The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has lasted longer than most of us ever anticipated. From the beginning, churches and ministers have found creative solutions to limitations on when, where, and how we can gather to worship and fellowship with one another. We have taken precautions to socially distance, made use of technological platforms, and pre-recorded Sunday School lessons and worship services.
But now, as the holidays approach, a new challenge presents itself to ministers. How does one encourage and support a congregation through the holidays in a time of isolation and uncertainty?
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are for most characterized as a time of gathering with family and friends. This year, for various reasons, this will prove challenging or impossible for many. Because of this, the holidays this year are in danger of being characterized instead by loneliness, depression, and fear.
The calling of a minister is to stand in the gap between the hopelessness of this world and the Good News of the Kingdom through sharing in word and deed the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. This season of COVID-19 is the perfect time to encourage our congregations and remind them what the holiday season is truly about.
The solution will look different from state to state, congregation to congregation, as regulations and beliefs regarding the appropriate approach to COVID-10 will vary. However, there are some things all minsters can do to act as a shepherd to their flock over the next few months.
- Remind Our Congregations of The True Meaning of Christmas
The night our Savior was born, there was no room in the inn. There was nowhere for Mary, Joseph, and the babe Jesus to stay except for a lonely stable.
The holy family knew loneliness and isolation well. And yet…the first Christmas still brought the Savior of the world into our midst. And because He came, we were no longer truly alone.
Shepherds isolated in the field heard the good news of Jesus’ birth. A choir of angels filled the dark night sky. The angels still sing today.
Christmas is about the hope of salvation being brought into a broken, dark world. Our world today is dark and broken. The message of Christmas is still relevant. There is still hope. Even if we are physically separated, Emmanuel is born – God with us. Even when we are not with one another, God is still with us.
- Send Cards and Make Phone Calls
I am not insinuating that cards and phone calls can replace physical presence. But they do let those on the receiving end know that they are not forgotten. Many ministers already reach out to their members in these ways, especially since March, but over the holidays it is imperative that we connect with our church members in the ways that we are able. Ask them how they are doing, offer to pray with them, ask if there is anything they need. Do not wait for them to reach out to you first. If your church is too big for you to do it alone, assemble a group of volunteers or have your deacons help you to make contact with everyone.
- Have a List of Resources and Referrals Available
When you make contact with your church members, it is important to have prepared a list of resources and referrals available as recommendations in case those you get in touch with are experiencing any needs or crises. Research your community and know where people can get food if needed, where people can speak with a therapist, where people can receive financial assistance. Being prepared for whatever needs arise is essential.
- Do Not Forsake Celebration
Though our churches may not be able to gather together in the usual way for our holiday celebrations, that does not mean we have to cancel our special services and special events entirely. Instead of cancelling, get creative. Maybe we cannot have a Hanging of the Greens service, but can we have an outdoor Christmas Tree lighting or Nativity Dedication? We may not be able to have a Christmas cantata, but can we live stream a special musical service to the homes of our members? Maybe we cannot have a fellowship Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but can we cook meals remotely and drop them off at the homes of elders in our community? There are endless possibilities to keep the spirit of giving and goodwill alive in our churches throughout the winter season!
- Offer Grace and Understanding
What I am about to say may be controversial, but I am going to say it anyway.
Every person’s situation is different, as are priorities. It is important to remember this when we speak with people or post on social media regarding the holidays. People in our congregations may make decisions about gathering together or not gathering that we disagree with. Some will decide that they cannot bear the loneliness of the holidays, or perhaps they are afraid this will be their last holiday on earth and choose to gather with family. Others will opt for a Zoom Thanksgiving because they want to protect themselves and others from the virus. When this happens, may we offer grace. All we can do is the best we can do according to what we believe is best in this difficult time. We do not have to endorse anything as a church that we are not comfortable with, but that does not mean we should make church members or congregants feel guilty for doing things that we ourselves may not want to do. May we tread lightly and offer a spirit of peace and goodwill to the people in our congregations who make different decisions than we do.
There is no easy answer for the times that we are in. But as ministers, may we approach this holiday season with knowledge and respect for the increasing needs and difficult emotions many in our congregations will experience.
And may God bless us, every one.