As states begin to reopen, many churches across the country are announcing reopening plans as well. Nevertheless, it may be a while before everything returns to normal — or before we settle into a new normal.
For church leaders, this is not only a time of anticipation, but also a time to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic. This will be especially important if there is a second wave in the fall that requires a new round of stay-at-home orders.
One area of concern has been pastoral care. How do we reach out to people in need when we can’t meet with them in person?
Here are five lessons learned about pastoral care during a pandemic that can help every church navigate a new normal:
1. Physical Contact
As the virus began to surge in the U.S., social distancing became the norm. That meant extra handwashing and paying close attention to symptoms. But it also meant shaking hands and hugging were discouraged. This presented a challenge to pastors.
Physical touch is often an important part of pastoral care. In fact, the laying on of hands is prescribed in the Bible. When those things were discouraged because they might lead to spreading a virus, pastors had to quickly switch gears.
Without physical contact, words of warmth and encouragement were paramount. A simple, “I wish I could hug you, but I know I shouldn’t yet,” can go a long way.
2. Hospital Visits
At the height of the pandemic in early spring, hospitals were viewed as hotbeds of contagions and were nearly off-limits. Those who did visit were required to wear PPE and pass a screening. Even then, some rooms were not accessible to the public. Hospital chaplains also had to change the way they minister.
Rather than rush back to the way things were, wise ministers will stop and ponder the lessons learned.
But prayer goes beyond barriers. God responds to the cries of His people regardless of our circumstances. Pastors learned to confer with their members in the hospital via Zoom meetings or FaceTime calls. Nothing can replace being at the bedside, but pastors can still find creative ways to nurture those in need.
3. Weddings and Funerals
With restrictions on the number of people allowed to meet in a location at one time, it was nearly impossible to hold weddings and funerals. Though many rescheduled their vows, others found inventive ways around it.
Many pastors performed weddings in person with a small group while wearing a mask or standing six feet away. Others even presided over the ceremonies through a video chat.
Funerals were perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Sadly, not all who wanted to attend funerals could amid social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions. Comforting those who mourn meant breaking from tradition and finding new ways to minister — such as performing intimate graveside services for a few family members while others joined online.
As stores and restaurants were temporarily closed, people were laid off work by employers who could no longer pay them. The need for aid increased dramatically. But what also increased was the response from churches.
Many churches offered drive-through benevolence or delivered groceries to those affected. Church members stepped up to help, volunteering and giving generously, despite their own challenges.
5. Home Visitation
With stay-at-home orders, those who were already confined to their homes due to health or mobility were especially isolated. Without a way to come into their home, sit with them and minister to them, how would pastors respond?
Thankfully, social distancing guidelines did not restrict a knock on the door and a conversation from the porch, a telephone call in the middle of the day, or a handwritten note each week. And many pastors did just that.
Rather than rush back to the way things were, wise ministers will stop and ponder the lessons learned. They will not only be invaluable if there is a resurgence of the pandemic, but will lead to more innovations for the future of pastoral care.