As COVID-19 has caused many churches to temporarily worship virtually, our gauges for the spiritual health of congregants have become muddled. Recent data also shows a decrease in online church attendance.

How can church leaders—pastors, deacons, and Bible study leaders—wisely minister to straying and wounded believers in these socially distanced times?

Fresh and Reopened Wounds

The loss of jobs, childcare, and loved ones would seem enough to leave our congregations reeling. But a myriad of other emotional and spiritual wounds—mixed with the spiritual danger of isolation (Gen. 2:18Prov. 18:1)—have made us more susceptible to sin, disillusionment, and despair in this season.

The elderly may have difficulty connecting online. Those battling addiction to pornography or mental illnesses are suddenly alone and surrounded by screens. Singles find it difficult to connect, and domestic abuse victims are left unseen. Many Asian Americans face anti-Asian sentiment and assaults, while black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We also see the unjust deaths of black brothers and sisters.

As a lost façade of control sets in, something as objective as a virus has become subject to partisan views, anecdotal takes, and conspiracy theories. Reopening plans and face-mask policies have become a point of contention. As parishioners find themselves sitting before a constant stream of news and social media, the world’s ideologies all too easily shape their hearts.

Despite our double-time efforts to offer Sunday and midweek checkpoints online, many are wandering away. How do we “bring back the strayed” and “bind up the injured” (Ezek. 34:16) in this ongoing pandemic?

1. Pray

You’re likely feeling the near-crushing weight of ministry. It’s an impossible task! But isn’t that kind of the point (2 Cor. 3:4–6)? Aren’t limitations and limps opportunities to place our powerlessness into the hands of the all-powerful Savior (Gen. 32:24–322 Cor. 12:7–10)?

That digital fatigue, your inability to hug a grieving friend, and even the biting accusations of wounded and straying sheep are all designed to bring you to your knees.

That digital fatigue, your inability to hug a grieving friend, and even the biting accusations of wounded and straying sheep are all designed to bring you to your knees.

Jesus made a habit of withdrawing to pray (Luke 5:16). Are you prioritizing the spiritual disciplines so you can be Spirit-led in this confusing time? Are you establishing boundaries to cultivate sustainable rhythms of work and rest—including sabbaticals—so you’re not ministering out of your own insufficient wisdom and strength?

Will this pandemic prompt us to bombard the throne of grace (Isa. 62:6–7)? If so, perhaps our ministries will grow more dependent on the Spirit and less fueled by our own personalities. 

2. Pursue Them, But Not All by Yourself

Daily exhorting each other so that “none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13) isn’t strictly the work of church leaders. How are you tapping into the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5–9)?

Are you delegating and dividing up tasks, including the pursuit of church members through (currently virtual) check-ins? Perhaps you can assign deacons and small-group leaders to specific members so that practical needs are met (James 2:15–16) and everyone is being stirred up “to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).

What about meeting virtually in smaller groups of three or four to ask more penetrating questions? Or consider a “113” initiative in which parishioners “in 1 day call 1 person to check up and encourage them, and pray for 3 people.” Are you utilizing the tech-savviness of younger generations? What about creating a COVID task-force team?

Mutual care is the ministry of the whole church. Jethro was onto something when he told Moses, ‘You are not able to do it alone.’

If you’re unsure how to minister to the racial woundedness of minority congregants, learn to listen with compassion and humility (James 1:19Rom. 12:15). Seek guidance from ministers who have faithfully served marginalized communities.

Mutual care is the ministry of the whole church. Jethro was onto something when he told Moses, “You are not able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:13–23).

3. Show Us Your Wounds 

Two of Satan’s seductive lies are (1) you’re the only one struggling this way and (2) no one cares about you. Stupefied, we keep our pet sins in the dark where they turn into monsters, and we grow resentful toward the church. Enter: the cycle of sin and shame that keeps us ever further from God and others.

So how do we dispel that first lie for strayers? We create a culture of confession and grace, which starts with us. We create spaces—perhaps during small groups or check-ins—where we confess our sins and ask for prayer (James 5:16). This helps others see that they’re not the only ones struggling with sin, and that repentance is a means to true fellowship and joy (Acts 3:19–201 John 1:5–10).

What about that second lie? In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares how ministers’ wounds—when named, tended to, and shared—can have a healing effect that reflects the healing wounds of Christ. Paul emulated this when he told the Corinthians, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia” (2 Cor. 1:8; cf. 2 Cor. 11:23–292 Tim. 3:10–11).

Paul knew that the God who comforted him would comfort others, even if their trials were different (2 Cor. 1:3–4). So he exposed both his wounds and the grace that made his wounds transformational milestones toward deeper trust and richer joy in the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3)

Of course, discernment is needed regarding the specifics of your sharing. Still, we need a reality-admitting, grace-confirming movement that teaches us to make space for confession and lament rooted in gospel hope (Lam. 3:19–24). This is something ministers can model for the straying and wounded among them.

Follow His Lead

Though there’s no exact formula for ministry in our particular COVID moment, our Savior paved the way by praying through the agonies of ministry (Luke 22:39–46), pursuing those who strayed (Luke 15:4), and showing us his wounds (John 19:34; 20:27).

We do well to follow his lead.

by Quina Aragon

[July 16, 2020]