Seminary Course: Pastoral Care in Times of Pandemic

No. There is no such course I know of. We’d never get out of school if there was a course on everything we might face as ministers or pastors. Seminary has always been a sort of baptism for what was to follow; at times with little real experience to help guide us.

For me, pastoral care in “regular” times centers around two things: the care of the congregation and a clear communicated sense that fear is not a solution. The spread of this virus calls for even more sensitivity to the ubiquitous fear and anxiety produced by the unknowns of an exponentially replicating pandemic.

“Social distancing” has emerged as the most powerful tool we have at this moment to “flatten the curve” of the spreading virus. Up until a few days ago, I don’t think I had ever heard the term. I did, though, recognize that it represented the opposite of what I usually strive for in congregational life and advocacy for justice and love. More for me to understand and synthesize in keeping those two main concerns in the forefront.

For most everyone who reads this, I am sure that members of your congregation look to you for spiritual leadership and information. I am not a medical doctor, an epidemiologist, a scientist or an academic doing research. However, my influence as a spiritual leader can be every bit as influential and helpful as any of those professions. Still, what to say when the question is:

“Where is God in all this?”

I learned an answer for that after 9/11 when the same question was shouted from great places of pain and despair. “With the injured, the rescuers, those unrecognizable in the buckets of rubble…” my pastor Joe Gilmore said from the pulpit that following Sunday.

Today, God is with those who are or will become ill, families who have lost loved ones, with the doctors and others seeking treatment and cures; with the civic and national leaders – inspiring discoveries; maybe even nudging those more who need to open their eyes and get their acts together. And they all need our prayers.

Most often, we gather when trouble surrounds us; social distancing is causing us to reevaluate just how we do that — but it doesn’t limit the presence of God or pastoral care. It’s just how do we be present? How do we care?

I have no solutions; every situation is different. We all make decisions and lead in ways that reflect the congregations we serve and boards that help to guide us. And, we try things and try again.

Whatever the practices though, staying in communication, whether in person when possible, by phone, or social media seems to be most important. In our congregation, we have done our best to increase our usual calls and contacts with those who live alone. We check in to see if folks need someone to run errands, a ride to the doctor, picking up prescriptions or food; all the which encouraging people who feel sick to seek medical care, stay home and be in touch: call in, stay informed, ask questions…and pray with us.

Everyone, and I mean everyone I know, is talking about this virus. And so communication, support, and pastoral care over the phone or in smaller groups, or whatever works – is what I first try to maintain. We are all learning new ways of communicating and being with.

We know, too, this is not a time to go dark or silent or be absent. And for me, the dinosaur that I am, the sound of one’s voice is the best indicator of how someone is doing and perhaps what they need. Yes, the phone. I know. Still, it means so much to hear the voice of someone calling to say, “Hi. How are you?” And to listen, so folks know most of all they are not alone and they are loved.

I believe God is there, too, in those calls and conversations however we may have them. However we may pray.

With love,
Ray Bagnuolo, HR
Presbytery of Genesee Valley
Currently serving as pastor of Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ Sayville, NY 631-827-8611