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How Social Distancing Is Bringing Pastors Closer to Their Congregants

In both innovative and old-school ways, ministers are overcoming pandemic hurdles to provide pastoral care.
How Social Distancing Is Bringing Pastors Closer to Their Congregants
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Daniel McGhee was preparing to lead a weekly small group through 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren at his New York City church when pandemic restrictions began. The pastor of Connection Church in Queens quickly pivoted to Zoom and revised his plan. The small group still met every week online, but McGhee added another component to the study, which he hoped would alleviate the isolation people would feel in the weeks to come. He interviewed a church member every day for 40 days and posted the interviews on YouTube so others could watch them.

In this new virtual scenario, McGhee entered the homes of his church members in a different way. He would talk casually with them before and after their short interviews on Zoom. During those 40 days, he learned more about their lives. This led McGhee to begin texting or calling church members on a weekly basis too—a practice that is now part of his routine.

“I would ask them in our conversations how I could pray for them, and I would write those things down,” McGhee said. “I would text them at some point that I was praying for them. That’s endeared me to them and them to me and helped me actually be more of a pastor in deed instead of just by positional title. [The pandemic] kind of forced me to do that.”

McGhee said this was a “humbling” revelation for him. He realized he was now giving greater attention to pastoral care and learning more about his parishioners’ lives than he had before the city’s strict lockdown, despite the isolation it brought.

“I actually was interacting with people at a higher pace than I was prepandemic,” McGhee said. “Before the pandemic, we had our programs—our small groups, our prayer nights, and our church services—and that’s where I would interact with people. I don’t really get one on one with people in any of those contexts.”

The additional barriers a pandemic creates to pastoral care have caused pastors like McGhee to refocus on connecting in individual, meaningful ways with parishioners. Paul VanderKlay is the pastor of a small, multiethnic congregation called Living Stones Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento, California. When the first lockdown happened in his community, VanderKlay and the church’s elders and deacons immediately began calling people on the phone every week. He noted that the pandemic has removed certain options from the “pastoral menu.” Sometimes, pastors are replacing those options with new ways of caring for parishioners; other times, they are returning to old ways of doing things.

Nathaniel Williams, pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church, is learning to write letters and make phone calls again. Williams pastors a small, rural church in Castalia, North Carolina. When the pandemic began, he and the deacons started calling church members and visitors every week too. They also burned CDs of the church’s Sunday services and delivered them to elderly members who did not have access to the internet to watch the church’s livestream service.

Deepening Theological Discussion

VanderKlay said the acute isolation makes it “easy for the sheep to wander” since the weekly rhythms of church life are interrupted. Under normal circumstances, people often communicate at gatherings on Sunday mornings in nonverbal, subtle ways to pastors about how they are.

“Now that we’re operating by Zoom or telephone, everything has to be verbal,” VanderKlay said. “That actually changes the subtle dynamics of relationships because now you have to ask people difficult questions, which sort of puts them on the spot.”

People’s views about suffering and other issues naturally come up more in these pointed conversations. Pastors told Christianity Today that the pandemic is creating opportunities for theological discipleship and correction. They consider this an important part of their pastoral care since parishioners’ beliefs affect how they interpret and respond to events like a pandemic.

“I think in some ways the pandemic affords a more honest conversation about the reality of life, even in the most affluent, secure, stable, medically equipped society the world has ever seen,” VanderKlay said. He is concerned about the pervasiveness of what he calls the “American dream deception”—a version of the prosperity gospel that implies Christians will avoid suffering and calamity if they attend church, go to the right schools, land the right jobs, or save enough money. “We are deluded by our own self-sufficiency. This is a regular theme in my preaching, and now I have a sermon illustration that has everyone ’s attention.”

Williams said people express theological beliefs online that they might not voice directly to their pastors. He frequently sees two common assumptions about the pandemic on his Facebook newsfeed from people in his community. Some people think it is a sign of God ’s judgment on America; others believe their faith will spare them from contracting the virus.

“It’s an opportunity to correct theology a little bit about how faith works,” Williams said. “Faith is not an inoculation from suffering. Faith is a promise that God is with us in our suffering. We [also] don’t know if God’s judging America with COVID-19 because we’re not God. To assume that would be to make the same errors that Job ’s buddies made.”

A lot of McGhee’s pastoral care has involved counseling church members wrestling with God’s will for their lives. From January 1 to December 7 last year, about 3.57 million people left New York City, including about 25 percent of McGhee’s congregation. Because of job losses and other concerns, church members had to make difficult decisions about remaining in the city or leaving temporarily or permanently. Many of them had fears about making an irreparable mistake.

“I think I helped them see that the Lord was with them on any of those decisions they make,” McGhee said. “I kind of helped take the pressure off of them and let them know that I don’t think either of these [choices] are the wrong choice. God is bigger than that.”

Combating Pervasive Loneliness

Public health officials have warned about an “epidemic of loneliness” in the United States, and acute isolation during the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Pastors are aware of the effects isolation can have on people’s mental health, and they are finding meaningful ways to still connect with people so they feel less lonely.

“We have two pandemics that I think we’re dealing with,” said Chris Brooks, the senior pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Southeast Michigan. “One is a physical health crisis. The other one is a mental and emotional and spiritual health pandemic.”

According to a recent Gallup poll, Brooks is correct. Mental health in 2020 decreased across all groups of Americans who completed the survey except people who attended religious services weekly. This is why Brooks and the leadership at Woodside decided to remain open with procedures for health and safety in place after Michigan allowed exemptions for religious gatherings.

“Our doctors and public health officials [at the church] … felt like we needed to keep our doors open because so many people were dependent on the church as a lifeline,” Brooks said. “If we closed our doors, it would only add to the mental, emotional, and spiritual health crisis many are experiencing.”

Other churches, including Cedar Rock where Williams pastors, offer a drive-in church service on Sunday mornings in addition to their in-person gathering and livestream. People can listen from their cars, and Williams is still able to interact with church members in the parking lot after the service is over.

“It’s not ideal to be outside in your car versus inside with everybody else,” Williams said, “but you’re still with us in some sense. After church, part of my routine is to go out to those cars if I can catch them and talk to the people and see how they’re doing. … It helps the people still feel some sense of connectivity.”

VanderKlay has been experimenting with technology since the pandemic began. In addition to his role as pastor at Living Stones Christian Reformed Church, VanderKlay has a YouTube channel with about 17,000 subscribers. He has tried to leverage this online popularity to provide community for people who feel lonely. At the end of 2020, he started what he calls an “open studio” on a platform called Discord. People working alone can join him and others in the studio once a week through audio and video (similar to a Zoom meeting) to work quietly together.

“What this has meant during [the pandemic] is that we can use some of these tools to lessen the isolation and at least give some semblance of togetherness and community,” VanderKlay said.

VanderKlay and others at Living Stones consider this online ministry an extension of the Sacramento church. People from around the world subscribe to VanderKlay’s channel, many of whom are not connected to a local church. Some have also joined the church’s small groups on Zoom.

Sharing the Responsibility of Care

Pastors are realizing during the pandemic that they cannot take sole responsibility for pastoral care, and they are discovering ways to engage lay leaders and congregation members in this effort. Gabriel and Jeanette Salguero, co-pastors of The Gathering Place in Orlando, Florida, launched the bilingual, multiethnic church over Zoom in the midst of the pandemic. The Salgueros have relied heavily on members of their church launch team to help provide care. Their church members manage a hotline that people can call around the clock to receive prayer, counsel, or other means of support.

Jeanette said she recognized the couple ’s own “vulnerability as caretakers” when both pastors contracted COVID-19 in December. They became beneficiaries of their church’s care and even received soup from their church’s soup drop-off, a ministry of The Gathering Place for those who are ill and homebound. The experience of being on the receiving end of care reminded them of their limits as pastors.

“If pastors are not careful, they can suffer from compassion fatigue,” Gabriel said. “[Pastors] should embrace the gift of limits and allow the church to be the church. Allow everyone to lean on one another.”

The pandemic has emphasized the necessity of attending to these limits. Brooks noted that pastor burnout has been the biggest challenge at Woodside Bible Church during the pandemic. As senior pastor, he is charged with caring for pastors at the church’s other locations in addition to his own congregation at the main campus. To address this concern, Brooks created a staff care department last year, and pastors now have two rolling sabbatical weeks every year in addition to their normal vacation time. These changes will remain in place after the pandemic.

Lamenting and Celebrating Together

Despite their efforts to overcome the isolation COVID-19 has caused, pastors are anticipating a delayed sense of grief among church members as they start to gather more in person this year. Many people could not be with loved ones who died from COVID-19 or another illness during the pandemic. They also could not mourn or have funerals in ways they usually would.

Brooks said the leadership at Woodside is considering holding a large memorial service for these church members. “Maybe the toughest part of COVID-19 for our church family has been the number of people who not only suffered the loss of loved ones but simply weren’t permitted to be by their loved ones’ side because of COVID-19 restrictions,” Brooks said. “If we’re preparing for anything in 2021, it’s the delayed grief that a lot of people are living with [because] they didn’t get a chance to have a funeral for their loved one or any sense of real closure.”

The Salgueros said ministry to people who’ve lost loved ones during the pandemic “takes an extra level of empathy and compassion” because many of them have had their final conversations over FaceTime or WhatsApp.

“A great lesson for me has just been sitting with the person in silence,” Jeanette said. “Weeping with the person in silence has been a newfound element in my pastoral work. Sometimes people just want you to sit with them, and that ’s what we’ve done. … It’s a shared grief.”

Pastors also told Christianity Today that church members are experiencing grief because of the inability to celebrate important events in normal ways during the pandemic. The Salgueros are especially concerned about the youth at their church who’ve missed activities like playing sports, going to prom, or participating in their graduation ceremonies.

At Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, the congregation is accustomed to celebrating major milestones together like graduations, weddings, or the births of babies. A staple for about 25 years at the church is Sunday Conversations. After the Sunday morning service, church members would normally sit in a big circle, have extended dialogue about a topic, and fellowship with one another. Sunday Conversations happen over Zoom now, and Katy Lines, one of the pastors, said their church family regularly laments the celebrations they are missing in each other’s lives.

“We recognize the loss that a lot of us have gone through and the things that we’re missing from being together with each other,” Lines said. “We articulate all of that. We name it. We lament it, and we don’t necessarily try to fill that emptiness. … We look forward to the days that we’ll be able to resume those ways of being together.”

Lines is already planning a large church celebration for when the pandemic subsides and things return to normal. “I want a really big party that includes lots of food and hugs,” Lines said. “I never really thought of myself as a big hugger, but with the way that we have had to maintain distance, I’ve told folks that when we regather, I will hug every single person whether you want it or not.”

Pastors are looking forward to providing pastoral care in more embodied ways again, but they don’t want to forget the refocus the pandemic has given them on deepening relationships within their congregations. This season has reminded Williams at Cedar Rock First Baptist Church that pastoring a church is not about programming or content. The church is about God ’s people. “Preaching is the easy part,” he said, “but, really, being a pastor is about knowing your flock.”

Lanie Anderson is a writer and speakerliving in Oxford, Mississippi. She holds an MDiv in apologetics from New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

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