Breast Cancer Awareness month challenges churches, clergy

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month.  It is a good time for advocacy, support, education, and remembrances of survivors and victims of breast cancer.  For churches serious about ministering to the whole person, this presents a unique challenge and pastoral opportunity.

According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every nine people are diagnosed with breast cancer.  It is the second leading cause of death for women, and the leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 45.

Thankfully, persistent research, greater awareness, and intentional education has garnered early prevention and more effective treatments.  Yet, the effects of breast cancer can become so complex that churches still struggle to respond.

For one, since breast cancer deals with an intimate part of the body, any conversation about this type of cancer can be taboo.  A majority of churches have male clergy so conversations about breast cancer may be avoided altogether.

Furthermore, breast cancer leads to, as chaplain Irene Henderson argues, two different areas of pastoral concern.  One includes issues surrounding a loss of self or sexual awareness, as well as a shifting sense of femininity and stigmatization.  This is especially true for people whose primary treatment is a mastectomy.

Irene Henderson tells one such story of a mastectomy patient who underwent chemotherapy.  The chemo resulted in hair loss, and the patient lamented that only when she lost her hair did people begin to sympathize with her.    Her pastor did not ask about grief over losing a breast, but was quick to offer help only after she came to church bald.

A second area of pastoral concern deals with the emotions of victims.  Like victims of other tragedies, breast cancer patients ask the inevitable “Why me?” This is a question that communicates anger, guilt, and shame.

No surprise, then, that many victims feel guilty when they are diagnosed and question whether they are at fault.  Victims question their level of self-care and wonder whether the diagnosis resulted from lack of dieting or exercise.

Nevertheless, Henderson says that a victim’s guilt should be neither ignored nor downplayed, but seen through to the end.  This reminds me of Psalm 23, in which God walks with us “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Since breast cancer brings to mind one’s mortality (whether it is detected early or not), churches, friends, and support groups need to walk through the various emotions with their loved ones in this precarious and fragile illness.  One can only walk “through the valley,” not around it.  If done intentionally then, churches can provide much-needed pastoral presence in the midst of questioning, doubt, and anger.  This, in turn, can empower victims to take an active role in the disease’s treatment.

Other ways a church community can provide support is by listening to victims and acknowledging grief that occurs from losing a breast, sexual vitality, and any relationships.

If guilt is present, the church can foster reconciliation with God or loved ones.  If anger is the overriding response to a diagnosis, the church can affirm that God is big enough to handle the pain and sorrow of any doubting victim.

The church also needs to be present for single women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as the partners of breast cancer victims.  Single women who face a mastectomy, for instance, may mourn the fact that breast feeding may not be an option if childbirth is a future goal.  Furthermore, a single woman can easily doubt her self-image and beauty, resulting in a decline of self-image and confidence.  Such issues need to be handled sensitively and with a trusted adviser, counselor or friend.

Partners of victims also need to grieve in their own way.  Some, for instance, need space to recognize that their loved one will not be the same after a surgery or treatment is pursued.  In some circumstances, the partner may also realize that he or she may have to move into a caregiver role.

By taking steps to confront breast cancer head on, especially during the month of October, the church has a chance to prophetically confront the new reality that exists on the horizon for all victims and bear witness to the “year of God’s favor” to the brokenhearted and those held captive to cancer.

(Source: Irene Henderson, “Matters Close to the Heart: Pastoral Care to Mastectomy Patients,” in Through the Eyes of Women, ed. Jeanne Stevenson Moessner [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], pp. 207-221.)

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Ministers are professionals that should take ethics seriously

As a minister, I know that gaining a congregation’s trust is one of the single most important tasks in developing a sustainable and healthy ministry.  It usually takes years to gain a church’s trust, and the hard work that it takes often requires experimentation and risk.

When it comes to trust, however, ministers face an uphill battle.  Numerous sexual, financial, and abuse-related scandals have eroded ministerial integrity.  A recent Gallup Poll shows that only half of the American population trusts clergy “high” or “very high.”

That means that one out of every two people in the United States does not trust their local church or minister.  According to pollsters, this is the lowest that clergy have scored over the last thirty years.

My feeling is that this lack of trust is not so much a misunderstanding on the part of the general population as it is a failure among clergy to uphold ministerial ethics.

Sure, pastors are like everyone else and play down their formality in order to connect with congregations, but pastors still stand apart in most communities.  Ministry does require a degree of professional ethics.

Ministerial ethics is founded upon certain bedrock principles.  One of those principles is trustworthiness.   People entrust their pastors to be spiritual caregivers.  Because people grant pastors this kind of power, it behooves pastors to not abuse or manipulate their position of authority.

To avoid abuse, pastors implement another principle of ethics, which is confidentiality.  As the people place greater trust in their pastor, the pastor has a greater responsibility to keep his or her interactions with individuals in the congregation confidential.

Where else is a person going to turn as they struggle with sin, despair, and doubt?   An obvious answer to me is, “pastor;” but if a pastor cannot keep secrets and help individuals work through their issues with God, then trust is imperiled indeed.

Valuing professional ethics also means establishing boundaries.  Ministry is an autonomous profession because most pastors keep their own schedules.  Boundaries impart the self-discipline needed to be punctual, to be intentional about sermon preparation, and to be attentive to pastoral care.

Setting boundaries also safeguards against sexual impropriety.  I once read that as many as 40% of pastors have had a situation in which some sexual indiscretion had occurred, be it related to pornography or inappropriate advances towards another person.

Ministers have a responsibility to care for themselves and their families so as to not burn out in ministry and fall into temptations beyond the point of self-control.   An exhausted minister is a vulnerable minister.

Professionalism is not a one-sided affair; churches also have a responsibility to treat their staff with utmost professionalism.  One way of determining whether your church is professional is by asking questions concerning human resources issues:  Does the church have a written and clear job description for each staff position?  Are there written policies pertaining to things like discipline, compensation, internet usage, and codes of conduct?  Does the church have a system in place to critique and evaluate staff that is free from unrealistic expectations?

When we visit a doctor’s office, we expect our physician to act according to his or her profession because the doctor is trained to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses.  So too with ministers.  Ministers are professionals trained in spiritual stewardship.  They—and the churches for whom they work—should act as such.