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.
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.
Mental Health Resources from the UU Mental Health Network
Bereaved people who have lost loved ones to flu and viruses
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.
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.
Some ways we can organize ourselves for future memorial services are:
- Develop a list of reliable and well-reputed funeral homes in the community.
- Curate a list of caterers and florists that have done a good job with past services at your congregation.
- Establish a group of volunteers to assist with memorial service receptions: directing caterers and florists, setting up tables and coffee service, and more.
- Train your lay pastoral care team in pastoral presence to families and loved ones on the day of memorial service.
- Create a price list for the various options that non-members would select for a memorial service: officiant honorarium, musician honorarium, additional costs for soloists, custodial services, building rental, etc.
Whether or not the pandemic results in an increased pastoral, caring, or memorial need, our congregations will be better-positioned to minister to our people through this intentional planning in the community's interest.