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Spring 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 1 · pp. 41–51 

Care Risks in the Anabaptist Community: Congregational Care Needs and Resources Study Findings

Dean Kliewer

The needs most frequently mentioned by members from five California churches are presented. Members at risk representing potential care gaps are identified. Three other reports about the study appear elsewhere in this issue of Direction: Kliewer provides an overview; Martens shares an Anabaptist theology of care; and Dueck discusses two care models and some survey findings.

Are there gaps in the blanket of care...?

Walter Cronkite narrates a penetrating analysis of US health care in a 1990 hour-long Public Broadcasting System documentary. Replayed for at least a third time on PBS, the documentary tells a sad story of unnecessary waste and unfairness. Something is drastically wrong if over 50 million US citizens have either no health coverage at all, or have access only to obviously inadequate health care. His final words, spoken in that inimitable voice, keep ringing in my ears:

“The US health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” {42}

Unlike the PBS study, the Congregational Care Needs and Resources Study (CCNRS) produced abundant evidence that among most participating church members, the caring community indeed is alive and healthy. Every day members give and receive care in truly remarkable ways. Many examples can be cited to demonstrate that care in the congregation is downright commonplace. But it is also apparent that some of us at certain times do have real needs which are at risk of going unmet in the context of the congregation.

CONGREGATIONAL CARE SYSTEM

The first group of Christian believers in Jerusalem immediately formed an intentional caring community. A pervasive spirit of radical communal sharing is described in Acts 2. Food, material possessions, and even real-estate were sacrificed freely and distributed according to need. While the evidence is scarce that such communal sharing survived for very long, care for members is a universal objective among Christian congregations.

Particularly in Anabaptist congregations there has always been a priority on creating a community of care for its members. The Mennonite Mutual Aid program is a highly visible interdenominational expression of this concept. In view of our history, it is appropriate to explore the status of caring as practiced in our day. Hence, the CCNRS was projected.

GAPS IN OUR BLANKET OF CARE

One way to evaluate the level of care a community provides is to discover where appropriate care seems to be missing. Are there gaps in the blanket of care which the congregation seeks to provide? Do some members among us receive less than a desirable level of care? The research points to an affirmative answer. Members who are not receiving appropriate care for their needs may be called members at greater than average risk. Much of the information about them came to us through the interviews we conducted, and in our informal dialogue.

What follows is an annotated list of high-risk members. A summary appears in Table 1. The list may help us focus our prayer concern and decision-making as we continue to seek to {43} be the people of God. We are motivated by a recognition that we are dependent on guidance from the Holy Spirit as we seek to be increasingly more responsible with our caregiving.

TABLE 1
Member Categories at Greater Than Average Risk*

  1. When we are single rather than married
  2. When we are young people
  3. When we are elderly
  4. When we are non-ethnic connected
  5. When we are female, rather than male
  6. When we come from a minority racial group
  7. When we have any chronic or continuing serious difficulty
  8. When we have marital or other serious family problems
  9. When we have concerns about sexual behavior or sexual feeling
  10. When we are in serious interpersonal conflict
  11. When we have a mental or emotional difficulty
  12. When we have a substance abuse difficulty
  13. When we are in serious economic trouble, legal difficulty, or have a social or educational status disadvantage
  14. When we have a developmental disability
  15. When we are perceived to be self-sufficient—spiritually, educationally, economically, or in other ways

* If a family member is at risk, other family members also are at risk.

Groups at Risk

1. Singles at Greater than Average Risk. Like the Greek widows of Acts 6, unmarried adults, those widowed or those unmarried for other reasons, may not be served as well as those who are married. Much of church life tends to be oriented toward families or couples.

Singles can feel isolated partially because they are a minority. They represent only 12% of the typical congregation, according to data from our study. Singles are one of the most underserved subgroups among those congregations responding. Often it is not possible for churches to commit resources to serve singles. The following vignette exemplifies {44} this concern, particularly in small churches.

As we spoke with one member just over age 20, the girl declared her reluctant decision to leave the congregation; this, despite having many dear friends there. She had been effectively adopted by one family, but because few others her age were part of the congregation, she felt she had to move to another fellowship.

Single members can be confronted by pejorative or prejudicial attitudes from other parishioners. Some still see singleness as evidence of a basic lack of personal success in life. For example, what does a never-ending succession of uninvited matchmaking attempts say to the single person? The message may be quite the opposite of caring. We may be declaring our continuing discomfort with their single status, even with their presence among us. Some singles may hear us, may get our unintended message, and leave.

The leaving for some may not be physical. They may still stay around. But they may have left us in terms of investment and commitment. Even after some of these singles marry, raise families—become OK in that they no longer are single—the habitual sense of disenfranchisement can have lingering effects. A person undervalued during a significant period of life is at risk to form habits which reflect that malaise.

2. Young People Can Be at Risk. The dialogue with church leaders and parishioners reinforced the fact that meeting youth needs is a persistent continuing challenge. Worship services tend to be oriented toward older adults. Consequently it can become difficult, if not impossible to have youth needs adequately met in some churches. This matter is not new, but more than only pastors, parents and church school administrators must grapple with it.

It is not as though pastors and church leaders are uninterested in young members. Often a real sense of community was observed among young members, even where small numbers made inter-church collaborative youth work essential. On the other hand, in larger churches where congregational life may he almost entirely organized around age-specific groupings, young people may be shielded from much potentially valuable contact with older adult members. Part of the challenge is that needs among young people are constantly changing. It is hard to keep hitting this moving target. {45}

A youth leader who seems to be reaching youngsters at junior high level may not be accepted by high school or the college-age group. Last year’s effective youth ministry becomes this year’s concern. While we’re recruiting appropriate new workers, redesigning programs, or discovering why our efforts are not working, some young people may not be served.

3. Many Elderly Are at Risk. Those who are aging, and who may be without family or close friends, often can hurt among us. We heard about some of that pain as we talked with members from this group. Older members were often not able to complete our survey, even with help. So they are underrepresented. Mechanisms for monitoring the interests and level of need among elders may also not be updated often enough. Some seniors were reluctant to declare their pain. Even where retirement communities exist nearby, and where care is available for those who need partial or full time nursing care, these formal or institutional attempts to meet care needs, though necessary, can never be sufficient.

Each of us must be sensitized to respond to the needs we see among our older members. This job is too big to be left only to those who specialize in care for the aging. Care if it is to be effective, like love, cannot be entirely wrapped up in an institutional form.

4. Non-Ethnic Connected Church Members at Risk. Non-ethnic members continue to be a minority among those we studied. Fully two-thirds of those responding to the survey identified themselves as ethnic (of Mennonite or Germanic parentage).

Here we sensed that even members who have had long-term tenure can continue to feel like outsiders. Non-ethnic members often feel different—separated from many other ethnic-connected church members. “We don’t have the right name,” is the way this sometimes was expressed. These members also confided that they receive infrequent social invitations.

5. Female Members at Greater Risk. Surely with all the changes brought about by the women’s movement, this issue has been resolved among the people of God. Right? Wrong! These issues are more problematic now than ever before. Among many in our congregations, it is not possible to discuss {46} the role of men and women without a great outpouring of feeling. We need healing in this arena;both men and women suffer.

Many are very uncomfortable when sexism is discussed. We may misunderstand New Testament declarations, in particular those by the Apostle Paul. “Chain of command” teaching is “gospel” for many of those we talked with—many firmly believe that submission goes only one way, even between husbands and wives. Some from both genders see “Headship” to mean that, according to New Testament teaching, males have a divine right to make unilateral decisions.

It is not very popular to point to the reality that women in some ways continue to be at a disadvantage among us. But when one interacts with women who are involved in leadership roles, the pain is evident. That this matter continues to be so sensitive indicates that we have not come to a resolution in this area. We have much more work to do to see both women and men liberated in relation to each other.

6. Members from Minority Racial Groups. Our doors, we say, are open to people from all races. But in reality we are only too aware that we have not yet made preparations which could give real integration a chance to work. This becomes particularly problematic when Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, or other racial groups seek to join our fellowship in significant numbers.

Peoples from many different cultural groups have taken up residence in our communities. When a church opened its doors to other racial groups, there were profound effects.

One congregation had invested heavily in cross-cultural serving ministries. There we noted a very clear sense of purpose and community that was not as frequently observed with members from some of the other churches.

One person was asked whether he sensed that his church was a caring community in accordance with what Christ asked his followers to be. Immediately he made an exciting declaration. In brief he said, “We do not just talk about being Christ’s body, we are the body of Christ. Our faith is not only words. We see Jesus at work in us, blessing everything we do here.” {47}

Problems Other than Acute Physical Illness

In various ways it is apparent that church members seem comfortable with—and typically can cope quite adequately with—the consequence of acute physical illness, even if the disability is severe. But there are at least nine identifiable smaller subgroups of parishioners who are at real risk among us.

1. Persons with chronic difficulties. Chronicity taxes the patience of any of us. The member who for months or years is in deep trouble presents a real care challenge. For almost every problem identified in this section, chronicity can increase the level of risk. Sometimes members experience compassion fatigue. Unresolved trauma can wear people down.

2. Persons with marital or other serious family problems, e.g., those divorced, separated, or in unhappy marriages. Care problems in this area were especially evident in some of the interview disclosures. Because of very deeply held convictions about marriage and divorce, we’re particularly vulnerable as we deal with these complex issues.

One young couple and their pastor had been estranged for a number of months when a CCNRS volunteer heard about the problem. When informed, the pastor immediately arranged a visit with the couple, who welcomed the overture. Renewed dialogue led to a healing process. There were tears, a frank sharing of feelings of resentment, fear and consequent withdrawal.

The outcome: a genuine reconciliation and the return of a spirit of mutual fellowship and forgiveness.

For a variety of reasons we appear to have abdicated much of our responsibility to serve marital and family needs, frequently opting to let this highly significant work be done by mental health specialists, or occur in the context of encounter ministries for couples. It is not that specialty help here is at all unwarranted or inappropriate. But these matters again are much too central not to be served more often from a faith perspective. This arena needs much more serious attention.

3. Whenever sexual behavior or sexual feeling is involved we are at special risk. In our society we have seen sexual issues opened up to a frightening extent. In all our {48} media, art, and commerce, sexuality is blatantly evident. Like-sex experience is very common. We’re not immune, but we can’t deal with these issues in church.

Except for episodic concern for sex education among our youth, we tend not to minister to sexual matters directly in the church. There is little attention given to dialogue about sexual discipleship. We treat sexual experience as though it were not desirable, subjugating even marital sexual behavior to asterisked consideration. Sexual issues come up in side discussions as we debate birth control or AIDS prevention. Abstinence, even in marriage, is portrayed as a virtue. We have yet to face many issues in this arena: sexual orientation, sexual disabilities, self-stimulation, along with AIDS ministries, contraception, and how we view New Testament sexual purity.

Sexual discipleship issues must be explored first by adults, not by our teenagers. We need to form a consensus on these issues in our fellowships. We must speak from a clear Christian perspective. And we must project comprehensible models of sexual discipleship both for other adults and for our youth.

4. When in serious interpersonal conflict, we are at risk—whether with someone from inside or from outside the fellowship circle. Finding expression for our faith in the face of strong feeling, or when members for various reasons are alienated from each other, is another central challenge.

The police view a domestic quarrel as their most dangerous duty. So we often may not be eager to mediate conflict among members of our corporate church family. Yet we remain convinced that New Testament teaching has much to offer in the arena of reconciliation and forgiveness. Our goal as believers is to be a resource to each other when we experience interpersonal conflict. These convictions merit much more attention in our church life than we have been giving.

5. Those with mental health or emotional difficulty. Although Mennonites have developed some of the most sophisticated mental health programs in the world, we may still not see mental health needs effectively served where mental illness impacts church members. How do we cope?

Pastoral counseling resources can be overtaxed or unavailable for the needs of many of us when we are experiencing excessive stress, become depressed, or when we find it difficult to adapt to some overwhelming source of internal or external pressure. {49}

All members of a believers’ fellowship can minister to the mental health needs of those with whom they come in contact. There is need to grow in ability to care for each other. Mental health services from trained specialists offered under the auspices of the church can help meet these needs, but mental health ministries must not be left only to mental health professionals.

6. Those with substance abuse difficulty, like those with other mental health needs, in recent years have begun to be served in the context of the church. It is possible to find a 12-step program offered under church sponsorship. But these resources were an unusual exception among the churches we examined. A greater openness to requests for prayer for substance difficulty now exists among church members than heretofore. But by and large we have not been providing for these needs as frequently and as creatively as would be desirable.

7. Those in serious economic trouble, legal difficulty, or with social or educational disadvantage. Sometimes helping professionals, deacons, even pastors, may withdraw when these difficulties are a key part of the problem. We may feel overwhelmed, or out of our element if the issue we confront does not neatly fit within the bounds of those services we are prepared to offer. But here as with any other problem, the caring church obviously is needed, perhaps even more acutely than in other “safer” arenas.

8. Those with developmental disabilities and their families, must be included here. Families with members who are mentally retarded often have carried very heavy burdens among us. The caring community in the past has not offered them very much help.

In an interview which was not a part of this study, one mother shared that not once, during over 30 years, did anyone from her church community offer her any respite at all from the very heavy responsibilities of providing 24 hour per day care for her disabled children.

Since 1980, West Coast MCC Developmental Disabilities Services has begun to help us face these difficult issues. But we still may not be open to grant these special people the full participation that could be theirs. We have much growing to do as we seek to become a truly caring community in this arena. {50}

9. Those who are perceived to be self-sufficient—spiritually, educationally, economically, or in other ways—can be at risk. This is not a misprint. Paradoxically some apparently advantaged members can feel isolated among us. People from among this heterogeneous category sometimes can intimidate other members of the congregation. Even pastors and other congregational leaders, some who carry heavy responsibilities, can feel quite alone and outside the circle of congregational care.

The New Testament proscribes any specially privileged status. Wealthy members may be at risk, but they are not the only ones for whom this is a hazard. One unusual vignette underscores the reality that it is not only the isolated or obviously socially handicapped non-participant who may be underserved in our congregations. Seasoned leaders are at risk too.

A senior caregiver refused to respond to the survey. That in itself was not a matter for concern. But his reason gave pause. He explained that he constantly was doing significant forms of serving outside his local congregation. The consequent isolation from his own church body led him to consider that group as not at all significant for his own care. “They’re just playing church,” he declared.

We may assume that this privileged group is able to forge other relationships which should compensate for undesirable isolation from congregational peers. Not necessarily so.

SUMMATION

A clear finding from the study is that when we speak of congregational care needs, we are not dealing with a fraction of the congregation, for each of us has very real needs. But some of us may not see those needs met in the context of the congregation. Obviously life in the congregation is only one of several key social systems. Needs are met in the family, in friendship circles which cross system boundaries, in work or employment contexts, to name only a few.

Perhaps it is asking too much of the fellowship of believers to minister in a significant way to the frequently mentioned needs, or to seek to fill the potential care gaps. But dare we let ourselves off the hook that easily? The study produced abundant {51} evidence of life and health among us, but any fellowship has room to grow in its care capability. Perhaps the concerns identified here will trigger some reassessment as we consider our responsibilities to each other.

Clearly God has chosen to reach us through the community of faith. We all depend upon each other for nurture. The congregational fellowship components among the people of God ostensibly are there for just these reasons. Is not the fellowship to speak to ingredients which are missing in an isolated individual? As believers we are social creatures. None of us can he entirely self-sufficient. Care channeled through the fellowship fills an inherent vacuum in our lives. We are handicapped, clearly at greater risk, wherever that fellowship is compromised, wherever needs go unmet, wherever gaps exist in our blanket of congregational care.

WORKS CITED

  • Kliewer, V. D. “Sexual Passages and the Christian Family.” Direction 15 (1986), 52-58. Kliewer, V. D. Focal Points Series, No. 3, Managing Sexual Feeling in the Christian Community. Fresno, CA: Link Care Center, 1988.
  • Shelly, M. Human Sexuality in the Christian Life. Special joint publication of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, Mennonite Publishing House, 1985.
  • Wiebe, Katie. Alone: A Search for Joy. Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Press, 1987.
Dr. Dean Kliewer is a psychologist in independent practice in Reedley and Fresno, California.

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