Practicing pastoral care while physically distant

March 19, 2020 by Rev. Thom Shuman

When I was a senior in high school, one gray day in November, the loudspeaker in the classroom came on suddenly and the news came on of the shooting of President Kennedy and went to church that night.

During my last year in seminary, the Challenger space shuttle exploded, and we gathered for prayer.

In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing took place and clergy had to scramble to speak the following Sunday about that tragedy.

On September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, we offered special services that afternoon, that night, and in the days to come.

In just about every traumatic event that has happened in the lives of people of faith, we have been able to gather together in worship: to sing, to pray, to weep, to hear and read Scripture, to find hope and comfort from our God – together.

But today, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. While we have dealt with crises and situations of many kinds, this is different, primarily because of the uncertainty. We are being forced to limit ministry when we were trained to expand it in such moments because we are advised strongly in most cases, if not ordered in others. Sessions are having to make the heartbreaking decision to cancel worship, to shutter all activities and group meetings, to close up shop, so to speak. We are challenged to discover what it means to be a church without walls. How shall we live in such times; how shall we endure through such moments?

Many churches, because of their smaller membership and limited resources, will fall back on the tried and true methods of communicating through phone trees, notes and cards to members, elders calling on the members, etc. Such methods have worked well in the past and will continue to do so now.

Other churches, with larger membership, larger staffs, more technological resources, will be able to livestream services to hold meetings through groups like, ZOOM and other resources. I hope that they might remember that not every church and pastor can do these sorts of things. Rather than simply saying, ‘use technology,’ perhaps some of these larger churches, with greater technology and more tech-savvy folks in the congregation, could reach out to their sisters and brothers in ministry and offer resources, technology, and human assistance.

What else can we do to reach out to our communities to show our faith is more than what happens during worship times? Could we livestream folks, especially the pastor, reading books for children who are at home? Could we livestream a prayer time, where people could call in or PM prayer concerns? Could musicians livestream a half hour or more of music several times during the week? Is this a chance for the pastor to talk a little bit with folks who may not know what our role is? Are there ways we can interact more with our members and neighbors with this technology, to share God’s love and presence in these times?

I think the possibilities are endless, and the opportunities to serve are here in these days

As one who is in one of the ‘at-risk’ categories (65+), I believe in being cautious and prudent. I believe in social distancing and self-isolation, as much as possible. I believe that it is probably the right choice to stop holding meetings, gatherings, worship at churches; after all, that is only a small part of who we are as the church. I believe in trusting those who have far more expertise in medicine and science than I ever will. But… I am frustrated and heartbroken, and just a little irked, that I cannot do ministry in this time of crisis. I cannot visit folks in hospitals who are scared, worried, and may be dying. I cannot visit people in nursing homes who need a comforting touch and the word of hope. I dare not visit folks in their homes for fear of carrying something they do not need or want. I cannot sit on the floor and read with little kids. I can be a good, caring, prudent citizen of our world in these days. But… I am not able to be the servant of God and God’s people I long to be. After all, that is why I was called. That is why I answered. These days, these moments are precisely why I became a minister.

I believe it is a frustration shared by all believers.

Our faith calls us to trust in our God, who is present with us in these moments, working through all the helpers that Fred Rogers always told us to find in times of uncertainty. Our faith calls us to trust in one another, to love one another, to care for one another, to look out for one another. That is what our God, our heritage, our faith calls us to do, even when we shelter in place. After all….

we haven’t canceled worship;
we’ve canceled a religious service at a specific time,
in a specific place, on a specific day,
but folks will still worship God when they are caring
for the grandkids and walking their dogs;
worship as they serve beside Jesus at food banks
and picking up groceries for a neighbor;
worship when they share the Spirit’s peace
by singing songs over the phone to a parent;
worship when they work from home;
worship when they endure extra shifts
in nursing homes and group homes;
worship when they email someone far away
and wave to a stranger across the street;
worship when they take toilet paper
to a homeless shelter,
and volunteer at a polling place.
We haven’t canceled worship,
just the “official” part that may be the smallest part
of it all.

© 2020 Thom M. Shuman

Thom M. Shuman is a PC(USA) pastor (honorably retired) serving a small church in Columbus, Ohio. His liturgies, poems, and prayers are used all over the world. He is an Associate Member of the Iona Community, which has published many of his writings. He is committed to caring for the most vulnerable in our society, especially those with mental and developmental disabilities.