An earlier version of this article was published in the Otago Daily Times on 15 October 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Lynne Taylor is Researcher for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand. A recent project has highlighted a local Baptist church doing some great work through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human beings need many things to survive and to thrive. In addition to our obvious physical needs, self-determination theorists point to three things that are less obvious:

  • autonomy,
  • belonging, and
  • competency.

All, they say, are necessary for mental health, growth, and wellbeing.

Autonomy

Autonomy is about being in control of one’s goals and behaviours: a sense that if we act in particular ways, certain outcomes will result. Conversely, autonomy can be challenged when things seem to be beyond our control.

Belonging

Belonging relates to a sense of attachment to and connectedness with others. Obviously, the sense of connection can be challenged when we’re isolated from whānau or friends.

Competency

Competency is about having a role to play and knowing that you do it well. It’s about developing and using your skills or gifts. Competence frustration might occur when competing demands cause a sense that we’re not doing anything well; or when usual opportunities for skill development are lost.

Pandemics

As we’ve discovered, pandemics can mess with each of these three psychological needs! Usual freedoms are restricted by new regulations, which may negatively affect one’s sense of autonomy. Lockdowns make it impossible to be physically present with those outside one’s own household, which can contribute to a sense of isolation, and diminished connection and belonging. Living with increased anxiety while juggling responsibilities, or lacking the employment that usually brings a sense of fulfilment, can cause us to question our competency.

It’s no wonder that many people are feeling stressed!

How churches are responding

This year, I spent several months investigating how churches are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of my research, I took a close look at three churches, including one from the Baptist Churches of New Zealand. I realised that something very simple the Baptist church did contributed positively to each of these core psychological needs.

This church invited everyone to care for others. Specifically, they invited their congregation to reach out and connect with three people from within or beyond the church. Not just once: each person was encouraged to check in with those three friends regularly and consistently.

I said it was simple!

Caring

This caring initiative was introduced early in the first lockdown and returned to time and again. It had a descriptive name (complete with hashtag) meaning that the campaign was memorable and visible. Because it was something everyone in the church was invited to participate in, there was a sense of collective engagement.

Autonomy was enhanced because the caregiver made the effort to be involved: as they decided for themselves to act in a way that was caring towards others. Doing so helped provide a sense of having control over their actions. Belonging was enhanced in two key ways. First, because it was a collective (as well as individual) activity. They were together making an important contribution to the church and wider community. Secondly, belonging was enhanced as relationships deepened. Competency was enhanced as the person doing the caring experienced a sense of purpose: they were doing something that was both important and valued.

We often see such actions in terms of the benefits for the recipients of the care. But actually, there’s reciprocity here—the benefits go both ways.

Of course, this wasn’t the only way that this church cared for others in the church and community. Skilled pastoral care workers were available to check in with those who needed additional support, and the church provided a variety of practical, mental, and spiritual care.

What can we learn from this today?

First, we can of course be reaching out to check in with others. As with the church I studied, this can contribute to all three wellbeing dimensions.

Secondly, it is important to remember that it is the virus that is the problem, not the people who have become infected, nor the public health restrictions and requirements that have come into play in response to it. Scapegoating those who have contracted COVID-19 or complaining to those implementing the necessary restrictions is, ultimately, destructive. It undermines any autonomy, belonging, and competency that we seek to reclaim.

Thirdly, we can reclaim some control against the virus by deciding to follow the recommended public health guidance: by being vaccinated, and wearing masks in public places, for example. Through choosing to be vaccinated, we reclaim and exercise our autonomy and competency while also affirming our belonging with our other five-million team members. For me, being fully vaccinated is an expression of my Christian values of loving God and loving neighbour—including the most vulnerable in society. If you’re not already vaccinated, and have questions or concerns, there is plenty of information including videos, information sheets and responses to common questions on the COVID-19 website: covid19.govt.nz/covid-19-vaccines. Your doctor will also be able to answer your questions.

Finally, if you are already vaccinated, thanks. Are there some others you can make the effort to check in with? Perhaps see if they need a lift to the clinic, or someone to hang out with them afterwards. They might have some questions about vaccination you could point them towards resources on.

We’ve done so well, Aotearoa. Let’s keep working to keep ourselves and each other safe.

Contributor: Lynne Taylor

Lynne Taylor is Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago (and Researcher for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand). See links to her other work and writing here: linktr.ee/lynnetaylor.