This piece was first shared with Baptist church leaders in April 2020 as New Zealand was transitioning out of Level 4 COVID-19 lockdowns.

Last week, I was asked to write a brief piece on pastoring in a bubble beyond Level 4 in this unprecedented COVID-19 season. What a privilege. What a responsibility. What to say? As the proverbial Chinese character for crisis suggests, a crisis gives rise to danger and opportunity. Danger reminds us not to lose sight of time-proven principles. Opportunities like this invite us to rethink how to do church, engage in robust conversations, dream, study the scriptures, learn from others, and seek God. Since you are the experts who know the dynamics of your own church bubbles and beyond, I thought the best response that I can offer here is to identify a few pastoral care principles that relate to danger and opportunities for you to consider and adapt into your own situations.

We must not assume that we know how folks are coping in this coronavirus outbreak. Some people have told me that they’re loving being in lockdown; others are bored; a handful I know are choosing to review their lives and plot new directions; many are anxious; several are in freefall because their jobs have disappeared; multitudes grieve; and still others have spiralled into dark places, as their past unprocessed traumas have been tapped into via the troubling recent events. During this pandemic people’s circumstances and dispositions change rapidly, and some individuals are too hurt to reach out for assistance. To meet folks where they are at, we need to communicate regularly but not excessively, enquire after their welfare, listen well, and pray for them. Such actions, in turn, may lead to organising food parcels, frequent texts and phone calls, Zoom sessions, connecting people with others, teaching them how to cope with uncertainty, and the like.

It cannot be overemphasised that many people in our churches are presently being assaulted at psychological, emotional, and existential levels. Jordan Peterson first asks people wrestling with anxiety and depression about their sleep patterns. He wants to know what time they wake up and if they wake at the same time every day, because the “systems that mediate negative emotion are tightly tied to” healthy daily rhythms. Having addressed sleep, Peterson then discusses breakfast. If stressed people were to eat a healthy breakfast with no sugar shortly after they wake their physiological and psychological health would be significantly assisted.Stated differently, one way that we can help struggling people in our bubbles is to coach them towards adopting daily routines that facilitate predictability, stability, and wellbeing.

Of course, caregivers also need to tend to their own needs, especially as we seem to be in a marathon that has no visible finish line. This entails maintaining the usual selfcare strategies such as drinking great coffee, recreating, and spending time with friends, family, and God. Given the magnitude of the current need, we should also enlist others into caregiving roles to spread the load and create meaningful opportunities for them to serve. Yet, at the same time, we also need to remain flexible enough to respond quickly to the opportunities that emerge before us. 

The unknown is a realm in which faith can blossom. Whilst life will never be the same after COVID-19, God remains the same: A God of love who is trustworthy and with us in the storms and changes of life. One of the many opportunities that has arisen in this season is that persons from within and without of the church are looking for meaning and spiritual answers. God is the one who can meet these existential needs. God and God’s truth can help us to stand in the face of crises, danger, anxiety, and the unknown. A useful and eminently practical way of helping people to experience God is through the daily ritual of the Examen prayer. This time-proven model of prayer is designed to enable us to know and feel God’s presence in every moment of our lives. It involves relishing the God and good moments of each day; reviewing each day with the Spirit’s help; repenting of our inevitable mistakes; and resolving in concrete ways to live well tomorrow.2 The most accessible way into this practice that I know is via Mark Thibodeaux’s wonderful booklet Reimagining the Ignatian Examen.

May God inspire and sustain you as you respond to the pandemic and pastor and love in and beyond your bubbles. 

Contributor: Dr Phil Halstead

Phil lectures in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College, with a focus on pastoral care, pastoral counselling, inner healing, and integrative theology. He also heads up the pastoral care department at St Augustine’s Church, Auckland. He received his PhD in Theology from the University of Auckland in 2009 and his research focused on designing and running a series of forgiveness courses that helped adults to explore their relationships with their parents. He has published widely in the areas of forgiveness, pastoral care and counselling, and mental health.

References: 

  1. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 18.  
  2. Mark E. Thibodeaux, Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015), xi.