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Caregiving: Ministry "as to the Lord"

It’s easy to define ministry as the public roles . . . But sometimes God calls His people to serve one individual. That person may be an aging parent, a disabled spouse, or an ill child.

“But the egg is upside down on my plate!”

“Could you microwave this for 22 seconds?”

“I’d go get it myself, but YOU won’t let me drive!” (Never mind that he was on high levels of pain medication and would be arrested for DUI if he tried to drive.)

Comments like these were common in the last few years that I cared for my disabled husband. It was not because he was trying to be difficult. In some cases, it was because these were things that gave him a sense of control. In other cases, it was due to the frustration of being home all day and being unable to do what he wanted to do.

We had been a very active couple, serving together in children’s ministry in our church, running a weekly kids’ Bible club in our home, raising two very active sons, serving at kids’ camp and youth camp, and whatever else we could work into our schedules. But after severe complications from open heart surgery and diabetes, Tim was no long able to be active. As his health deteriorated, he was mostly confined to his recliner at home. A trip to the doctor or to church became a major project.

While I thought I understood his frustration, it was easy to focus on the limitations that were now placed on me. My life became a cycle of prepping and administering meds, planning food that could be ready for him to eat when I was at work, going to work (after all, we needed money and medical insurance), then coming home and doing it all over again. Before long, self-pity began to set in. I felt that I had been sidelined from ministry, even though God had called me many years before.

As I went through my daily cycle, sometimes I muttered to myself and God about my frustration. It was during one of these self-pity sessions that God helped me to understand that I was still active in ministry, but my ministry had simply changed. I had a brand-new perspective on my daily routine. Taking care of the man whom I had vowed to love and to cherish in both sickness and health became my new ministry. As I began to recognize this, my joy returned, and I looked forward to those evenings of reading, watching TV, and ministering to my husband. Sure, there were days of frustration for both of us, but God was teaching me to follow His plan even when it was not the plan I had chosen.

It’s easy to define ministry as the public roles of teaching, preaching, and serving people outside our own homes. But sometimes God calls His people to serve one individual. That person may be an aging parent, a disabled spouse, or an ill child. Those seasons of ministry may be short or long, and they may end with that person’s promotion to heaven, with healing on earth, or with someone else stepping in to take the responsibility. No matter how long the season of caregiving lasts, it is always important and can be used to teach humility, kindness, contentment, and the true meaning of love.

As I grew into this newly defined ministry of caregiver, Paul’s words in Colossians 3:23 became very real to me, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” When I realized that, by serving my husband, I was serving God, the self-pity and frustration melted away, and I became content in this new role God had chosen for me. No longer did I feel that I had put my ministry on hold; instead, I had simply transitioned to a new ministry.

After nearly ten years of ministering mostly as a caretaker, God chose to change my ministry again when He took Tim away from all the pain and limitations he had lived with for so long. On a cold February day, I held his hand while a pastor friend and our son prayed with us. During that prayer, Tim quietly stopped breathing and stepped into heaven. Now, I was not only without my life partner, but without a ministry again.

But God always gives hope and direction. When Moses was about to transition away from the children of Israel and Joshua was about to become their new leader, he said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). Likewise, as Jesus was about to transition to His Father, He promised His disciples, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20).

Over the next few months, those promises became increasingly more real to me. When I came home and wondered what I was supposed to do, now that there was no one to cook for, no one to prepare meds for, and no one to talk to about my day, I learned to spend more time with Jesus, enjoying His Presence and searching for what He would have me do. Eventually, I found a “new normal.” I was able to praise Him in my empty house. I became more and more aware of His Presence and learned to hear His voice and to worship and rest in Him. The Psalmist’s words in Psalm 68:4-5 rang true, even on the darkest days. “Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds[a]; rejoice before him—his name is the LORD. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”

Within a few months, I found myself in “accidental ministry” to others who had experienced similar losses. A neighbor down the street lost her husband, and I spent time talking with her and helping her find her “new normal.” Over the past 8 years since that cold February morning, many others who were caring for spouses during long illnesses have just needed a word of encouragement, and God has opened the door for me to speak that word. God has brought other women into my life who have lost their husbands and just needed a friend. This new ministry is not formalized in any way; rather, it’s a “friendship ministry.”

Maybe you’re in a season of ministry that you didn’t choose. Do you look longingly back at the days when you were preaching, teaching, or singing in church, and now you find yourself at home making beds and managing medications? Take a long look at the person God has called you to care for. Maybe he is being difficult because the eggs are upside down on his plate or because he can’t go to the store on his own. He is your ministry right now. Look for the things you can be grateful for. Embrace the time you have, and look for the lessons God is teaching that you can use later. Be aware of God’s presence in your days. He is always there.

If you are beyond that stage and wondering what is next, watch for others you can help by sharing your experiences or by just being present with them. As you find your “new normal” and remain open to the opportunities God presents to you, your ministry will flourish again. After all, ministry comes from within, and whatever you do “as to the Lord” is ministry.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Church of God Evangel.

Dilla Dawson

Dilla Dawson lives in Springfield, Missouri, where she serves as an editor for Gospel Publishing House of the Assemblies of God.