specific needs of each individual who faces cancer, which may differ from those of another member with the same diagnosis. "We have to respect the person wherever they are and always take our cues from them--there's no right way to heal," says Fitzpatrick-Nager. Likewise, congregations must deal with the reality that cancer phases will process and end differently for different members. When asked how to care for people undergoing lengthy treatment, or facing death, deBoer suggests that "You talk to caregivers about spiritual and emotional healing, that God is present, and we accompany people." Fitzpatrick-Nager adds, "The phases and stages are different, but people are living until the very last second…[In Clinical Pastoral Education] I was taught again and again how we're called to care wherever the person needs us."

Moving forward, deBoer and Fitzpatrick-Nager would like to see their project grow to include an online forum for discussion of helpful practices, and to provide a supportive community. They will continue to develop and share the resources, beginning with a joint article for the United Church of Christ magazine. deBoer, who has just returned from missionary work in South America and will spend the next several months sharing his experiences with local churches, believes strongly in the connection between congregational care and healthcare justice. He cites a Kansas pastor who ran for public office, and organized local leaders around access to affordable care: "There's ways the church can be a part of how we take care of each other."

Fitzpatrick-Nager, who graduates this spring and is pursuing ordination, agrees. "The church can re-enliven itself for people as a healing space, not as a clinic, but spiritual and emotional healing – we can do a better job of this." 

Click here to view the resources on congregational care and cancer deBoer and Fitzpatrick-Nager created. 

Date Posted: Saturday, February 2, 2013 - 3:12pm