What should we be doing about those people who are still extremely anxious about COVID and it is having a significant affect on their ability to participate in the life of the church and indeed other aspects of family and community life? My view is that we are now moving into a season when a pastoral priority has to be to give time to help people struggling in this area to find the freedom to be able to engage in church, family and community life. So how would I go about this?
Well, first of all, I’d want to find out more about their specific cause for concern. For example, are they anxious for their own health and well-being? If so, what is it that worries them the most? This might include fear of death, serious illness and hospitalisation, long term chronic suffering or of the emotional impact on others that their own suffering and/or death might have. Alternatively, it might be the concern they have of causing risk to others, this might include specific relatives such as a vulnerable parent or child who they care for or the risk to society in general of infection spread.
I’d probably want to talk about where the cause of anxiety comes from. For example, have they been given specific medical advice for themselves or it may be that they have come to specific conclusions about the risk by themselves. Some people have been specifically advised that due to the condition they have that they are more at risk of infection and it is more likely to be severe others will have been told that the vaccine has been ineffective in their case and failed to produce antibodies. Others will have a particular condition that leads to them being classed as clinically vulnerable, however that does not mean that they are at a greater risk of infection post vaccination and indeed such groups of people have been prioritised for vaccines and boosters exactly because the presumption is that the vaccine is effective for them.
Another thing we would want to talk about is the difference between making specific decisions for myself because of my circumstances and holding opinions about the actions of others and/or encouraging others to be anxious and to disengage from church, family and community. It is one thing to say that I don’t think I am able to attend an in person church service yet and quite another thing to say that the church is wrong to gather or to try to persuade others not to attend.
My concern here is not first and foremost to get the person to have the family round or to attend church next week. Rather, the greater priority is discipleship here and helping the person to approach life issues Biblically. So, here are some of the things I want to get them to consider
- Are my thoughts, words and actions demonstrating faith in God?
- Am I putting my needs or those of others first?
- Am I motivated by love or fear?
- Are my thoughts, words and actions proportionate to the facts available.
The first three questions might be obvious in terms of the Christian discipleship and pastoral care. The latter is perhaps less obvious but is important. Why am I concerned with proportional response to facts? What’s my Biblical basis for this? Well, I want to suggest that Biblically this arises out of the original cultural mandate for humanity to fill and subdue the earth as God’s vie-regents made in his image. Sin was a fall from this whilst in a broad sense the Gospel restores us to our original role and purpose.
Subduing creation is concerned with shaping and ordering it, just as God did by setting boundaries and divisions. That requires us to understand the world around us and that’s why we want to make decisions that are informed by truth.
This is another reason to make use of some of the questions I suggested for your risk assessments. Those questions help with church planning and leadership but they also help with 1-1 discipleship too. By encouraging someone to consider what is acceptable in terms of cases and admissions, I help them to think through how they make decisions. By talking about what the actual risks are, I help them to gather the information needed to make informed, loving decisions. By dealing in facts, I encourage them to prioritise love for their neighbour over fear for themselves.
And I can then work with the facts in order to help the individual and the church together to make informed decisions that do demonstrate love and faith. For example, if we talk about case prevalence, we can help each other to understand the exact level of risk there is of someone having COVID in the congregation, of them sitting next to you and of them passing the virus on to you. WE can talk about the exact level of risk to their health based on the medical advice they have bene given and we can help them think through the implications.
So, for example, if someone were to say to me that they have a condition which means that the vaccine isn’t effective at all (or that someone in their home is in that position), then this would be my response. First of all, I would acknowledge that there are good and godly reasosn for making responsible decisions to preserve life. I don’t believe that because we have eternal life that this life doesn’t have value and purpose. I don’t think the hope of the resurrection is intended to encourage reckless behaviour. I’d also acknowledge that for them, joining a church service with no masks, no distancing and lots of singing probably does have a greater risk than it does for others and than it would in other contexts.
In the short term then we need to talk about how they can be engaged in the life of the church despite those risks and restrictions, how we can love them and how they can love others. This might mean that for the time being it is wise that they engage with church through online means but we may also be able to move to other opportunities for them to get fellowship and give through outdoor contacts, hospitality where there’s been a lot of caution around test and trace and setting apart areas of our meeting space for the more vulnerable.
However, we’d also want to talk about the way in which things are going to change over the coming months. It is likely that people with such severe clinical vulnerability will have been and always will be vulnerable to a variety of health risks. I can never promise them that church will be risk free but we can reach a stage where COVID will be no greater a risk than the other risks they’ve always faced.
Then there will be others I will talk to who are anxious and this anxiety arises not just out of the specific risks from COVID but more general anxiety. I suspect that in terms of mental health needs we will see different expressions at different stages. At the height of lockdown isolation will have carried a particularly heavy toll on those who struggle with loneliness and depression. Some will have struggled with their anxiety too but there will have been others who will have found that their anxiety levels reduced because they were given a reason to stay home and did not have to face the usual causes of anxiety.
Now, we are coming back to in person contact with others. That means that as well as the anxiety that a virus brings, for many there is the pressure of having to face other challenges too. These will include things that remain unresolved and were set aside 18 months ago but are now live issues in their life again.
So another aspect of pastoral care at this stage is about getting someone to articulate all the things they are anxious about to best understand the cause of anxiety. Pastorally them our response will include helping them access all support needed including medical treatment for anxiety, PTSD etc. It will include thinking through what we can do to make church life less anxious, it will involve prayer and it will include Biblical counsel that encourages them to find peace and security in the Lord.
We must not underestimate the pastoral challenge that lies ahead of us over the next year or so. At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate the opportunity that this presents for discipleship too as we seek to encourage people to grow in their trust in Christ and their love for each other.