By Eddie Pipkin

Rahm Emmanuel, former Obama presidency chief of staff and Chicago mayor from 2011 to 2019, was perhaps most famous for this quote: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.  It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”  The present crisis is going to change us all. We are just beginning months of unprecedented suffering and turmoil. American life will be shifted permanently in unpredictable ways.  Ministry, too, will change.  As leaders there is currently so much we have no control over, but we serve God well by using this time to take initiative where we can, do a deep dive on our core values, and keep an active eye towards the future. So many of the things we have the power to address, especially now, are things we should have been focusing on when times were good.

Many of the issues that are going to loom large now for the people who make up our congregations and their families are an intensification of problems that were already simmering (sometimes under the radar):

Loneliness: We were already facing a crisis of loneliness. Churches offer one of the best hopes offering a place for disconnected people to connect.  This has been a tremendous problem, particularly among the elderly, many of whom are now feeling dishearteningly isolated during the current pandemic crisis.  Local churches are finding innovative ways to make sure older folks are connected and cared for (including helping them use technology to connect, setting up delivery volunteers to keep them supplied, and developing new teams whose mission is to check in and develop a dialogue on a regular basis).  Old ideas are new again, as church members are concerned about the pandemic crisis are making phone calls and even safely distanced visits.  But the truth is that this population was desperately in need of our attention and care before this crisis brought their dilemma dramatically to the forefront as a news story.

Lack of Access to Medical Care: The pandemic crisis has produced disturbing images of people who can’t get the emergency healthcare they need.  But the truth is that lack of adequate affordable medical care has been a concern for many communities for years.  Some churches have been able to dream big and help with medical outreach ministries.  Others have been able to provide health assessment drives and help people navigate available services with a streamlined approach.  Many have promoted healthy “get moving” and “eat right” initiatives.  Some have partnered with schools or community health programs, sent volunteers to regional medical ministries, or established programs to pay off medical debt.  This is a social justice issue that every church should give long-term consideration. How they can be part of the solution?

Economic and food insecurity: Food pantries, food drives, and homeless feeding initiatives, as well as benevolence funds, are basic ministries for many churches, but the need for these services is about to skyrocket for the foreseeable future.  Churches will react as best they can to meet this increased need, but those in the best position to respond will be the churches who think about these problem as an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed structurally.  Does your church have an organized approach to working with those facing economic hardship?  Is it a core ministry of your church?  How is such ministry financed: with a dedicated funding source or by an ad hoc fundraising drive as needs arise?  It’s also beneficial to have some volunteers on hand whose passion is connecting those in need with the available government and non-profit safety net services.  It is a special kind of expertise that can help people facing stressful situations navigate the complex bureaucracy involved in getting aid.

Mental Health Issues: People are going to be stressed, depressed, dealing with anxiety, and facing a variety of other mental health crises related to this pandemic and the enforced social isolation and unexpected job loss and economic hardship that is resulting.  People will need support, someone to talk to, and access to counseling and various levels of professional care.  As with economic needs, local churches serve their congregations well if they have a comprehensive listing of affordable mental health services and how they can be accessed.  Pastors run the risk of being overrun and overwhelmed by people using them in place of other professional forms of talk therapy.  To share that load (and help guide people to options they may not have considered, many virtual), gifted volunteers can be an outlet for those who need someone to talk to.  Prepare for the surge.  Train small group leaders to be on the lookout for signs that group members may need some extra support.  This is another issue that has already been a need in communities that churches often have no clear plan to address.  Many people in our worship services still feel ostracized and shamed by their mental health struggles.

In a long-form article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong, titled “How the Crisis will End,” the author explores some of the seismic societal shifts that are being generated by the pandemic:

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes. Children, whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus, may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.

But “there is also the potential for a much better world after we get through this trauma,” says Richard Danzig of the Center for a New American Security. Already, communities are finding new ways of coming together, even as they must stay apart. Attitudes to health may also change for the better. The rise of HIV and AIDS “completely changed sexual behavior among young people who were coming into sexual maturity at the height of the epidemic,” [said one expert]. Similarly, washing your hands for 20 seconds, a habit that has historically been hard to enshrine even in hospitals, “may be one of those behaviors that we become so accustomed to in the course of this outbreak that we don’t think about them,” [the expert] adds.

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University.

Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.

He notes the societal shifts that resulted after the 9/11 terrorism crisis and predicts that the post-pandemic policy discussion may initiate permanent changes in how we think about and administer health care.  Churches can be a part of that conversation.

Meanwhile, there are many adaptations that churches are bringing about under pressure (and doing a commendable job in executing, I will say, based on my online observations as I visit churches virtually).  There are areas we can shine (and which we should have implemented well before this crisis).  We have written about these strategies many times in this space:

Online Giving Options: Have an easy-to-use platform for remote giving.  Communicate regularly, with transparency, and with a hopeful but honest message about the financial situation at your church.  Encourage people to “pay their pledges forward” if they are financially able to do so.  Remind people, also, that if they still have their job and full paycheck and find themselves with a government stimulus check soon, they might consider giving all or part of it to support ministry.  Don’t forget to share firsthand witnesses of gratitude and blessings, and don’t forget to share stories about the good work that faithful giving is doing to share God’s grace in this difficult time.

Forging new connections:  Lots of ZOOM groups are getting together out there.  Keep it up (although do a little research on the recent security concerns surrounding this platform).  This is something we should have been doing already – virtual meetings – and they offer a window into how we can widen our small group and study options for the future (not to mention cutting down on the laborious schedule of in-person meetings most of us endure).

Repairing old connections and deepening existing connections:  It’s a great time to bring people back into the fold, catch up on threads that got lost along the way, and take time for some long conversations that have been pushed to the bottom of the priority list.

Celebrating creativity in ways that can last:  It has been a delight to see all of the virtual music performances that have flooded social media feeds and church websites.  Why weren’t we doing this along?  What a great way to highlight your talented musicians, brighten someone’s day, and enhance worship themes than to let these artists do their thing (in ways you never have time for on Sunday).  And when we say artists, you can expand beyond the music folks to visual artists, writers, photographers, dancers, and actors.  It’s a whole new way to raise the presence of the arts in the life of the church.

How is your church adapting to the rapid-fire changes?  How are you finding new ways to connect (and old ways to reconnect)?  What core values are being brought into focus by the current crisis?

Share your stories, and let’s move forward together with courage and the assurance of God’s grace, whatever form it may take.