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Building up ‘Faith Community Stewards’ for Support in Palliative Care

Churches are often in the business of equipping people for service—training deacons, instructing Sunday School teachers, preparing youth leaders. This past year at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich., some members became equipped to serve fellow congregants experiencing life-changing illnesses. Eastern Ave. CRC partnered with Trillium Institute in this new endeavor, piloting the Faith Community Stewards program.

Trillium Institute is a non-denominational resource for palliative care that emphasizes education and training for people to “live well, die well, and grieve well.” Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life for those living with life-altering illnesses such as dementia or cancer.

For the Faith Community Stewards program, churches bring an existing network of trusted support, and Trillium Institute brings training and mentorship. Church members become “stewards,” offering peer-to-peer support for those facing life-altering illnesses, and becoming a go-between to the rest of the church community.

“Life-altering events are often complicated and bring up past griefs and hurts (that) require comfort and compassion,” said Carol Flietstra, one of the Eastern Ave. stewards. “Being involved in this program as Community Steward resurrected in me a renewal of my gift of “seeing” and sensing the needs of others and my strongly held belief that God loves us for just “being” and (that) is grace alone.”

Jan Quist is another volunteer steward. Quist and Flietstra have extensive backgrounds in hospice care but found the perceptions around their experience might have scared people off from volunteering. Being a steward is not about professional experience but asking questions, listening, encouraging decisions based on the person’s values, offering practical care, and in all things building trust.

John Mulder, medical director of Trillium Institute, emphasised the importance of trust: “Even non-medically trained people can ask simple questions that will enable the patient to articulate what’s important to them so that they can confidently make decisions,” he said. “When this person is already trusted by the patient, the effects are much greater.” 

For Quist, being a steward meant regular interactions with two people. She offered practical care in making living wills, choosing a patient advocate, and arranging communication between a physician’s office and another provider. She also walked with a member who uses a wheelchair, and gave hand massages, prayer, and support for family decisions. “It was a joy to see someone making good decisions after being able to talk about alternatives. Folks need to be able to think out loud without feeling judged,” Quist said.

The Faith Community Steward Program will affect CRC churches beyond Eastern Avenue, as Trillium Institute received a grant from Classis Grand Rapids East (regional group of churches) to initiate the program in five additional congregations. They hope for the program to continue to spread across denominations.

At Eastern Avenue, Quist said the steward program is continuing on an informal basis. 

Related: Church Worldwide: How Congregations Might Aid Family Caregivers

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