Practicing Presence without Proximity: Pastoral Care during COVID-19
By Thomas Horrocks
The practice of pastoral care has always been closely connected to the concept of “a ministry of presence.” Pastors receive a phone call or a text message notifying them that someone from the congregation has been admitted to the hospital. Getting into one’s car, driving to the hospital, and walking into the room is the normal sequence. Pastors are prepared to listen, to offer a word of encouragement, and to pray. Mostly, however, pastors prepare to just be there, to communicate the love of Christ through presence.
As a pastor myself, I know the comforting power of an empathetic look in the eyes, a warm embrace, a firm handshake, or a gentle hand upon the shoulder. I have learned that simply sitting with someone can help them cope in their moments of vulnerability, pain, and uncertainty.
So what happens to pastoral care when the ministry of presence is made impossible by social distancing? This is the question many of my colleagues have had to wrestle with in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Pastoral care in a time of social distancing is certainly a challenge,” says David Aukerman, senior pastor of Mt. Haley Church of God near Midland, Michigan. But he’s not letting that stop him from doing what he can: “As a pastor of a small church, I’m trying to connect with each of our people by phone and mail on a regular basis. In the brief face-to-face interactions I’ve had with parishioners, I can tell this is a trying time.”
Joy Sherman, lead pastor of Community Church of God in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, is getting creative with pastoral care. She explains, “I’ve been doing drive-by visitation. We pull-in, honk the horn, and folks will come out to their porch or driveway. We visit from our car, have prayer, and leave.”
Some pastors are finding that the challenges to pastoral care in the time of COVID are actually opportunities to shake up their approach. Consider Bruce Applegate, pastor of Mount Pleasant Church of God in Evansville, Indiana. “Honestly, the pandemic has taken my pastoral care to a whole new level, so to speak,” he says. “Obviously, I can’t connect with people personally, but these times have actually motivated me to connect with our congregation in ways I’ve never done before. I have called every person in our congregation to do a ‘welfare check.’”
Bruce is not bearing the burden of pastoral care alone, either. He divided up the congregation’s contacts and has asked the elders of the church to make personal phone calls, as well. He says the response from the congregation has been “very positive.” Bruce himself has also benefitted from the increased attention he’s been giving to pastoral care. “Bottom-line, I almost feel more connected to our congregation now than before the pandemic, even though we can’t meet on Sundays at this time.”
Emily Clark, senior pastor of Faith United Church of God in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been rising to the challenges of pastoral care in a pandemic in her own way, too: “This time of COVID has forced me to think outside the box of what it means to care for people. I’ve been sending cards in the mail, calling people on the phone, responding to all the comments on our live-streamed services, and mailing things weekly to the children in the church.” She says that most people have been understanding, and that she’s seen “the whole church step up to care for each other at a distance.” In spite of these successes, however, Emily recognizes that all is not yet as it should be. “I miss my people,” she says, “I long for my church and I can’t wait until we are all back together again.”
Emily is not alone. All these pastors, including me, understand that we are making the best of a bad situation. We are grateful for the technology and social media platforms like Facebook and Zoom that allow us to connect with one another digitally. We all recognize, however, that there is no substitute for actual, embodied presence. Like Emily, we all long for the day we can once again be face-to-face with the people we serve. Until that day comes, we will keep fighting the good fight and caring for people from an appropriate distance.
*Please keep Pastor Bruce in your prayers in light of the recent passing of his wife Marti. Thank you.
In addition to ministry challenges, many pastors are facing financial uncertainty. You can help provide payroll relief to churches affected by COVID-19:
Thomas Horrocks serves as pastor of the Stoneybrook Community Church of God in Bloomington, Indiana. He also serves as a chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
Feature (top) image: Window separates physical touch but cannot prevent prayer; courtesy West Liberty First Church of God (Ohio).