Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a transformative effect on the church. Primarily, the loss of life has been devastating to the church community. Furthermore, the drop in attendance, the loss of income, and frustration over whether a congregation was too strict or lenient in its policies continue to present the broader church with real challenges. But as our Scriptures proclaim, while God is NOT the author of evil, God can bring good out of even the worst situations. I have witnessed that at Shalom in the past year and a half.
After we decided to close the church to in-person services last year, our leaders began discussing ways to provide care and support to the congregation. This was challenging—both because of the number of people who needed care and because we couldn’t visit them in person. We decided to try an approach to pastoral care that we had been considering for several years: a deacon model of ministry. To initiate this plan, nine trusted members of the congregation volunteered to be deacons. Then every adult in our church was assigned to one of them. These deacons then contacted their assignees to see how they were doing and offer support. From that point until the present, our deacons have been periodically calling or texting every active member of our church—except those who opted out—so that each one knows they are remembered and loved. Periodically, I check in with the deacons and offer my direct pastoral support when needed.
Although it may sound simple, this has been a completely different approach to one of the core ministries of our church—pastoral care. From my perspective, it has been a tremendous blessing. Before this program, I struggled to figure out a way to share the ministry of pastoral care with congregational members. Occasionally, elders or church leaders would offer to visit someone sick or make hospital visits, but in reality, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Broader pastoral care involves much more subtle forms of support, such as listening to people who are discouraged, checking in on people who seem to be slipping away, praying with people when their friends or relatives are sick, or in times of crisis. Prior to the pandemic, it has been hard to explain how important these low-key interactions are for our spiritual and social well-being, but after having been deprived of them, most of us understand it more intuitively now. The deacon program not only helps us reinforce the importance of these interactions but offers a way for congregational members to get directly involved in this kind of care.
We will soon be making a formal decision about whether to keep the deacon program or discard it when life “returns to normal.” Whatever we decide, this approach to pastoral ministry has transformed us, and I am grateful for the ways it has done so.
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About the author
Brian Bither has been a pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church for eight years and lives on the eastside of Indy with his wife, three children, their dog, and whoever else happens to be staying with them. Currently, his “hobbies” include changing diapers and preparing 3-4 separate entrees for family meals.
Between church and family life, he keeps a pretty full schedule.