Guidelines for Pastoral Care During Covid-19

How can we as leaders accompany people through this current valley of anxiety, fear, and death? These 10 guidelines can help frame our thinking and our caring response

As outbreaks of the coronavirus continue to spread globally, the endgame continues to be a moving target. Meanwhile, we as shepherds and faith leaders still must care for people, many of whom are feeling a rise in anxiety verging on panic. Allow me to offer these 10 brief guidelines to help frame our thinking and subsequently our caring response.

  1. Monitor and follow the health guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and state and local health departments are monitoring the situation closely. Follow their guidelines. Stay healthy yourself. Avoid, and counsel others to avoid, “internet solutions” to this crisis. There is more than enough bogus information on social media that will further confuse and increase anxiety. Let’s stick with the official information that is documented.
  2. Be a non-anxious presence. Showing up calm, emotionally present, and free from anxiety engenders trust and provides the right kind of care in any crisis, whether it is from a papercut or a pandemic. For pastors to show up non-anxiously means managing our own feelings, so we neither try to flee the situation nor flood it with our own emotions or anxieties.
  3. Show up for people, even if it’s not in person. As we all have discovered in recent weeks, this is a time when we can show up for people digitally. It is not the same as being able to reach out and hold a hand. Yet we are fortunate to have this viable option. You are likely already connected to people on various social platforms, so use them—with care—to offer your support.
  4. Listen in love. No matter what turn a crisis takes, one of the most enduring and powerful gifts we can offer is to listen. By listening, we embody the love of God, the love of a wider community (the church), the love of life itself. Compassionate listening is exactly what people need when they are faced with the overwhelming, uncontrollable circumstances of a crisis.
  5. Find ways to make community. The human desire to be helpful is incredibly strong. Although a crisis may lead some people to withdraw, it can also be a significant opportunity to pull together and support one another.
  6. Help people take the long view. Find ways to remind people that God’s loving presence was here before the virus itself, and it will be here long after COVID-19 has subsided. Seeing ourselves as part of a much larger picture offers stability and hope. It can help us maintain a sense of hopefulness about God’s loving presence in our lives, even when circumstances threaten to dim our hope.
  7. Keep values alive. Hospice workers and chaplains often say that people die the way they lived. In frightening times like the present, our job is to call on people to live into their best sense of how to be in the world. This does not mean being dishonest about the crisis and its threats. It does mean we keep leaning into God’s sustaining presence, loving our neighbors, and facing death with the same purpose and values by which we face life.
  8. Don’t be afraid to talk about death. When talking to people who are afraid, we may tap quickly into an underlying fear of death itself. If this turn occurs in a conversation you are having, don’t suppress it. Helping people grieve well—before, during and after losses—helps them live better in every area of life. Making space to talk about death means expanding our capacities to live each moment as a gift.
  9. Pray. Don’t just promise to pray, do it. Spoken prayers for people who are anxious and in great need can reshape a situation’s meaning. But be alert, in times of trauma and crisis, using too many words can sound hollow—and prayers can come off as judgment or preachy advice.
  10. Tag out. Remember that you, too, are a finite and limited creature. Tend to your own needs. If you find yourself in a demanding caregiving situation, invite one of the others of your team to take turns with you in giving care. It is tempting to believe in a crisis that we must give or do everything right now. Mostly this is not possible. Sabbath is not a luxury. Self-care is not selfish. As this outbreak continues to unfold, take steps to renew your own energy and hope in the Spirit of God.