I have spent the day working from home. This was already planned, as it’s the second Thursday of the month when I have coaching and consulting clients all day long. They are all pastors. They’re from different parts of the country, navigating different challenges. Usually my conversations with each of them are very different. But today everyone needed to talk about the same thing: their church and the coronavirus.

Out of our conversations, and in my reading and conversing with other pastors and leaders, these three points keep arising. I share them here in case they are helpful for others.

One: Feel the feelings and create space for others to feel them.

Somewhere in some psychology or pastoral care class someone once said something like (how’s that for lack of citations?) “underneath anger is usually sadness, pain, fear, disappointment, or shame.” This idea has been helpful for me this week, as I’ve sat with students and faculty processing the changes that are happening at our educational institutions, as I’ve listened to people online have a wide-range of reactions, and as I’ve noticed in myself the various feelings welling up and how I’d rather distance myself from most of those feelings. At these times, I spin out worse case scenarios. In other moments, I distance myself by indulging in denial and grasp for ways that the coronavirus will not impact the people I love and care about.

I was grateful to talk to my coach Tuesday morning and for her to give me a space, without any judgment, to voice all of my feelings. It was such a relief to speak my fears aloud, knowing that she was not going to judge me for having them or try to make it all better. After I had spoken this round of feelings out loud in a safe space, I was able to move into being a non-anxious presence for others, and I felt I could respond and act more clearly, rather than the muddle of feelings I’d been before.

Find your person (or people) where you can be vulnerable. Or find your journal, a walk or a time of prayer. Give yourself space to feel, so that you can then show back up to the work in front of us with a grounded and non-anxious presence. Take time in nature, even if it’s a quick walk between things, and breathe deeply and ground yourself.

Two: Cancel All In-Person Gatherings

Experts in the field are making it clear that social distancing is one of the best ways we can collectively slow the spread of this virus, helping fewer people become infected and not overwhelming the healthcare systems so that those who need medical care will still be able to receive it. (If you want to learn more about this conclusion, a few good articles to start with are: From the Atlantic: Cancel Everything, and from Vox: How canceled events and self-quarantines save lives, in one chart.)

Taking decisive action on this, I believe, is for the care of the common good. It’s easy for me, as a relatively healthy almost 41-year-old, to say “Oh, I’ll be fine.” But what I don’t know is whether I’m carrying the virus and that I will unknowingly give it to others who are at risk. I’m seeing a lot of churches saying, “If you’re at risk, stay home” which makes sense, but also seems counter to our call as the body of Christ. Instead of this reaction, could we act in ways that support, and are in solidarity with, those who are most vulnerable? For many of us, it will be missing the joy we find from being in person together on a Sunday morning for a few weeks (we hope!), but for others it could be life or death. For many of our elderly members coming to church is a given in their weekly routine. Out of care and respect for them and others who have compromised immune systems, let’s make these health decisions together with the most vulnerable in mind, rather than put the onus on the vulnerable to choose to skip church. (If your church is outdoors and works primarily with more vulnerable members, there are other considerations at hand. There are a number of developing resources online. Here is one from San Francisco Street Sheet. If you are shutting down programs at the church that involve food, take into consideration the people who rely on meals and food that will be affected and find other ways to make sure they are fed and cared for.)

And Thirdly:  Increase Church! 

You are not canceling church; you are canceling in-person church. It’s time to actually increase and expand who we are and what we do as the church. Increase pastoral care, small group connections, and checking in on people. Pay particular attention to the most vulnerable in our communities; those living outdoors, those who are food insecure, those for whom “home” is not a safe place, those living alone, those who are dependent on their hourly wage and don’t have sick leave, etc. See how the strength of the church community can provide support for the community as a whole.

And let’s be creative together, finding ways to be spiritually connected while physically distanced. There are all sorts of good and creative ideas that are bubbling up, from using Zoom (which can be accessed live via the computer or the phone, as well as recorded and posted later on social media, etc), to phone call prayer trees, to online study groups, to encouraging new spiritual practices that can be done at home. (Here are some more ideas that Sojourners brought together from various pastors.) This is a time to be drawing together emotionally and spiritually, even while we are temporarily distanced physically.

I’ve been focusing a lot and finding church beyond the walls, on the streets, around dinner tables, and in gardens. Maybe now is a time to discover what the church looks like as we gather virtually, as we pray together with our families in our homes, as we share supplies and care for our neighbors, and as we increase our own spiritual practices.This is not forever. We will come back together in our sanctuaries again. Whether we like it or not, we’re being given  an invitation to walk through the rest of Lent differently that we expected. The world is hurting and we need one another, and we need the church. This is an invitation to be creative, to be church together in new ways, and to do it in ways that care for the health and wellbeing of all.

[March 12, 2020]