With a frustrated sigh, Kathy* put down the Adventist World magazine she had just been reading. Do you really hear them? she thought with some bitterness. Kathy, a Catholic care provider, has always loved working for her Adventist brothers and sisters—and has worked for a deaf/blind client during the past four years. Kathy enjoyed daily Bible study with the client’s husband, until he died two years ago. And while she’s impressed with members she’s become personally acquainted with, she hasn’t been impressed with the church itself. Not once has a local church member come to visit. I even called her church—and nothing, Karen remembers. No, you don’t hear them. Turning back to her work, Kathy knows she isn’t interested anymore in visiting the Adventist church in her town.
Joan’s mom, a longtime Adventist living in assisted living, just turned 95. “It’s frustrating,” says Joan. “I know people get busy—we are all so consumed with our own lives that it is hard to focus on anyone else. But what about the people like my mom?” Joan doesn’t live near her mother—that makes it more painful for her to observe, relatively helpless, the church’s inattention. “I had to write to the church pastor,” she explains, “just to get him to go once or twice. Sabbath after Sabbath pretty much no one visits.”
Lou and his wife were active church members. They attended faithfully and raised their children in the church, and Lou served as a deacon. The couple always invited church visitors home for Sabbath dinner. “We made many friends through this local mission endeavor,” says Lou. “We faithfully tithed, and we’d give extra for some special mission need.” But things have changed for Lou. His wife is gone, he is in his 80s, and medical issues have plagued him recently. He describes himself as a “sometimes lonely man” who no longer attends his local Adventist church. “Not one person from my old church has ever called to see how I was doing. Not even to just pray with me, at the least. . . . It’s high time we paid special attention to our own flock, and just show them that we care.”
Not Just the Elderly
The Adventist Review team prays for people each week during staff meeting. And even though these people didn’t specifically ask for prayer when they wrote or called—each was mentioned during prayer time. As the staff talked about them, more than half the group related heartbreaking stories of homebound members. There is a group of members out there who cannot attend church—and who feel utterly neglected. And they aren’t only the elderly.
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About a year ago Liz was hospitalized because of a massive staph infection and the surgical procedure done to clean it out and infuse within it massive doses of antibiotics. After that she was at home for three weeks—and her husband was traveling. Liz is a very active volunteer at her church. One responsibility includes the layout and design of the weekly church bulletin. “The temporary church secretary took over those responsibilities while I was in the hospital,” explains Liz. “The only communication I got from any of the pastoral staff was when one of them sent an e-mail complaining about someone who didn’t get the bulletin, which I didn’t do while in the hospital.” Liz never received a visit in the hospital. “I didn’t receive a visit to my home during that time (or since). No card. No phone call,” says Liz. “Really, a card would have been enough.”
Megan is a double amputee, having had both of her legs amputated below the knee.  Due to various complications, she is wheelchair-bound. “There is no need to feel pity for me as God has given me the courage and stamina to learn to work with my disabilities,” Megan says. 
Megan feels that the church she was so much a part of does not want to continue a relationship with her. “I used to be quite involved in activities with my church family and volunteered in various capacities. Even after my surgeries I continued to work at home doing things on my computer and over the phone.” “Not once did the people working with the Sabbath school come to my home to show me that I was part of this ministry. They were aware of my physical limitations. . . . It seemed like it was too much trouble for the children’s group leaders to bring things to me to cut out and prepare. . . . I have not been to my church in more than a year. My absence at church has gone unnoticed.” 
A Case of Neglect?
Is it really a case of neglect? Are these members forgotten? In some cases, the answer is yes. Adventist Community Services gives access to several helpful resources online, including ACS Elder Care Ministries (see www.community services.org/article/44/resources/acs-ministries/elder-care), with brochures, video tools, and links to government and other nonprofit entities that are focused specifically on older adults. But without committed church members involving themselves, the homebound member population stays home—alone.
“People have their own lives,” explains Marilyn Petersen, who broke a hip a few years ago and can no longer drive (read her story). “The first year after my injury was pretty good. But after a time, old friendships loosened up. New crises come up, and people just can’t keep up with the chronic cases. That’s when extreme loneliness for the homebound [person] can set in.”
Smith agrees. “People are very busy. And many won’t commit if they believe they must take on a responsibility forever. In addition, it takes a lot of courage to reach out to the hurting, suffering, and pained in society. It takes someone who has a passion for those who are isolated and believes that all God’s children have value. . . . The most frequent promise in Scripture is that God is with us, and He assures us He will never leave or forsake us—but people truly believe that when others don’t leave or forsake them. It is urgently important that we let the homebound member know they are not forgotten and that their church family still values them.”

Going from a case of neglect to building a relationship with the homebound member isn’t as tough as some might think. An online article from Focus on the Family (see sidebar for link) puts it this way: “It takes just one person and a lot of prayer to get [the] ministry off the ground. If that one person really cares about the elderly and infirm, and if he or she is willing to devote time to the outreach, promote it, offer interesting programs, and be flexible, there’s no telling how the Lord will honor that commitment and cause that seed to grow.”
Putting Things Into Perspective
While there is very little research on this topic, during the past 15 years Monte Sahlin, director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry, and his graduate students have completed about a thousand analyses of church membership lists in the North American Division (NAD) and have found that it’s typically about 3 or 4 percent of the members in a church who cannot attend because of age or disability (including long-term or terminal illness). And since the average church in NAD has fewer than 100 members, this means two or three persons in each church, in most cases, could be considered homebound. Many pastors in NAD work with two or three churches—the average pastor has about six to eight members of this type.
Obviously, the average number of homebound members in larger congregations would increase. Also, some states in the United States have a larger number of retired/senior members (California, Tennessee, and Florida, to name a few), which means the percentages there will be greater than the extrapolated averages already mentioned.
“This is a very small segment of the membership,” says Sahlin. “And it is one that we generally do better caring for than most other segments. Young adults, single mothers, members who are away at college/university, and many other segments are generally larger (as a whole) and get much less care. But, that does not take away from the needs of these precious souls!”
And that’s precisely why Smith and company started Care Connections. “There wasn’t enough of me—the visitation pastor—to take care of all the people in the church needing visits, care, and support,” Smith explains. “So Ann and I brainstormed on what a ministry should look like, and what it should do. We created a list of all the people we knew who were in care facilities or homebound. We listed their addresses and phone numbers (if applicable) and made a comment line letting people know pertinent info [about their situation]. Then I contacted the person or their family and requested permission to give their names to others so they could receive cards, visits, attention. Every month Ann and I would refresh the list.” This renewal included listing names of people who had birthdays coming up, updated names of people who had gone into the hospital or were in treatment, listing names of those who had died—and the names and addresses of the deceaseds’ loved ones so that members could send out cards.
Fetrick adds a cautionary note: “One thing that Pastor Cherie and I tried very hard to do was not to set a high expectation—like the homebound person should or will receive tons of cards. Rather, when asking permission to include their names we emphasized that we pray for everyone—if we know specific needs we can pray with better understanding—and there may be a member of our team who will drop them a card, visit, or phone them. Some of the team didn’t feel comfortable with various kinds of contacts; some loved writing cards, others would rather phone or visit. . . . All that we could promise was that we’d be praying for them.”
Smith is now at the Collegedale church working to incorporate some of her successful ideas and programs into their already well-functioning homebound ministry.
Reaching Both Ways
The Vallejo Drive Church in Glendale, California, has developed several innovations to assist senior and physically challenged members in participating in the ordinance of humility. This includes innovations for both those who can attend church and for homebound members. They’ve purchased taller chairs (24 inches high) and footstools on which to place basins for those who can’t get down on their knees to wash the feet of other members. Their ministry team has also developed a special kit for elders, deacons, and deaconesses to use in taking Communion to the homebound. They produced a video that demonstrates three types of services they offer to help members with the ordinance of humility (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bem4VuSPQWM).
According to senior adult ministries pastor Mark Papendick, “We provide higher chairs, footstools, and pitchers from which to pour water over the feet that assist those physically challenged to participate; we offer hand washing for those who do not have use of their lower limbs; and we have a portable kit for home foot-washing service. We made our own kits with a small carry bag, plastic water container, towel, and foldable plastic bowl. The portable Communion kits are available on the Internet.”
Papendick feels strongly that churches can do much to help those who are unable to participate in traditional church practices. “Being sensitive to the needs of the elderly and physically challenged is important. By using more accessible equipment they can still participate in the service that has been meaningful to them throughout their lifetime.” And Papendick believes other churches can do the same. “This is something churches of all sizes can do to benefit their elderly and physically challenged members.”
That’s just the type of thing that appeals to homebound members who want to stay engaged. “I’m not as independent as I used to be, and that’s hard,” Petersen says. “But I can still be involved.” She lists Bible reading and prayer as top activities. “My church Web site and Facebook help keep me connected. I also get the church’s prayer list and pray for those on it.” Petersen has learned that she doesn’t need to wait on the church to reach out to her. “I have a list from the church of people who are not able to attend, which is up to about 24, and I write to them once a month. I send cards, and I print out pictures of church events that are posted on Facebook and send them too.”
Petersen encourages the homebound to do as much as they can to reach out to others in similar situations. “Get lots of stamps, and lots of cards,” she laughs. “Get on the phone more and call people. I’m not one who really likes to call people, but some love to talk on the phone. They should call others.”
In the years Smith worked with Care Connections she found that “many of our homebound could make calls or write notes. We encouraged, supported, and included them in the ministry if they had a desire to do so.” Some months there were as many as 50-plus names on their ministry list—it was helpful to have those on the list willing to minister to others. “I had people, when I would go visit, show me their mantle filled with birthday cards, or ‘thinking of you’ cards that people had sent with notes of encouragement.”
Liz, who felt neglected while recovering from surgery, learned this lesson. We were disappointed in our church, but we are now trying to be more aware of people who need a little extra love. It’s not always easy; some people don’t want their information out there for everyone to know—this ties our hands some in trying to help or give care. But for those who do [reach out], we reach right back out to them. We show them we care. We show them that they are loved.”

* The experiences of church members, friends, and family in this article are real and based on e-mail letters, messages, Facebook exchanges, and interviews. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor for Adventist Review. This article was published June 14, 2012.

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