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Pastoral Care in a Time of Physical Distancing

By Susan Frederick-Gray

Dear Leaders,

As we navigate these incredibly difficult times for our country and the global community, I continue to hold you and our wider UU community in my heart. I am so grateful for the ministry and care you offer and the example we, as Unitarian Universalists, are setting in putting community care and compassion at the forefront of our efforts and decisions.

We continue to recommend our congregations follow all directives from public health officials and suspend in-person gatherings. As of Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the federal government advises everyone to avoid groups of more than 10 people, and there are even greater restrictions and recommendations for particular areas. Overall, the message is to avoid any non-essential outings and follow strict physical distancing practices.

Naturally, there is a lot of anxiety and fear. Pastoral care and connecting across physical distance will be ever more important. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you tend to your community:

  • Tend to the things that help reduce anxiety, particularly the acts of human connection that help calm us. People will experience different levels of insecurity and anxiety, particularly as weeks pass. Many are reminded of previous trauma and are navigating those alongside present circumstances. Others are holding personal fears for their own health and that of loved ones. Existing challenges, whether physical, conditional, emotional, or relational may be exacerbated.
  • Be diligent about calling, texting, video chatting, and emailing messages to your loved ones and community members. Practice good listening. Offer compassion and a non-anxious caring presence. Look at organizing small groups to come together virtually more frequently or create calling circles to stay connected. We are fortunate there are so many ways to connect across distance.
  • Provide extra care to families processing death and navigating visitation restrictions. One of the most heartbreaking challenges will be the restrictions around visiting at-risk members of our communities, especially those in nursing homes and hospitals. Personally, I had a family member pass away last week and the decisions around the memorial service were especially difficult. Feelings of guilt, fear, anger and inadequacy will be normal. Ramping up pastoral care by telephone, Zoom, and text to tend to both loved ones and family members in these situations is vital. Follow the recommendations of hospitals and public health officials. Being in touch with the pastoral staff at care facilities may provide an alternate way of advocating for and being present to a loved one. Remind families that memorial services can happen later. Consider ways that virtual gatherings to mourn can also be helpful.
  • Offer care and attention to medical personnel, chaplains, first responders and their families. These are the people on the front lines of combatting this pandemic and caring for the ill. Many will be isolated from their families, working excessive hours and may become sick themselves.
  • Provide specific ways people can help one another, the congregation, and larger community. Having a task, knowing how you can help and serve is a gift right now. Create opportunities for people to minister to one another.

The UUA has compiled some helpful resources for pastoral care in a time of physical distancing.

I plan to send weekly messages on Thursdays with information and resources to support your vital ministries. Please contact your Regional Congregational Life staff with questions or needs. We care about you and are here to support you and help you find the resources you need. The UUA embodies the covenant that all our congregations make to support each other—it is why we are here. So remember you are not alone.

Many congregations are in the middle of stewardship campaigns right now. Here is a letter to stewardship leaders from the Rev. Lauren Smith, UUA Director of Stewardship and Development. It offers important and immediate tips for fundraising right in this moment:

Stewardship in a Time of Pandemic - What To Do Right Now.

Above all, I encourage you to slow down and lean into your mission and the needs of your community. There is no script for these times. We are all learning as we go—building skills of resilience and letting compassion, connection, and ministry be our guide.
I continue to be inspired by what our congregations are doing to care for one another. Many experimented with virtual worship. Others personally contacted all of their members. Others are creating more opportunities for small groups. No one practice will work for all congregations and you don’t have to do it all on your own. This is a chance to find strength in sharing across congregations and being creative. Be gentle with yourselves and your leaders as you find your way.

Now is a time when we need our religious communities and larger faith even more. Times of crisis and pandemic can bring out the worst in humanity, particularly when we let fear lead us. We have already seen this in xenophobic language seeking to blame groups of people or countries for this virus. But as Unitarian Universalists, we know we are deeply interconnected and love guides us. May we not turn on each other, nor stigmatize those who are ill or may become ill, nor our global neighbors who have been suffering as we are. Let us instead turn toward each other in stronger care and shared commitment.

I am with you all in this time, working to find my own way through, bit by bit.

Yours in love,


Susan

P.S. Congregations are getting hit by email scams that include a message sent by what appears to be the minister asking for gift cards to support people with COVID-19. Avoid getting caught up in online scams with resources from our LeaderLab Library.

About the Author

Susan Frederick-Gray

The Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray began her six-year term as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in June 2017. As president of the Association, she is responsible for administering staff and programs that serve its more than 1,000 member congregations. She also acts as...

For more information contact pr@uua.org.