Caregiving and Ministry: A Shifting Balance
From Mother’s Day 2019 to St. Patrick’s Day 2020, my husband and I cared for my mother in our home.
Her name was Louise, but everyone knew her as “Coffee,” a nickname she picked up in college because her maiden name was Maxwell.
My mother was always interested in my ministry as a Christian educator.
That had been her training as well.
When I entered the Doctor of Educational Ministry program of Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS), Coffee wanted a recap of every class.
She was even more excited when I founded Bright Threads Ministries, a consulting nonprofit to help churches learn to include people with special needs in the Body of Christ.
For five years I ran Bright Threads Ministries out of a spare bedroom.
I developed training videos, conducted seminars, and traveled to conferences.
Then Coffee arrived.
When she came to live with us, she was 99.
Coffee had been living in an intentional Christian community whose members cared for her deeply but couldn’t provide the constant attention she needed.
Her mind was sound, and she could walk with a walker but had lost most of her vision and had only about a third of her hearing, with hearing aids making up some of the deficit.
My husband had recently retired and we both thought, “We can do this with a part-time caregiver to tend to her needs and keep her occupied.”
We quickly discovered that finding a caregiver who had regular hours – and who could meaningfully engage with a former Presbyterian missionary who had dedicated her life to peace and justice causes – was nearly impossible.
She was a determined and highly distinct individual.
The “system” was generic and haphazard.
I found myself torn.
How could I balance the needs of my ministry while caring for my mother at home?
Travel to workshops and conferences was out of the question.
The work of Bright Threads Ministries was reduced to phone calls and emails.
One of my ongoing commitments was leading a Wednesday evening Bible study for adults with developmental disabilities.
I left the house at about 5 o’clock and returned about 8:45, which was around Mom’s bedtime.
My husband was able to fix meals and keep her engaged, reading or conversing with her, but he was not able to help her in the bathroom or to dress for bed.
So, I was under pressure to finish class responsibilities on time and dash home in order to take care of those duties.
It didn’t always work smoothly.
Mom was a natural worrier, and from the moment I left until the moment I walked in the door, she worried.
If I were late, she grew more anxious. Compromise and tension were the constants on Wednesdays.
Parents of young children know about compromise and tension, but as children grow up, they become more independent.
My mother was becoming more dependent as the weeks went by.
Lack of sleep was taking its toll on me.
Balancing ministry to the community and ministry of caring for an individual had reached a tipping point.
I couldn’t do both.
I had to choose.
So we visited a senior center to arrange for respite care.
The following week, Mom was suddenly stricken with peritonitis.
After several fitful days in the hospital, we moved her to hospice, where she died peacefully.
The 10 months that my mother lived with us gave me a deep appreciation for people whose family caregiving lasts for years.
And I learned a few things.
First, I have no regrets.
It was a gift to share my mother’s spiritual life in that time.
Scripture and singing were mainstays for her, so we read the Bible and sang hymns and old Girl Scout camp songs, which never failed to make her happy.
In her final days, I did both of those things at her bedside, whether she was conscious or not.
Second, I am convinced that through the days in which the future was completely unknown and we wondered how long we could carry on, God was with us.
God was there when we took Coffee in, and in the same way, when she left us, God was there as well.
Dr. Evelyn Worth McMullen is a Certified Christian Educator, serving for over 30 years in PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries. She is a 2012 graduate of the CTS Doctor of Educational Ministry program.
Since 2015 Evelyn has been the founding director of Bright Threads Ministries, https://brightthreadsministries.org/ showing churches how to weave people of ALL abilities into the fabric of congregational life. She can be reached at BrightThreadsMinistries@gmail.com.
Evelyn is leading the course The Church and People with Intellectual Disabilities this spring. Learn more here.