Shepherding the Seriously Ill: 3 Workshop Takeaways

Shepherding the Seriously Ill: 3 Workshop Takeaways

By Bethany Slack, MPH, MPT, and Evangeline Kennedy

Serious illness brings up serious questions—for both patients and their families. Individuals facing the end of their life often call on Christian leaders for support in their time of grief and questioning. With the right training, pastors and other caregivers can play a crucial role in helping medical staff and family decision-makers honor the ill person's wishes in a manner consistent with his or her beliefs and values.

Pastoral Care Workshop.png

In April, Emmanuel Gospel Center, in conjunction with Greater Boston Baptist Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield, facilitated the workshop Pastor, Will You Pray For Me? Shepherding Those with Serious Illness. Bethel AME Church hosted the morning workshop, which featured local pastors and clinicians as speakers. The gathering gave pastoral caregivers:

  • an orientation to the world of end-of-life care

  • a tool for open communication between pastoral caregivers and seriously ill congregants

  • an opportunity to network with diverse pastoral caregivers shepherding the seriously ill in their faith communities.


Pastoral caregivers from 15 local churches and organizations from Greater Boston gathered to discuss helpful approaches and tools for shepherding individuals with serious illness.



We asked participants what elements and discussion points of the workshop were most valuable to them.

1. Talking About Serious Illness Presents Emotional Challenges

Caregivers, patients, and their family members experience mental and emotional obstacles to serious illness conversation.

Workshop participants spoke of their sadness, emotional ties to patients, and their desire to engage more confidently and proficiently in conversations around serious illness.

These caregivers also noted that the patients and families were often reluctant or completely unwilling to deal openly and realistically with the situation. One participant said "Some people don't want [to] talk about these issues/answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes they don't know how to think about [it]." Disagreement between a patient and their spouse adds another layer of emotional challenge to such conversations.

Another noted the challenge of talking openly about serious illness amidst "fierce reliance on a miraculous healing."

However, participants mentioned the Conversation Guide (described below) as a helpful tool for approaching these anticipated barriers.


2. The Conversation Guide Helps

The "Serious Illness Conversation Guide" for caregivers was the most important takeaway for many participants. The Guide offers a list of specific questions as a tool for initiating and navigating serious illness conversations.

The caregivers valued the Guide content as well as the opportunity to practice using it through role play. One participant responded, "I need to ask some people some of these questions now!"

Some also appreciated the specific directives for using the Conversation Guide, including that:

  • repeating the same questions is effective

  • having the Guide in hand during conversations is perfectly acceptable

Every situation is different and should be approached prayerfully.
— participant
Panel discussion: (left to right) Dr. Michael Balboni (speaking), Dr. Janet Abrahms, Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, and Dr. Alexandra Cist.

Panel discussion: (left to right) Dr. Michael Balboni (speaking), Dr. Janet Abrahms, Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, and Dr. Alexandra Cist.

3. Medical Decisions are Spiritual

Participants valued learning about clinicians' and pastors' complementary roles in helping Christians navigate decision-making consistent with their spiritual beliefs. One person summed up his/her thoughts with a quote from Dr. Michael Balboni, "Medical decisions are spiritual decisions."

The degree of overlap between the medical and spiritual spheres in serious illness decision-making surprised many participants. One caregiver was struck by the number of Guide questions he perceived as “clinical”. Another appreciated hearing the perspectives of the four-person panel, which included individuals working as physicians, pastors, or both.

Medical decisions are spiritual decisions.
— Dr. Michael Balboni

Another participant summed up the event as, "Every situation is different and should be approached prayerfully."



If you're a pastoral caregiver interested in learning more about shepherding those with serious illness, consider joining us for our next workshop!


Learn More

Some Thoughts on Ministering to the Sick and Dying - The Gospel Coalition

"Where's God?" Counsel for the Sick and Dying - Biblical Counseling Coalition

Pastoral Visitation Resources - Head Heart Hand


Bethany is EGC's Public Health & Wellness research associate. Her passion is to see Jesus’ love translated into improved health and health justice for all, across the lifespan and across the globe.



Evangeline Kennedy was a Summer 2018 Applied Research and Consulting intern at EGC. She studies Public Health and Spanish at Simmons University. Her heart for the city continues to grow as she sees the vitality and vibrancy present in Boston and the work God is doing in churches and among Christian leaders.