Friends in Ministry,
In 2004, Tori and I were serving a congregation in Central Florida. That year, in about a month, we experienced three hurricanes; Charley, Frances and Jeanne. These past weeks have felt very much like that time. While social distancing was not an issue, isolation and fear were. Isolation as people were stuck in homes without power and impassable roads, and fear for family, jobs and shelter in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.
This time of social distancing maybe a two week interlude, it may be a multi month ordeal. We have no control over this. However, there are things we do have control over and tasks to be accomplished.
One key learning of our experience in Florida is that two days before a hurricane is no time to figure out how to contact your congregation. This became even more significant after the hurricanes as we tried to determine if everyone was safe and to assess individual needs. By now, you will, I’m sure, have contacted your congregation to let them know church is canceled. Now it is time to set up a schedule to communicate with your congregation, especially the elderly, to check in, to alleviate loneliness and fear. I am aware of congregations that are doing this already by Skype and Facebook and Zoom. A good old fashioned phone call works really well too! Email is helpful but this is a time for voice (and video) contact. This ought to be a task for the whole church, elder’s districts, WMS groups and Bible Studies. It should not be difficult to create an informal schedule of who will contact whom and when.
As you contact people, a couple of thoughts:
· Allay fear. This is a frightening time and people who are alone and uncertain also have little else to do but watch TV and read the Internet. While knowledge is important, fear very quickly becomes its own echo chamber.
· Help people take this seriously. We have heard and seen reports of those who aren’t taking this seriously. While millennials are accused of this, I am also finding that many seniors are not taking this as seriously as they should.
· Use appropriate God language. This pandemic is not God’s will, and while we believe that our Lord is ruler over our world, medicine and common sense also have a role to play. (After the hurricanes many thanked God for being spared implying that those less fortunate were also less faithful). Likewise don’t make promises that God (or the church) cannot keep. Everything might not be fine and the church might not be able to help, especially monetarily, in ways it might wish.
· Ensure basic needs are being met. Do people have the medicine they need, or food, or pet food? Social distancing does not mean that we can’t (carefully) help.
· Keep in regular touch. A day can feel like a week for many and a quick check-in is often all that is needed.
· Praying over the phone or on video can feel awkward, we all need to get used to it.
This week I have noticed many working diligently to provide worship and faith resources for their people. This is commendable and important but, it is worth asking yourself; do I need to do everything? And is this the best thing I could be doing right now? If this continues we will likely have to move to sharing resources. Our National Offices are in the process of developing a spot on the PCC website where people can post their various resources, preaching etc. As well, on Tuesday, March 24 at 2 PM (EDT) there will be a webinar on live streaming. More information here: https://presbyterian.ca/webinars/
As we consider how to best minister to our flock, self-care becomes unbelievably important. Our minds and our souls are not equipped to deal with pandemic information 24/7. Nor is social media necessarily our friend if all it does is create an echo chamber of fear and frenzy. After my first email, one colleague described this time as a long overdue, much needed sabbatical. While this was said mostly in jest, it points to a simple reality, namely that this time also frees us to do other things:
· Take a walk
· Remember or embrace a hobby
· Clean the house or sort out the basement
· Take a nap
· Pray and enjoy scripture for its own sake; not to prepare a sermon
· Read a book or play a game
· Spend time with spouse and family
These are all worthy and important activities in this time and, particularly, activities that will allow you to clear your head, regain your focus and be present to your flock in helpful and faithful ways. Finally, be in touch with each other. This is a time to connect with friends and colleagues. This is a time to care for the caregivers.
In 2004 the hurricanes passed. This will pass too. In that year, we learned things about ourselves, our church and about our faith that remain with us to this day. I expect it will be the same for all of us in this season.
Tori and I are committed to providing resources throughout this time and, of course, we are as close as the phone if you want to chat.
Blessings all, you are in our prayers,
Tori and John-Peter Smit