7 Ways to Shepherd the Terminally Ill

7 Ways to Shepherd the Terminally Ill by Phil A. Newton  for The Gospel Coalition

I’m writing about caring for terminally ill church members while going through treatment for an incurable non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’ve been coming to terms with the reality that, apart from divine intervention, my life expectancy is much shorter than I had anticipated for decades.

No doubt, I see terminal illness from a new angle. That, as a gift from the Lord, has helped shape my thoughts on serving the terminally ill.

Honestly, visiting a home or hospital with a terminal patient can be uncomfortable. We may say the wrong thing. We may fret about how we’ll react when we see a friend’s grim physical decline. Or we may grow anxious that we won’t have the answer to questions a family member asks. Those are reasonable fears, but not reasonable enough to keep us from serving those who need gospel ministry more than ever.

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There’s something about vulnerable, compassionate service in the name of Christ, dependent on the help of the Spirit, that allays such fears. The Lord has called elders to shepherd the flock, even those sheep facing the immediacy of death. How should we shepherd terminally ill church members?

Let’s consider seven aspects of shepherding the terminally ill.

1. Shepherd them the way you would want to be shepherded.

As my wife and I walked the long corridors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where I was receiving treatment, I commented, “There are so many terminal patients here.” She reminded me, “We’re all terminal.” Living to be 80 or 90 may seem like a long time, but it’s a speck of dust compared to eternity. As we seek to serve those that may be much closer to death than we are now, let’s keep in mind our own mortality. How would we want to be shepherded in such times?

You want someone who’s compassionate, who seeks to enter into the anguish you’re facing rather than just wanting to check another duty off a to-do list. The terminally ill need someone who’s realistic about what lies ahead, not a well-wisher who keeps repeating, “I just think everything is going to be okay.” Yes, everything will be all right when we see Jesus, but right now it’s not. Face reality with this suffering saint.

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