I’ve just sent an email that, if written about me (and it could have been), would have left me spitting blood. There’s a bit of me that’s howling at the keyboard and clawing at my own throat. But the other bit (which is bigger and louder), hit ‘send’.
A church leader has asked me about a member of his congregation. She is extremely thin and getting thinner. She also serves in a number of public ways in the church. Lots of people are worried. No-one wants to say anything, because that would be judgmental or might make her worse. After all, don’t we all struggle?
What would you do?
Here’s my thoughts:
On the one hand, her public involvement in certain ministries is an important – perhaps vital – source of support. She could argue that it gives her a reason to keep going. An identity beyond her eating disorder. A way of serving. A purpose. To take this away would be difficult and maybe harmful. Plus, there’s pragmatics. Every church needs more leaders.
If the church asks her to step down, what is it saying to her? ‘If you struggle you can’t serve?’ It’s not her fault her battles are written on her skin. And what about all the others, the ones whose battles we can’t see so clearly? Are we taking everyone off the rota?
She’s a grown-up. No-one can make her get help. And anyway, isn’t prayer enough?
They’re important points. But that’s not what I said. I said something like this: the slide needs to be arrested. She’s at a critically low weight. She needs a break from public ministry. She needs you to be honest with her about your concerns and the need for medical help. She needs love and prayer and maybe for you and others to step in where she doesn’t want you to go. I wouldn’t advise this for every individual. But given what you’ve told me, that’s what I got.
In her shoes, I can think of nothing worse. But that’s what I wrote. And here’s why:
Seven or so years ago, I was slipping into serious anorexia. I was also heavily involved in ministry. I loved the work and the kids and the other leaders. God was blessing our efforts and (as with many churches) there weren’t enough leaders to meet the needs. I was good at what I did and I needed the money as a way of funding my studies. I was also losing weight at an alarming rate.
If you’d told me I couldn’t do my job, I’d have thrown a wobbly of epic proportions. And people did challenge me – though not about my work. ‘We’re worried about you’ they said. ‘Are you getting help?’
I assured them that I was (and it was true, though I wasn’t yet sick enough to qualify for inpatient care).
Tutors at college. Co-workers. Family. They talked to me – and for that I’m very grateful. But everyone thought that someone else was helping, and I was all too willing to crawl through the gaps.
I don’t know what, if anything would have made a difference. Perhaps nothing. As I got sicker, I dropped out of work and life anyway.
I owe my life to local church and to other Christians – both at that time and now. And it’s easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But some responsibilities should have been taken from me earlier. Everyone struggles – but there are some battles that others must help us fight. And it might have helped if others said the ‘no’ I couldn’t say to myself.
So: to the girl whose pastor might ask for a chat: I’m sorry. But sometimes there’s more love in a ‘no’ than a ‘yes’.