Building Pastoral Capacity for Pandemics

The spread of deadly infectious disease in a community can generate a high degree of fear and anxiety in a congregation. It can create the conditions for social isolation, for stigma and stereotypes, and for everyone becoming a little more "on edge."

During a pandemic, our congregations will be called upon to increase in pastoral care and physical care capacity. Pastoral care—the kind of care that attends to the spiritual and emotional aspects of a person's life—becomes especially important.

At the same time, physical care—the kind of care that meets congregants' basic needs—becomes more challenging. While we are not medical organizations, we can provide physical care to the people in our congregation through delivered meals, rides, shopping trips, and other kinds of caring tasks.

When a pandemic strikes, there may also be fatalities in your congregation or its surrounding community. You may also be called upon to lead more memorial services than you are accustomed to. Some advance work to enlist volunteers and develop systems for memorial services will be beneficial, whether or not that situation arises.

Building Up Your Pastoral Care Network

In our Leader Resource Library you'll find recommendations for How to Quickly Build a Lay Pastoral Care Network during COVID-19. Even in a trying time like a pandemic, the UUA strongly recommends vetting and training pastoral care volunteers, as they will be working with vulnerable people 1:1. Our Guide to Pastoral Care and Connection in a Time of Physical Distancing offers many crowd-sourced and original resources for addressing people's needs in time of pandemic.

Part of building up the network is to identify who might need pastoral outreach—not just the people who happen to know enough about the congregation to ask for it. Who might be having a particularly difficult time during a pandemic in your community?

  • People with known or suspected cases of the virus and their family/housemates

  • People living with compromised immune systems

  • Older members, whose immune systems are generally more vulnerable than younger members

  • People living with chronic health conditions, especially lung conditions

  • People living with anxiety, OCD, or other mental health conditions that tend to amplify fear

  • Bereaved people who have lost loved ones

  • Family caregivers experiencing isolation and stress

  • Health workers (doctors, nurses, aides) treating the very sick and facing constant exposure

  • Trauma survivors who might be experiencing triggers in the current situation

One best practice in this situation came from East Shore UU in Bellevue, WA during a COVID-19 outbreak: to ask members to tell the minister if they have the virus. It helps the congregation support the safety and well-being the whole community as well as those with the virus. The minister can hold identities of the sick and diagnosed in confidence if requested.

Expanding Your Caring Network

Most congregations have a core of people who offer meals and rides and other forms of assistance to members who are facing a difficult time. This ministry may be called upon much more frequently in a time of social distancing and isolation. Beth Casebolt, an RN currently on UUA staff, offers this advice for reaching out safely during a time of pandemic.

Taking some time to get organized and expand the base of this system, so that it doesn't rely on one or two easily-overburdened volunteer coordinators, can help you down the road whatever comes.

Online services like Sign Up Genius and its many alternative forms of sign-up software can be of great assistance for a caring network.

Strengthening Your Memorial Services System

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations are well-known for creating meaningful personalized memorial services and funerals. In a time of life-threatening pandemic, it is quite possible that we will be called upon to host more funerals and memorial services than our usual pace requires.​ For resources and guidance, see:

Trauma Responses to COVID

By Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe

From LeaderLab

It's important to understand that our faith communities have gone through a traumatic experience, and that is having an impact on our physical and mental functioning. 

Trauma Responses to COVID

person holding a black box

Guidance for reaching out safely with food and care packages in a time of pandemic.

A cemetery in springtime with green grass, blue sky, and green trees.

A Guide to Planning Online Funerals and Memorial Services during a pandemic, from the UUA.