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The Presbyterian Church in Canada has said that, “Our mission, in a world burdened with anxiety and apprehension, is to provide a place of sanctuary, tranquility and renewal in the name of the One who said, ‘I will give you rest.’” In this time of uncertainty and change, the church, congregations and their social media can be places of peace amid anxiety, facts when there are so many fallacies, wisdom in the face of worry, and trust when there is so much fear.
In response to the recent news about the coronavirus (COVID-19), our prayers to God are for those who are ill with this virus and for those who care for them, especially in countries that have been most affected. We also pray for health and frontline workers as they face their daily tasks. And we remember those communities and businesses that have been affected and any people facing discrimination as a result of the virus.
Public Health officials tell us that the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to any virus. General prevention measures include:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are ill.
- Stay home if you have influenza/respiratory virus symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, trouble breathing).
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then immediately throw the tissue in the garbage and wash your hands.
- If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your sleeve or arm.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
It is always wise to review practices related to pastoral care, programming and worship to keep everyone, especially the most vulnerable, safe. There is an increased risk of more severe outcomes from COVID-19 for those:
- aged 65 and over
- with compromised immune systems
- with underlying medical conditions
Churches have an important role to play in these efforts and in the support of people and communities during this time. The advice from the National Office has been and continues to be that congregations are urged to follow the advice of Federal, Provincial and Municipal Health authorities and make decisions about gatherings and interpersonal interaction accordingly. This is the minimum requirement, but it is the first place to go in making a decision about how best to respond to the evolving situation. The Government of Canada provides updates as well as other health safety practices and resources:
Matters for Congregations to Consider for Pastoral Care
Pastoral care of parishioners and those in our circle of care is of special concern at this time.
- Remind people who are ill to stay at home in order to recover.
- Elders, visitors and all pastoral care workers should give special attention to those who are elderly, ill, unable to get out and around easily and who have limited resources. Remember to take all necessary precautions in personal hygiene before and after pastoral visits in hospitals and homes.
- Give special thought to reassuring and educating children and those who might be especially anxious at this time. Help them understand how to think about what they hear and see, and assure them of God’s presence and love.
- Update your church website and/or social media pages to show the latest information about services and contact information.
- Communicate clearly, calmly and factually.
- Remain in contact with those who may be vulnerable or quarantined to ensure that they have their spiritual, social and physical needs attended to. While electronic communication is useful for disseminating information at once to a large group, the telephone is still the best way to keep in touch with people pastorally who may be feeling isolated. Ensuring that those who are sick or isolated for any reason have the things that they need is also an important act of pastoral care.
- Generate a weekly prayer call for anyone to call in and share prayer and God’s word for a few minutes during the week. For instance, conference calls and online meetings can be ways of continuing to worship and pray together.
- Look out for your neighbours and encourage congregation members to do the same. One way to do so is by creating small groups that can check in on each other by phone and email and that deliver things to each other.
- Donations to food banks, churches and other relief efforts can often be made online.
- Continue to address the needs of those who rely on community meals by offering alternate forms of support when outreach programs are cancelled (e.g., distributing take-away sandwiches and gift cards).
Ways Churches Can Offer Connection and Care During Social Distancing
As we learn to live differently in this time of social distancing, churches have a unique opportunity to help people remain connected and supported. At this time, we are called to be attentive to the needs around us, invite God to show us how we can serve and respond with creativity and adaptability.
To get you thinking about what might be helpful in your community at this time, we have compiled a list of communication tips and ideas.
Click here for creative and helpful ideas for offering connection and support in:
- Social Media & Online Communication
- Traditional Communication
- Innovative Communication
- General Community Care
Death, Grief and Funerals in a Time of Social Distancing
But there is one core pastoral issue which presents a special challenge for clergy and church leaders.
How do we minister to grieving families in their time of loss at the death of a loved one when natural human gestures of comfort like hand holding and hugs are strongly discouraged?
How do we handle requests for funerals when those who desperately need the opportunity to gather together, remember and celebrate the lives their loved ones, and to hear God’s word of resurrection hope and healing cannot do so without potentially exposing one another to harm?
Our first pastoral instinct may be to continue offering the ministry of physical presence and traditional group liturgies. But these are exceptional times. In the face of a global pandemic our primary pastoral responsibility is to consider the health and safety of those we serve. No one has special immunity or protection from viruses and all people are to follow public health precautions and directives for physical distancing. Should a funeral request come, gently but firmly encourage postponement of the funeral or memorial service until restrictions for in-person gatherings have been lifted. This may not be an easy conversation to have with grieving people, but under the circumstances it may be one of the most pastoral responses we can offer. It might be wise to bring this matter to the attention of the Session and communicate to the congregation that all funerals will be postponed until the end of public health restrictions so all will know in advance what to expect.
In the meantime, clergy and church leaders are invited to consider using existing technology to help people grieve and connect for mutual support. Some ministers are experimenting with “virtual visitations” where people can gather through video conferencing to offer condolences to grieving family members, share memories and stories and pictures, and have a brief online time of scripture reading and prayer. Where the family is comfortable with the suggestion, ministers may even offer informal funeral services adapted to online video conferencing. Ongoing pastoral conversations by telephone and online face-to-face meetings can help maintain personal contact with those journeying through grief.
None of this can ever be a substitute for physical presence, appropriate touch and community worship, which is so much a part of traditional pastoral care in times of grief and loss. We miss these important aspects of how we do ministry and yearn for a return to normal. Until then, in God’s grace and love, we adjust. We are an Easter people. Even in the shadow of death we believe that in Christ there is resurrection and new life.
The difficult days we find ourselves in will pass. In the meantime, we seek God’s comfort and presence in the community of faith as we find new ways to serve broken and hurting people.
If you have any questions, you are welcome to email the Rev. Tim Purvis, Associate Secretary, Ministry and Church Vocations.
Guide for Christian Funerals During COVID-19 – Massachusetts Council of Churches
Moderator Asks That Funerals Be Delayed – United Church of Canada
Digital Pastoral Care for Grief: Individual & Collective – United Church of Christ
Updates to PCC Events
Summary of Implications Regarding the Cancellation of the 2020 General Assembly and Pastoral Message from the Moderator
Earlier this month, the Assembly Council met and took the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 General Assembly in light of the COVID-19 situation. This decision was taken to ensure the safety of commissioners and staff and was in keeping with what we know of Public Health and government recommendations and directives.
The Assembly Council is the body within our church responsible for carrying out General Assembly decisions between Assemblies and serves as a coordinating and prophetic body within the church. At its meeting the Assembly Council referred the implications of cancelling the General Assembly to its executive to work with the Clerks of Assembly. The following plan was approved by the Executive at its meeting on March 31, 2020.
If you have any questions regarding these implications, you may contact the General Assembly Office