Lay-led Ministry of Montgomery FUMC Reaches Dementia Community

April 10, 2017
Five years ago, it all started with a little bit of vision and whole lot of passion. The Respite Ministry at Montgomery FUMC celebrated their successes at a banquet luncheon on Thursday, April 6, 2017. But that banquet was really just a formality to the thousands of hours of care given each week to dementia patients. The real story began when Daphne Johnston felt a call into the ministry. At the age of 35, Daphne was ready to “retire” from her management positions in older adult nursing and retirement care and felt like it was time to do something bigger, better and perhaps more meaningful. Often times you turn to your fellow church members and leaders to seek their guidance with a major life change. She did just that. 
“Montgomery FUMC was lucky to have a pastor like Lawson Bryan (now Bishop Bryan). He was approachable and took every little idea seriously. I know he thought I was crazy when I approached him and asked him what it would look like for our church to host and provide care for area residents with dementia,” said Johnston. “But he didn’t write me off. He listened, we researched, we prayed and just made it happen.” 
The Respite Ministry began in 2012 with a startup fund of $50,000 from Montgomery FUMC to get the program up and running. Now, five years later, the program operates four days a week and boasts 120 volunteers who spend 11,000 volunteer hours a year working with program participants. Over $30,000 of scholarship money was awarded last year. It is important for the church to not turn anyone who qualifies away from the ministry. 
The day program is filled with activities to engage the ministry participants. Johnston explained that it was vital for the participants to feel like they are coming each day to “volunteer” in a positive environment. “On the surface it would be difficult to differentiate our participants from volunteers,” she said. “We make a concerted effort to help our participants feel they are part of something bigger than dementia care. We strive to really get to know our patients and enter into their world.” She explained that everyone wears a similar name tag, everyone sits together and group participation is key in this integrated structure. Sessions are also referred to as “classes” to emphasize the learning component. The range of activities includes a devotion, prayer, a Side by Side choir, fellowship and service projects. 
Bishop Lawson Bryan, Episcopal leader in the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, credits Johnston with the success of the program. “There is no member more passionate about her gifts and graces than Daphne Johnston,” said Bryan. “Not only was it rare for a 35-year-old young adult to care so much about our dementia community, it was rare that she was in our very own church. Programs from around the country are now seeking her guidance to implement and replicate what we started just five short years ago. Often in the denomination we judge success by numbers but it’s clear to see the success of this program by the amount of requests she has received to educate people about this ministry. In my 42 years of ministry, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a local church ministry reach outside of the walls of the church like the Respite Ministry has,” said Bryan. 
In fact, only two members of the current program are Montgomery FUMC members, although many of the volunteers are members. It’s important to the church to not have a set quota for how many dementia patients be members, non members, Methodist, Baptist, Jewish, etc. The one thing that is important is for participants to overcome the stigma of having the disease, to show up and participate. 
The key to this ministry’s success has certainly been its volunteers. Johnston explained, “These are folks that might not have ever officially volunteered in their life. Many of them are recently retired and are seeking a little more meaning for their spare time. And some of these volunteers have lost family members to dementia so it’s very personal to them to see our participants be joyful and gain so much from their time together. The families who have relatives with dementia are beyond grateful to what we do every week. It gives them time during the day to tend to their daily life needs.”
Susan Somers, a member at neighboring Frazer Memorial UMC in Montgomery, AL, couldn’t compliment the program enough. “My husband happened to see a one-time ad in the local paper about this program and we couldn’t believe our eyes. We had prayed for how to handle my mother’s declining health and there was our answer,” she said. Her 88-year-old mother, Jimelou Hunter, has been active in the program for over two-and-a-half years. The biggest challenge for Somers was keeping her mother active, busy and engaged. “When mother is at home, she’s lonely, depressed and often cries. As soon as we arrive at the Respite Program, it’s her happy place and she’s actively interacting with others in the room, living in the moment.”
A God moment for the Somers family was when a Downs Syndrome adult, Keith, started attending Respite. Mrs. Hunter worked with special needs children during her career and immediately identified with Keith and takes ownership for his well being while they are together at the day program. Susan said, “Mother thinks she is 100% responsible for him while he is there. It is beautiful to see their special bond.”
“I truly believe this program does more for her than her medication,” said Somers. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is, in fact, working on a study to prove this theory.
Somers often joins her mother at the day program to reduce anxiety and is most thankful that, “I get to be a daughter when mother is at Respite. There is no dementia in that room. Everyone is there doing the best they can and loving one another. It takes away the sadness of dementia. I am so grateful for this precious time with my mother. Instead of dwelling on the bad, I’m able to focus on what I still have.”
Dr. Jeremy Pridgeon, current pastor at Montgomery FUMC, has done what any wise leader would do with a program like this, simply get out of the way! “Upon my appointment to Montgomery FUMC in September of 2016, it was clear that this was one ministry that didn’t need my guidance,” said Pridgeon. “The Respite Ministry was already a well-oiled machine that was almost exclusively lay driven. This ministry has inspired our members and staff to think outside of the church walls as it has an ecumenical reach around the town. We’re able to reach families who find the demands of care giving overwhelming. Many of them would not be able to worship and experience God’s love at all without this ministry.” 
One can only imagine what the next five years hold. So much has been done in so little time, this will be a ministry, without a doubt, to closely watch. As Mrs. Somers stated, “More places desperately need this program. We need to do more for our older adults.” More information can be found at here to see photos from the banquet.