Connections that Count: A Strategy for Surviving a Pandemic
Carmen Joy Imes
Although the COVID-19 vaccine is making its way to clinics across North America, the limited supply and complexity of distribution means that we’re facing a new calendar year with ongoing restrictions. Many of us just celebrated Christmas apart from our loved ones. For those in cities, counties, states, provinces, or countries that had begun to allow free movement again, the spike in cases of COVID-19 and new wave of lockdowns is deeply discouraging. Yes, we’ve been here before. We know how to wear masks, how to move meetings to virtual platforms, how to order groceries online. Our pastors have figured out how to livestream a sermon. But have we actually figured out how to maintain emotional and relational health under these strange circumstances?
For some, being alone is a relief at first. Introverts relish the quiet. No pressure to make conversation. No need to get dressed up or fight traffic. But we were wired for relationship. Even introverts will eventually languish without meaningful connections with other human beings. Extroverts are quick to feel the lack of interaction. It drains them of their energy and empties them of motivation. Clearly, we need a longer-term strategy if all of us are going to get through this. (Note: I don’t want to overplay the devastation of another lockdown. What we’re going through pales in comparison to World War II or the Civil War or the Great Depression. Still, it’s disruptive. Most of us have had a sustained onslaught of disappointing cancellations. Singles, the elderly, and the immune-compromised have experienced sustained isolation. Working parents have had an enormous increase in responsibility. And for some, the economic fallout has been frightening.)
It was one thing to “get through” the first wave – to move church services online and teach people how to give online and how to mute themselves on Zoom. To get through the second wave, the church will need to be even more intentional about staying connected.
So here’s my idea: We already count steps. Many of us count carbs. Some of us count the number of books we read. Could counting connections be a way to grow our communities during the pandemic?
When I was in college, I became a Resident Assistant in the women’s dorm. It was literally my job to hang out with the women in my dorm section for 10 hours each week. At the end of every week I accounted for my hours – With whom did I get coffee? Have a Bible study? Who showed up to my dorm section meeting? How many hours did I spend in late-night conversation? Does it sound unspiritual to count hours? That’s not how I experienced those years. It was a rich season of ministry. More than twenty years later, I’m still in touch with most of the women from that dorm section. Counting hours worked because it ensured that I prioritized investing in relationships. That investment is still paying dividends in caring friendship.
When churches meet in person, our connections with each other happen by accident. We check our children into Sunday School together. We park next to each other. We bump into each other pouring coffee or rocking babies in the nursery or singing beside each other. We work the sound booth together or serve beside each other at a funeral luncheon. We sit adjacent in Bible study or at prayer meeting. I wonder . . . if we tallied all these casual conversations for our own congregation, how many connections normally happen on a Sunday morning?
What if we made it our goal as a church to make that many connections a week, even when we’re not meeting in person? Let’s say you bump into 3 people on a typical Sunday morning and have a brief conversation. Without all those random opportunities for casual conversation, we’ll have to connect in other ways. If each one of us checked in on 3 other people by text, or sent a note, or made a phone call, or dropped by with flowers, how much stronger would our web of connections become? What if we could not just survive the pandemic, but come out on the other side more deeply connected with one another?
About six months ago, we got a phone call from a husband-wife team responsible for pastoral care for our corner of the alphabet. Not long after that, they stopped by with a batch of homemade cinnamon rolls. It was a wonderfully practical way to help us feel loved and connected to our church family. With all the added pressures of the pandemic, you may not have time to make cinnamon rolls, but do you have a few moments to text or call? It can make a world of difference to someone who is struggling.
These connections could happen on an individual basis. You could challenge the congregation to reach out to 3 people each week, either someone that they would normally see on a Sunday morning or someone God puts on their mind. Alternatively, you could organize something more systematic, setting up a pastoral care team to track these connections to ensure that no one is missed. Depending on the size of your congregation and the groups already in place, tracking connections may be quite simple or it may be more complicated. But anything is better than nothing.
Recently during our livestream church service, one of our pastors encouraged us to pray for and reach out to the family directly following ours in the church directory. We have a large enough church that there are lots of people I don’t know personally, so I took the opportunity to reach out to a few people who were not far down the list.
Your small group can resume meeting on Zoom. Your prayer group can gather in pairs over the phone. If it’s allowed where you live, you could meet someone to walk outside and talk or pray. You can send a card or leave a simple gift on someone’s front porch. Not sure where to start? Ask a member of your church staff if they know of someone who is alone these days and could use some encouragement.
I would love to see this season awaken a new resolve to be the church. We may not be able to gather, but we can still participate in kingdom community.
Which three people do you plan to encourage this week?