How did you get started in this ministry?
During our first Christmas, together as man and wife, we experienced a miscarriage. It was 1991. We found ourselves feeling very sad during a season where many were joyful. Chris suggested we “do something good” to help others and maybe even distract ourselves during this difficult time. I was unsure of what to do, but Chris suggested we sing Christmas carols at a nursing home. He had remembered that his mother, Margaret Herman, would take him and his four siblings each week to visit residents of a nursing home. They did that for two years. If one woman can take five children to a nursing home, surely we could go! Little did we know where this one event would lead.
Later the next year, God graciously brought forth our first child, Emily. Parenthood was challenging and, of course, time consuming. Prior to becoming parents, we had been very involved in ministry at our church. Naturally priorities shifted, but it seemed the pendulum shifted dramatically from being very involved to no involvement. Then the Holy Spirit began to whisper in our ears. While glued to a weekly T.V. show, we looked at each other and asked ourselves, “What are we doing?” We had time for this T.V. show, but not ministry? That’s when we decided to trade our “T.V. time” for “serving others” time.
Together, as a family, we began weekly visits to the nursing home. This activity became contagious. Others from our church joined us, which led to providing weekly prayer and communion services. Our children grew up serving these precious souls. This year we celebrated 26 years of nursing home ministry.
What exactly does the ministry do?
St. Lazarus Mission seeks, gathers, and cares for Christ’s scattered sheep living in nursing homes. Uniquely, we approach ministry holistically. We adopt everyone in the nursing home — residents and families, staff and management. We love anyone and everyone, Christian and non-Christian. We minister both to and with people, enabling the least of these, the destitute and dying, and the otherwise forgotten and put away, to be the local, missional church in each nursing home where they live with purpose, for the glory of God, instead of just waiting to die.
Most people do not realize that chaplains and priests can visit nursing home residents, but the homes themselves rarely have any religious representative on staff. Some states, however, require nursing homes to provide religious activities. During our early visits, we made friends with the Activities Director, who saw a difference in the lives of those we visited. We were invited to begin holding services which we did, but we also stuck around afterwards and connected with everyone in the building. The residents, staff members, whether it was a nurse or janitor, or a family member visiting — we saw them all as people entrusted to our care by the Lord.
The residents are not able to attend services or participate in being part of a church family away from the nursing home, so we created a church family around them. We love on them, they love on one another, as church members do, but all within the walls of the nursing home, functioning more like a parish as the residents find purpose again. Lots of people in nursing homes feel abandoned and forsaken and lose hope. But, as former members of churches, once they see us acting like a church family they are thrilled to join with us and fulfill God’s call to them to finish the race well!
There has been massive growth in the number of nursing homes throughout the country, but they can be somewhat invisible unless you are visiting someone living in one. Sadly, neither the Church nor the culture have paid much attention to this unique group of people. Age is the great equalizer though. The folks in the nursing homes are done pursuing wealth and security and now, facing the end, they are much more open to accepting Jesus as Lord or recommitting their lives to Him after years of backsliding.
The blessing is that God is still interested in them and bringing them back into fellowship with Him is a great joy, especially when they graduate to heaven, and we know they are meeting Jesus. Based on our records and that of the nursing home staff we work with, we see about 45% of the residents coming to the Lord or recommitting their lives to Him.
The ministry focused on establishing one church in one nursing home for a number of years. Once it was established, we have been able to collaborate and get support to establish three more churches!
How is the St. Lazarus Mission sustained and why is it called a Mission?
To people outside the nursing homes, we appear to be a Mission with multiple locations. However the dear folks we serve, and who serve us, by the way, simply see us as their church.
Collaboration is essential for us. We cannot function without working together with other organizations and groups. St. Lazarus Mission relies upon the members of two local parishes in the Dayton area for the vast majority of our 40 or so volunteers. These parishes are: Christ the King Anglican Church, Dayton, Ohio and Christ our Hope Anglican Church, Dayton, Ohio
We are part of the Anglican Church in North America’s (ACNA) Matthew 25 Initative (M25i). M25i was a key to jump starting us as God was calling us to plant more churches in more nursing homes. We needed a financial boost to make it work. Oddly, we did not really understand how significant it would become, but God did. We applied for a grant, which was a matching funds grant, and we really did not think we would receive it, because it just did not seem that many people really cared all that much about the elderly sick and dying, or those with severe dementia, and so forth.
But God put it on the M25i leaders’ hearts, and they established a grant, and we suddenly began to receive donations from people and parishes we had never anticipated. We raised the money, or rather, others did. Fr. Franklin Sanders, made an impassioned plea, along with our Diocesan Bishops, Dan Morse and Peter Manto, and parishes heard their request and sent the money we needed to match the grant.
The donations made it possible for us to plant two new missions, and we have the resources for a third new plant (which will bring us to serving four facilities directly) scheduled to begin in October when a brand new nursing home opens its doors.
In one of the nursing homes where we are now planting a new mission, we have a growing bond with a local church from a completely different denomination. At first the staff thought we would fight because, theologically, our clergy are so far apart on so many flashpoint issues, such as infant baptism and our use of the liturgy. Yet we have surprised everyone, as we are working together, realizing the importance of unity in the Body.
Furthermore, we work together with Dominion Academy of Dayton, who makes community service part of their curriculum. Once each month, during the school year, students from first through eighth grades visit one of the nursing homes and interact with the residents. This not only brightens the day for the residents but helps the students become familiar with the environment so that, hopefully, when they grow into adults, they will take up their responsibility to care for the aged. I hope this will serve to protect their hearts from accepting the concept of assisted or even mandatory suicide or euthanasia, which is a spectre that looms in the veiled language of ensuring “quality of life.”
What has been the most surprising or unexpected result of your ministry?
In the course of this ministry, we were surprised that Chris was encouraged by many in the church to become an ordained priest. It was a calling that has been very challenging to our family, but God has provided His grace to us as Chris walked in obedience. The most surprising aspect of his ordination has been that doors have opened as a result. The displaced Christians in nursing homes are DESPERATELY longing for a pastor.
Also, I didn’t expect it to be an evangelistic field. It seems so silly, now. We were in the nursing home serving the body of Christ, right? OK, yes, but as we began to function as the body of Christ (residents and our team together), the light of Christ began to shine brightly. Darkness was dispelled, and residents and staff who did not know Christ started calling on the Name of the Lord.
Visit LazarusMission.org to learn more!
This article was originally featured in the June 2017 Carpe Diem newsletter.