Spokane’s Episcopal Bishop Reflects on Needing Lung Transplant & How it Relates to Congregational Health
Guest Commentary by Bishop Gretchen Rehberg
“You need a lung transplant, you are very sick,” the pulmonologist said.
“But I don’t feel sick,” I said.
For over 20 years, I have had a lung disease that slowly progressed over time in such a way that I could ignore the slow progression and attribute the symptoms to other things.
The fact that I took walks that no longer had any hills I justified by being out of shape. The reality that I was walking much shorter walks I said was based on time. The fact that people asked if I had been running to the phone because I sounded out of breath I took to my speaking fast.
I did not attribute what was happening to my lung disease getting worse until about 10 years ago when it was unavoidable that I had to speak to the doctor. At which point, he told me not only was I worse, but my initial diagnosis was wrong and I had a much more serious lung disease than previously thought.
After a whole lot of testing, I ended up being on medication and oxygen. I was to use oxygen at night and “with exertion.” Of course, I promptly justified in my own mind that normal activities were not exertion. I did not want anyone seeing me wear oxygen in public. After all, I was not sick!
Come forward 10 years, and my disease has continued its slow progression. And my need to wear oxygen was more obvious even to me. But I was not prepared to hear it was time to go on the transplant list. Oh sure, I was not who I had been, but I am not really that unhealthy, am I?
“You have learned how to cope, and are in denial,” the pulmonologist said.
Going onto the Transplant List
A lung transplant is a scary thing. It is not for the slightly sick. You have to meet the criteria to be bad enough to need it, and also, to not be so bad that you are actually too sick for a transplant. The doctors told me that I fit this criteria well, and that it was appropriate for me to go on the list.
As I wrestled and prayed with all this news meant, all that it implied about my own self-image of being a person in good health, my own ideas about what I want to be doing and how I wanted to organize my life, it occurred to me that so much about my own diagnosis is applicable to the church today.
What others clearly saw about how unhealthy I was, I did not. I had learned to justify, ignore and cope, with a great illness that, without dramatic intervention, will kill me.
How many of our congregations are the same? We want to cast the problems we are facing outward. No families with young children? It is obviously Sunday soccer. Shrinking attendance? Must be the music. Without being able to actually say we are not healthy, we will not take the steps needed to become healthy.
My Disease Helps Me to See How to Make the Church Healthier
I am not the only one, of course, to make the connections between the need to admit sickness and the ability to get healthy. People in recovery are well aware of this. We don’t often think about our congregations in this way, but perhaps it would be helpful if we did.
Our personal life can also help us think about our congregation’s movement toward health. I have a spiritual director, a coach and a physician — all of whom are focused on me and what I need to do to be healthy in my life.
Likewise, there are many resources for congregations, not only in the church world but the secular world. The key is that we do not need to try to get healthy all by ourselves, and we need to admit we need help!
I am in a transplant support group and have come to observe many types of responding to this reality, from anger and bitterness to resignation to determination. The same can be true of the challenges facing the church and how we respond.
What I am clear about in my own life is that I do not think that my illness came from God, and I do not think it happened for some divine reason. My theology rejects that. Instead, I follow the God who came and suffered and died alongside us, the God who walks with me in my sickness, the God who promises resurrection and healing.
I will admit to some anger at the diagnosis, some frustration at what it meant. I also know that God understands and accepts that anger and frustration, and if I am willing to engage in the process, I can find healing.
“Whether to go on the transplant list or not is up to you,” the team said.
It ultimately is my choice, to choose the scary and risky unknown in order to gain new life, or to slowly die from my illness. I choose to risk in order to live. I hope our congregations will do the same, and ultimately, the choice is always theirs.
The Right Reverend Gretchen M. Rehberg, Ph.D., D.Min. was ordained and consecrated March 18, 2017 as ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.
You speak both bravely and honestly (maybe those are connected?) about your lung disease. I wasn’t sure if you are simply on the transplant list or that you’ve actually had the transplant. Either way, I honor your public admission! My hunch is it will make an important impact on the people of the Episcopal Church in your Diocese. Who knows, maybe a few Methodists might catch on to what congregational health is about too. 🙂