We often assume that the chronically ill are in the minority, however, you may be surprised to know that nearly 1 in 2 people in the USA have a chronic illness and about 96% of it is invisible. Are these women attending church retreats? Too many of them are suffering silently. They are depressed, isolated, and sometimes questioning if God really cares. Others, you will find, are some of the wisest, joyful, and spiritually mature women you will ever meet. They will touch your retreat attendees in ways that even the planned speaker will not. But are any of them coming?

Rest Ministries, which is the largest Christian organization that serves the chronically ill, recently did a survey about attending retreats while living with a chronic illness. Out of the 20 respondents, 17 reported that they participated less in retreats since their diagnosis. When asked why the responses were:

Three said, "Accessibility issues (I know I can't easily get to and from different buildings at the retreat)"; 6 people reported, "The pain factor. It's just too draining"; 4 responded, "The unpredictable health issues"; and 10 said, "A combination of the above."

So, how could you encourage these women to get involved again in your church retreat?

1. When planning the retreat ask a lot of questions about the retreat center and promote that you have this information before people register

For example, ask the retreat center personnel about factors such as: Are the hills steep? Are there carts available for transportation? How far are the rooms from the main meeting center? Is there seating available other then collapsible metal folding chairs? What about elevators? One woman shares, "I stopped going a year or so ago because the retreat planner does not tell you what is expected, or about walking, stairs, etc. They need to be more honest." Those with chronic illness typically look for retreat centers held in locations where little walking is necessary and preferably the ground is flat. Large homes or hotels are also good options. While it's easy for a retreat planner to assume that fifty yards is a "short walking distance," fifty steps may be exhausting for some people. So provide the actual distances on your promotional flyer. Don't just write "Rooms are a short walking distance from the main building."

2. Realize that women with illness have a great desire to go on retreats and get to know others, but they also will be on their own schedule at times. Don't take it personally.

Margaret, who lives with a malignant brain tumor and uterine cancer says, "I don't attend because people don't want to understand or accept that sometimes I have to retreat from the 'retreat.' Sometimes I have to go back to my room and get some rest. Other people decide that I'm escaping from my problems, and demand that I participate in whatever event was planned. I'm not trying to be anti-social. I will participate when God enables me to do so; but at the same time, when God tells me to rest, I must rest despite what the [retreat] 'timetable' states." As a retreat planner you can help this by posting the retreat's schedule at least a week before the event on the church's web site.

3. While you are deciding events such as ice-breakers or fun games, make sure there is something that those with physical limitations can participate in if they choose

If they don't want to participate in the relay race of dressing in costumes, let them do their own thing. Debbie, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome says, "Unfortunately, I've yet to find a retreat planner who understands that I do not participate--not because I'm being uncooperative, shy or anti-social--but because I simply cannot physically do so; the result is that I don't attend church retreats."

4. Don't gasp when you see all the stuff she has packed

All women may have necessities that they pack to make their weekend more comfortable. But for those with chronic illness this may also include: different forms of bedding, cushions for chairs, special pillows, dozens of snacks, pain patches, shades to sleep, and a flashlight and a book to read if they can't sleep. They may bring special water, the biggest pill box of medication you've ever seen (don't comment), and maybe even a service dog (which she should have spoken to you about in advance).

5. Though you have good intentions with your suggestions, remember that she knows her body better than you do, and she's trying to plan for her best experience

She realizes that riding a bus to the retreat center may throw her back out the whole weekend, so if she can go in a car with a staff member that modification is very beneficial. If she wears ear plugs or listens to music, don't take it personally. She may need to save her strength to socialize that evening. If she is diabetic, she may be eating small meals or snacks throughout the day. Don't comment, "Oh, we're going to be eating in thirty minutes, so why don't you just wait."

6. Take her requests in stride without thinking she is being a prima donna

She isn't asking for the bottom bunk and bringing her bedding because she is the Princess and the Pea. She may have some required needs. For example, electricity is a medical requirement, not a wish, for women who use a CCAP machine for sleep apnea (2 women out of our responses of 20 use one). Refrigeration of medications may also be necessary, so don't tell her to just find an ice pack for her room. Her medication could be ruined so she may need access to a staff member who can get into the kitchen. Sheryl, who has chronic myofascial pain reminds us, "Make sure there are always chairs available for those who can't stand more than a couple of minutes." Don't assume just because you don't see a cane, means she is fine.

7. Allow her to keep her illness as private as possible

Anjuli, who has congenital myopathy (a form of Muscular Dystrophy) says, "Don't single me out!" and Marjorie agrees. "When an explanation is given in confidence, don't respond so much that everyone knows that I have a problem."

8. Have scholarships available

Financial constraints often hold many women with illness back from attending. Let them know costs may be covered.

9. Assign a person in charge of overseeing the necessities of those with chronic illness

Choose your "healthiest" person with a chronic illness, or a cancer survivor, to communicate with those with illness and listen to their needs and concerns. The women who responded to the survey still do attend retreats and most say they approach the retreat planner ahead of time about their health issues. But for the dozens of others who would like to attend, but assume you are unable to accommodate their needs, they never contact the church. Try to reach the women who assume they are unable to go, by putting a special line on your promotional flyers that say, "Coping with chronic illness? Ask us about our special accommodations! We'd love to have you come!"

One of the most overlooked gifts in our church are those who live with chronic illness or pain. Despite their daily suffering, they have a great deal of wisdom and joy for the Lord. National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week is September 8-14, and is sponsored by Rest Ministries. It's a wonderful opportunity to look at your ministry's priorities. Who is not being served who could use your encouragement? And who lives with an illness and is missing out on serving others because they are not connected to the church? Get them involved! One day, one of them may be your retreat speaker.

Author's Bio: 

Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries, and author of "Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend." This book is impacting thousands of people, as churches hand out it around the country, committing to finding new ideas to minister to those who are hurting.