What Chronic Back Pain Teaches Me About Pastoring

I have always been a relatively healthy person. As a pastor, it has often been difficult to relate to church members through the years who have struggled with chronic illness and pain. I was an athlete in high school and in college. Regular workouts and staying fit are something I have done most of my life.

Like many, I have periodically gained and lost weight, but if I set my mind to it, I can always get to peak health in just a few months. We moved several years ago to the town where I serve as pastor, and I have yet to get a primary care physician because, like many, about the only time I see a doctor is when I have a sinus infection or the flu.

In terms of health and medicine, I have not understood fully the challenges many congregants face – the constant stream of appointments, the long medication lists, the side effects and other frustrations.

All that has changed.

For nearly a month I have struggled with upper back and neck pain. A few days ago, it got to a point I could no longer function.

I initially decided maybe it’s time I get a primary care doctor. I made phone call after phone call to practices that I was told are not taking new patients. Many of the providers I was calling were 30 to 40 minutes away. Long drives are often a part of receiving care in our rural community. Some of my church members have daily or weekly checkups after major surgery, and they have to drive more than an hour to make those visits or to go to physical therapy.

“I have a new level of sympathy for those who struggle with chronic health issues.”

Finally, I found a physician who is taking new patients and who luckily practices in town. Of course, the first available appointment is mid-September. My back pain was so bad, I went ahead and made the appointment, just to get into the practice, knowing that I could not wait until then to see a doctor about my pain.

After scheduling that appointment, I texted my staff to let them know I was going to our local clinic to seek some answers and, hopefully, some relief. I’m grateful for the clinic, and have made multiple visits personally and with our kids.

In this case, I not only wanted relief for my pain, I wanted to find out the cause. Therein lay the problem.

I learned quickly that the physician attending me was more interested in treating (I call it masking) my pain, rather than helping me figure out where it was coming from. I explained that my upper back and neck were constantly burning with pain, night and day, and that I could barely function at work, parent my children or sleep at night.

He assured me that at 37 I was just getting older. He suggested taking Ibuprofen up to four times a day and to see my primary care physician in a week if the problem persists. I mentioned more than once I cannot see that doctor until next month. He offered me a Toradol shot, which I accepted out of desperation to get some relief.

“We should do better at ministering to those who are hurting physically as well as spiritually and emotionally.”

But every time I asked for help figuring out why I was in pain, he deflected. I suggested maybe an x-ray would reveal a spinal issue, or an MRI might indicate nerve or tissue damage. He looked at me and said, “What makes you think you need an x-ray?” I tried calmly to explain that my understanding was that back pain like what I am experiencing can come from a variety of issues.

“Like what?” he responded. Maybe it was the pain, but I felt myself getting angry, even wondering if I was being taunted by this doctor.

“Welcome to the club!” he continued. “Lots of people have back pain. I just took some pain pills a few minutes ago!” Then, he walked out of the room, ordered the Taradol injection and went on to see his next “patient.”

The most infuriating thing about my visit was that the paper I was handed when I left stated, “The following issue was addressed: Acute midline low back pain.” My pain is in my upper back. And neck. And shoulders. And I told the intake nurse, the doctor and the nurse that gave the injection in my left flank that my pain was in my upper back.

All this to say, as a pastor who is not yet 40 and who has always been healthy, I have a new level of sympathy for those who struggle with chronic health issues. Too many doctors, it seems, are more interested in treating and masking symptoms instead of identifying root causes and health issues. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life and church in there somewhere.)

I have learned through all this that many congregants may be in constant pain and unable to focus on basic tasks. They may be short with their loved ones. They may not have energy like they once did. They are suffering. They very well may leave their doctor with more questions than answers. I, of course, knew all these things already, but the knowing is deeper when it is lived experience.

Christians and congregations should care deeply about fixing the broken healthcare system in our country. We should care about helping people who are suffering to see their lives through the lens of faith. And we should do better at ministering to those who are hurting physically as well as spiritually and emotionally. God is indeed the Great Physician, and the church as the hands and feet of Christ may bring healing to this world in a number of ways.

How is God calling us to minister to the chronically ill and hurting? Sometimes empathy only comes through our own suffering. I even read somewhere about a Suffering Servant. There’s a metaphor in that too, worth clinging to with every ounce of my being.

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