Who are the women who are attending your church retreats?
By Lisa Copen
Did you know that nearly 1 in 2 people in the USA have a chronic illness and practically 96% of the illnesses are invisible? Most of these women suffer silently; many live with depression, isolation, and feel very alone.
But you will also discover many women who live with illness possess great wisdom beyond their years; they will make a difference in the lives of others who are attending your retreat, perhaps even beyond the retreat speaker. But are they even attending the retreat?
Out of the twenty respondents, seventeen attend retreats less since their diagnosis.
Rest Ministries is the largest Christian organization that serves the chronically ill, and they recently surveyed 20 people about the specifics of attending a retreat while living with illness. Out of the twenty respondents, seventeen attend retreats less since their diagnosis. When asked why, they shared the following:
3 explained, “Accessibility issues. It’s difficult to get to and from buildings at the retreat”
6 people responded, “The pain factor. It’s just too draining”
4 shared, “The unpredictable health issues”; and 10 said, “A combination of the above”
So, how could you encourage women with chronic illness to get involved in your church retreat?
1. When weighing different retreat locations, consider the limitations of people with chronic illness when asking the retreat centers questions.
Promote that you have this information before people register. How steep are the hills? Are ride-in carts available? How far are the rooms from the main meeting center? Is electricity in the rooms? Are there only bunk beds? Can someone have a private room? Are there chairs besides the metal folding chairs? Elevators? One woman shares, “I stopped going a year or so ago because the retreat planner does not tell you what is expected, or about walking, stairs, etc. They need to be more honest.” Those who attend retreats look for locations that are held at retreat center without a lot of walking, and preferably flat ground. Hotels or a large home are nice too. While you may think fifty yards is a “short distance,” fifty steps may be one’s limit. Provide actual distances on your flyer, not just “rooms are a short walking distance.”
2. Understand that women desire to go on retreats and socialize with others, but they must feel that the retreat planner understands that they will be on their own schedule.
Margaret, who lives with a malignant brain tumor and uterine cancer says, “I don’t attend because people don’t want to understand or accept that sometimes I have to retreat from the ‘retreat.’ Sometimes I have to go back to my room and get some rest. Other people decide that I’m escaping from my problems, and demand that I participate in whatever event was planned. I’m not trying to be anti-social. I will participate when God enables me to do so; but at the same time, when God tells me to rest, I must rest despite what the [retreat] ‘timetable’ states.”
As a retreat planner you can help this by posting the retreat’s schedule at least a week before the event on the church’s web site.
3. While you are deciding events such as ice-breakers or fun games, make sure there is something that those with physical limitations can participate in if they choose.
You may ask those with chronic illness what their preference would be. Many are happy just to cheer on their team, rather than participate in the actual race where everyone dresses up in costumes.
Debbie, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome shares, “Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any retreat planners who understand that I am unable to participate, not because I’m uncooperative, shy, or antisocial, but rather because I cannot physically do so; the result is that I do not attend church retreats any longer.”
All women have necessities they pack to make their weekend more comfortable. For the chronically ill these typically include: their own bedding, chair cushions, pillows, snacks, pain patches, eye shades to sleep, or a flashlight and book to read in case she is awake all night. They may bring bottled water, the biggest collection of medication you’ve ever seen (don’t comment), and perhaps even a service dog (which she should ask you about before the event.)
5. Despite your best intentions, remember that she knows her body better than you do, and she’s able to plan for her best experience.
She realizes that riding a bus to the retreat center may throw her back out the whole weekend, so if she can go in a car with a staff member that modification is very beneficial. If she wears ear plugs or listens to music, don’t take it personally. She may need to save her strength to socialize that evening. If she is diabetic, she may be eating small meals or snacks throughout the day. Don’t comment, “Oh, we’re going to be eating in thirty minutes, so why don’t you just wait.”
6. Acknowledge that she’s not a prima donna; take her requests seriously.
She may be insisting that she have the bottom bunk bed and then pull out her own mattress, but it’s not because she is the Princess and the Pea. She may have some needs that are medical requirements. For example, electricity in her room is necessary if she uses something like a CCAP machine for sleep apnea. (Out of 20 women surveyed, 2 used this). Her medications may also need to be refrigerated and an ice pack won’t do the job, so she may need access to the retreat center kitchen or a staff member.
Sheryl, who lives with chronic myofascial pain says, “Make sure there are always chairs available for those who can’t stand more than a couple of minutes.”
You may not see a cane or walker, but her feet, knees or balance may not be able to take more than a couple of minutes standing.
7. Realize that she may not want others to know about her illness.
Anjuli, who has congenital myopathy (a form of Muscular Dystrophy) says, “Don’t single me out!” and Marjorie agrees. “When an explanation is given in confidence, don’t respond so much that everyone knows that I have a problem.”
8. Make scholarships available.
Chronic illness is very expensive and most of these women are on an extremely limited budget. Rarely will they ask for financial help to attend a church retreat, however, because they assume someone must need it more than them. Quietly let them know scholarships are available.
9. Put someone in charge of overseeing the needs of the chronically ill.
Find your “healthiest” volunteer with a chronic illness, or a cancer survivor, in your women’s ministry who would be the staff member to communicate with attendees with chronic illness; one who would try to meet their needs and listen to their concerns.
Before you plan the retreat. . .
Those who responded to the survey by Rest Ministries still attend retreats and most often contact the retreat director beforehand to talk about health issues they may have. But dozens of other people sit in the benches at church and never consider attending a retreat because they assume it’s not a possibility due to their illness. Make a special effort to reach out to women who have a chronic illness by adding an extra line at the bottom of your promotional flyer that says, “Do you live with a chronic illness? We have some special accommodations! We hope you’ll make it this year!”
One of the most overlooked gifts in our church are those who live with chronic illness or pain. Despite their daily suffering, they have a great deal of wisdom and joy for the Lord. National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week is held every year in September and is sponsored by Rest Ministries. It’s a wonderful opportunity to look at your ministry’s priorities. Who is not being served who could use your encouragement? And who lives with an illness and is missing out on serving others because they are not connected to the church? Get them involved! One day, one of them may be your retreat speaker.
Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries and she lives in San Diego with her husband and son. She is gradually learning how to balance motherhood, family, illness, and ministry, but she still knows it will be a lifetime lesson. You can see the books she has written, including, Why Can’t I Make People Understand? at the Rest Ministries shop.