Helping without hurting in the time of COVID-19

The church is not closed. Our mission has not changed. We are still called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31) — but the ways we do it in this challenging season are evolving. How do we care for people when we literally can’t be close to them?

As communities slowly reopen, the health risks and social concerns have not receded — in fact, we may only be seeing the leading wave of the impact of the pandemic on the economy, families, mental health, and poverty. The church’s work as salt and light has growing urgency.

Following are four strategies to guide your church in caring for the community through these uncertain times. These are just options, intended to spark your creative compassion. Assess your resources, listen to your community, and choose a focus.

Whatever you do … Safety first. Track and follow CDC, state and local restrictions, including social distancing, frequent hand washing, using gloves and masks, and sanitizing surfaces. Don’t let your good intentions put people at risk.

Sustaining ministry safely may call for looking beyond regular (often older) volunteers to engage new people, such as young adults and those who are currently unable to work.

Strategy 1: Retool existing community ministries

Start with the ways your church has already been engaged in the community. Instead of keeping these programs closed, look for ways to adapt to comply with evolving health rules and meet new needs.

For instance:

Keys to retooling ministries are maintaining relational connections; moving services online if possible; and finding safe ways of getting resources to people who need them.

Strategy 2: Creatively use congregational assets to serve the community

Congregations may be asking: How can we help others when we also feel vulnerable ourselves? By intentionally shifting the focus to your assets and strengths, new possibilities emerge.

Take stock of what your congregation has to offer at this moment: What do we have on hand? What can we do well? Then ask: How could we repurpose these assets to connect with community needs?

Here are just a few ideas for sharing church assets:

An asset-based approach shifts perspective from scarcity to abundance, from closed doors to possibilities for generosity. This is the mindset encouraged by 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

Strategy 3: Partner with groups serving vulnerable populations

Probably the best way for churches to make a difference right now, and through the tough months ahead, is through effective partnerships with community groups.

Start by reaching out to organizations your church already supports, to ask how to be a good partner.  For example, the nursing home where church members usually visit may be asking for donations of tablets or other devices so residents can connect with family and friends.

This is also a good time to build new partnerships. Agencies that meet basic needs, like food pantries and homeless shelters, tend to attract public attention. Consider connecting with other organizations reaching vulnerable people that may have less visibility — such as a domestic violence shelter, refugee ministry, foster care agency, program for military families, disability advocacy group, suicide prevention network, prison outreach, or addiction recovery program.

Other potential partnerships include

The key to effective partnership — at any time, but especially in a crisis — is to discover what is really needed.

Often the most direct way to help is simply to give money. Congregations can organize a fundraiser for a partner, donate e-gift certificates, or set up a virtual registry for needed items. Churches can also cover costs for specific needs, such as a family’s medical or funeral expenses.

Another way to partner well is by caring for individuals on the front lines — healthcare staff, first responders, social workers, and others whose work takes them to places of greatest need. Help ensure they have personal protective equipment — for example, by making masks in church sewing circles. Offer to lighten their load with groceries, care packages, even childcare costs.

Finally, for church members who can’t leave the house but want to make someone’s day, never underestimate the power of a simple note: “Thank you. We’re praying for you. God bless you.”

Strategy 4: Collaborate on evolving community-wide needs

This crisis calls for a coordinated response that can adapt as the situation changes over time. A church can accomplish more through collaboration than by working alone.

First, churches can help develop and promote mutual aid forums — “bite sized ways of responding that make a world of difference.” A mutual aid forum connects those in need with those who can help with errands, groceries, or other necessities, whether in a specific neighborhood or across the city. This can take the form of a Facebook group, a website or an app like Nextdoor, where individuals can post “I need help with …” or “I can help with …”

Another vital arena for collaboration is prayer. Churches together can coordinate online prayer gatherings, or a community-wide prayer vigil, or organize a community prayer calendar. In some communities, churches have come together to “park & pray” at the hospital. Churches can also distribute resources for prayer-walking (or porch-praying) in members’ neighborhoods.

Caring well in a crisis

How can your church engage effectively amidst a rising tide of hardship without becoming overwhelmed? Keep ministry simple, and stay focused on the specific ways your congregation has determined to make a difference. In planning your church’s response, take into account what could be mobilized quickly and flexibly? What needs are being missed by others at this time? And what relationships/partnerships are most important to us?

There is now no such thing now as “the way we’ve always done things”! Who are the creative entrepreneurial types in your congregation and community who can help you adapt? Staying in it for the long haul makes self-care vital. Set boundaries, show yourselves and others grace, and recognize signs of burnout so you can recharge. Finally, keep listening and building connections. Authentic relationships — even at a distance — are always at the heart of community care.

Topics: Church and Ministry, Current Events, Mission & Outreach, Reframing Missional Strategy

About the Author

Heidi Unruh is a consultant, trainer, and coach helping churches care well for their neighbors. Her books include Churches That Make a Difference and Hope for Children in Poverty, along with a variety of practical resources to support missional discipleship and community outreachYou can reach her at UnruhHeidi@gmail.com.

About the Author

Joy Skjegstad helps churches around the U.S. develop strategic vision and connect in creative ways with their communities. She is the author of Seven Creative Models for Community Ministry, Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church, and Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry. You can email her at joynonprofit@juno.com.