What a church can learn from a public heath director

Yesterday I had the privilege of interviewing Lisa McNally, Sandwell’s Director of Public Health. We were talking about avoiding local lockdowns and the part the community can play. Reflecting back on the conversation I was struck about some important lessons for churches in the discussion that go beyond questions about pandemics. So, here’s a summary of those lessons.

  1. You are more likely to get somewhere when you work with people to face their issues rather than imposing solutions. You can either do something to people or you can do it with them.  In church context I believe it is so much better to say to someone, come and look at God’s Word with me than to say “I believe you should do x.”
  2. This of course requires a real understanding of the community where you are.  Lisa talked about the benefit of having people no her team that understood their community. This was about culture, not just about language. Do we really understand the cultures of the communities we seek to reach.
  3. Furthermore, Lisa suggested that we need to distinguish between communities where some people as wealthier people consider it their duty to help out and to rescue those in need versus communities where people in the community are looking out for each other. As we have talked about urban church planting over the past few years, we have increasingly scene that the latter is vital.
  4. Test and Trace is just a new brand name for good old fashioned contact tracing. We have been doing this for years to control disease. In the conversation I was struck by the fact that we have also been doing this for centuries in church life too. When someone gets into a mess, then it is important to talk through their history to see where they have come under negative, unhelpful influences. Similarly, it is helpful to know how others may have been affected by their descent into despair.
  5. The new normal is about mindset. I hate the phrase “new normal” because we associate it with the prospect of long term lockdown. However, Lisa helpful explained that it was really about a change of attitude. First of all, we need to recognise that where in the past we would have shrugged off and treated certain symptoms as trivial, we now need to treat them as serious and potentially deadly.  Secondly, we need to think about how we fight this thing together. Groups of individuals will not be able to withstand the virus but communities will. We need to put the needs of others first and love our neighbours. We need to recognise that the other pandemic following will be the social and economic one. I am struck by the way COVID holds a mirror up to us. How often do we think in terms of whether the church will benefit us? We assume it will always be there when we need it and that its job is to allow us to discover our own identity and gifts so that we flourish. Yet shouldn’t there be a greater emphasis on finding out what God is calling is to this particular church for. What are the needs that we can help meet?
  6. We need to be ready for the next season. Winter is coming.  Are we using the opportunity we have now in the summer to prepare for the tough times ahead in normal flu season? Similarly, as churches, we need to learn to discern the season we are in and use the opportunities we have now in order to prepare for whatever is ahead.

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