by Tim Woodroof
Our people are hurting. It doesn’t matter how mature, deep, God-connected they may be, they are hurting. New times bring new challenges and new stressors. It doesn’t take a degree in clinical psychology to calculate the following equation:
Disruption + Stress + Uncertainty + Inactivity + Loss of Routine + Protracted Time + Isolation + Cabin Fever = Unhealthy Reactions (such as depression, anxiety, fear, anger, drinking, loneliness, apathy, despair)
Our people are experiencing all of these reactions … and the more time passes, the more pronounced their reactions will be. Our usual “remedies” for these negative emotions—routine, relationships, worship, activities and events, social interaction and physical contact—aren’t working (or, at least, aren’t working in the same way) in a COVID-19 world.
As church leaders, charged by God with the care of his people, we have a responsibility to minister to our members and look after them: body, heart, mind, and soul. Here are ten suggestions for watching over the emotional and psychological welfare of our members:
- Build a psychological care team. There are people in your congregation with a background in and training for psychological care: counselors, ex-ministers, school principals, nurses, etc.. At the least, you have people of compassion, good listeners, sensitive and perceptive. Identify these people. Make a list. Name a leader. Call a video conference meeting. Give them this charge (or something close to it):“Obviously, these are difficult times. Our people are hurting. We don’t know who in particular or how badly or in what ways. But not knowing scares us and convicts us that we are not caring for our people as we should. So we are asking for your help. Would you help us develop strategies for contacting our members, assessing their psychological and emotional health, preventing problems where possible, and providing effective help options when problems arise? We will be your partners in this, support your efforts, and provide church resources to implement the strategies you think necessary. But we need you to use your training and experience and spiritual gifts to help us know what to do. And we need it yesterday. We have asked ___________ to lead this effort. Would you be willing to participate as a member of this team?”When your team is formed, ask them to present a list of recommendations (about the remaining items on this list or any new ideas they think of) to church leaders within 48 hours.
- Build a list of professional psychological counselors. Who are the trained, experienced, effective counselors you would be willing to entrust your people to? Not necessarily members of your congregation or denomination. But compassionate, caring, wise, experienced practitioners to whom you could refer your people. Who are the people your members have turned to in the past and could recommend? Contact them. Ask if they would be willing and/or have the availability to work with church members you might send their way. Better to have a counselor “in hand” when you find a member in need than to frantically search for someone (“Anyone!”) when the need arises.
- Name the Elephant. Address the issue of psychological/emotional health with your members. Directly. Repeatedly. Acknowledge these difficult times. Recognize that—inevitably—the stresses and strains of living in a COVID-19 world will take a toll. Faith does not make us immune to the effects of stress. [Jesus himself broke down, experienced “anguish” (Lk 22:44), and confessed to his disciples that his soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mt 26:38).] Communicate your commitment to look after members: body, heart, mind, and soul. Tell them of your prayers for their health and well-being. Tell them also of your strategies and plans to prevent, curtail, and provide help for problems. Ask for their cooperation and encouragement of this effort.
- Have a Contact Strategy. Make it your goal to ensure every member of your congregation is “touched” at least once a day by others in the church and has a meaningful contact with a church leader at least once a week. Your strategy could look like this:
- Teams (people making contact with church members in some way)
- Church leaders and ministry staff (already defined?)
- Psychological Care Team (already selected—see point #1 above)
- Visitation Team (caring, diligent, trusted members of your church)
- Messaging Team (people to develop content of emails, texts, scripts, etc.)
- Day-by-day contact strategy
- Sunday: Gather in virtual worship (Always include a word of encouragement and prayer for emotional health and healing … strength for weathering these stressful times.)
- Monday: Email message to congregation (including some practical word or tip on managing stress).
- Tuesday: Small group meetings (ask leaders of these groups to encourage group members to talk to congregational leaders and take advantage of offered help and resources).
- Wednesday: Text a prayer to all members (including a specific request for the healing of negative emotions).
- Thursday: Video conference meeting between a family unit and a church leader, to include at least some mention of psychological wellness. (You will have other things to cram into and talk about during this call.) (Obviously, this will require some time of you and other leaders. You probably can’t devote the entire day to video conferencing—even if you are particularly persistent. This could be spread out over other days of the week. However, video conferencing does represent a “touch” and an incredibly important one at that.)
- Friday: Phone call from your visitation team to every church member
- Saturday: Email with a video attachment containing a word of encouragement, announcements for the body, reminder about tomorrow’s virtual worship.
- Teams (people making contact with church members in some way)
- Assessment. As soon as possible, develop an assessment tool to gauge where your people are emotionally. For instance:
On a scale of one-to-ten (with one being “no problems” and ten being “I’m really hurting”), how would you rate your level of:
Stress: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Anxiety: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sadness: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Loneliness: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Fear: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Apathy: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Anger: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Vulnerability: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
- Any response over a 6 probably deserves some attention and action
- You can do this over the phone. OR you can create a SurveyMonkey assessment. Respondents would be asked to give their names. As a leadership group, send out the link to your members and communicate your expectation that everyone will participate and let you know how they are doing.
- Provide Practical Psychological Self-Care Tips.Taking care of yourself emotionally doesn’t require advanced training. Much of it is common sense. But reminders of self-care practices are needed during periods of prolonged stress. So why not send out a “tip of the week” text, reminding your people about basic psychological care. Things like: get regular exercise … don’t bottle things up … listen to yourself … break out of your ruts … learn a new skill … ask for help, etc.. Here are some websites you might find helpful for developing tips:
- Create a Help Line.Have a phone number your people can call 24-7. Ask your Psychological Care team to man this line. There are technologies that will allow you to roll this phone number over to different cell phones at different times of day. Advertise the number. Make reference to it in church announcements. Put in on the Members section of your website. Monitor how often it is used.
- Put together Support Groups.Do you have some people who report problems with anxiety … insecurity … feelings of fear or despair? Introduce them to each other and encourage them to talk about it. Have your Psychological Care team form and lead virtual support groups to give your members a chance to visit with other members who struggle with similar feelings. Nothing comforts quite like talking about your troubles and knowing they are shared by others.
- Study opportunities. Why not offer biblical study opportunities on subjects such as worry, fear, peace, contentment, God’s promises, suffering, prayer … the list could go on. Christianity deals with the human condition—in all its broken and diminished forms! Of course the Bible speaks to the realities of worry. What does it have to say? How can we bend our anxieties towards more faithful responses? Here are a few websites to consider:
- Encourage, Encourage, Encourage! There are many leadership “tones” available and appropriate for use: inspiration, motivation, correction, instruction, direction. But no “tone” is more central to leadership or more needful for mental health in today’s environment than encouragement. Speak “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29). Your people need your encouraging word! Video an encouraging word of the week … or the day … or the hour! Ask others to record encouraging words. Send links out via email. Post these on your website. It is impossible to offer too much encouragement. And encouragement is a direct antidote to despair, loss of heart, loneliness, fear and many of the other negative emotions we’ve been discussing. Encouragement is JOB #1 for church leaders and their members. Do it! Do it well. Do it often. Do it using every medium at your disposal. Do it in every conversation. Do it with every virtual offering. Do it in the conviction that, bydoing it, you are contributing to other people’s persistence, hope, and emotional health.