Ministry in a post-Coronavirus world

 

Church as we knew it before the second Sunday in March is never going to return to “normal.” Two developments from the past fourteen days illustrate the extent of disruption resulting from closures ordered to reduce spread of the virus.

The Barna Group released results of a survey conducted in late April and early May indicating one in three practicing Christians (defined as people who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month pre-COVID) has stopped attending church during COVID-19. Out of that sample, slightly more than half of the respondents had exclusively viewed online services from their own church or supplemented their church’s online worship with content from other churches. The statistic I would find most alarming as a church leader is that 46% of practicing Christians were exclusively viewing content from other churches or not engaging online at all with the church they had regularly attended.

An interesting and somewhat counterintuitive finding from the Barna study is that the demographic most likely to maintain engagement with church online were “Boomers” – (adults between the ages of 55-74 for the purpose of this survey) while 35% of “Gen Xers” (ages 37-55) and half of “Millennials” (ages 22-36) have stopped attending church altogether, despite their greater familiarity with the apps and technology necessary for online engagement.

The ranks of “committed Christians” will shrink significantly following COVID-related social distancing. I’d hypothesize a subgroup of Gen Xers and Millennials will come back when we’re able to minister effectively with kids whose primary motivation for attending is their desire for their children to have a foundation in the faith. Many who attended out of habit won’t be coming back after establishing a weekend routine that doesn’t involve church. One comment I hear with surprising regularity in my social circles is of boredom during worship services because they’ve “heard it all” already – one possible explanation for why nearly a third of survey respondents reported checking out other churches online.

Unrelated to COVID, I’d expect to see many leave the church in parts of the country where membership serves as a networking tool and indicator of social status. Being part of a church is more likely to be a hindrance than a help career-wise in the coming decade, especially for attenders working for large corporations and those in industries where support for a Biblical sexual ethic is problematic – technology, academia, social services and the legal profession, to name a few.

Photo courtesy of North Point Ministries

 

The second bombshell that dropped early last week was the announcement by Andy Stanley, the highly influential pastor and founder of North Point Ministries that the megachurches affiliated with their ministry decided to suspend in-person adult worship services for the remainder of 2020. Subsequent to Andy’s announcement, the Barna group’s weekly survey reported that 5% of pastors don’t expect their churches to resume adult worship this year. Here are three excerpts from an interview Andy did earlier this week for Christianity today reflecting the thinking behind the decision.

Here is where I think the church needs to think about this: As a local church, we have limited time, limited staff, and limited resources; it makes no sense to focus our staff time and resources on creating a subpar environment on Sunday morning for a nine and 11 o’clock service that only 20% of the people may attend.

What we can do for the community is to reallocate assets and resources, to serve the community, to get more involved with our community charities that we support all year long, and to raise money for organizations. This is an incredible opportunity for the church to be seen doing good. This is important. It is not enough for the church to do good. The church must be seen doing good.

The communication has been, we love you too much to open the doors on Sunday morning, let’s focus on doing stuff for the community, but at the same time we’re doing not just zoom groups. Our middle schoolers meet in driveways. We call them driveway groups. We’ve encouraged people to come to the campus, bring their chairs, circle up, have your small group in the parking lot and the grass. So the church is not closed. We’ve just suspended our Sunday morning gatherings.

Change that would have occurred gradually over the next ten years will take place in the next 12-24 months thanks to the disruption from COVID.

Serving in the medical profession, I’ve had lots of experience with disruptive change. COVID may be the third major disruption in the field since I graduated med school 34 years ago, the first being managed care and the second the corporatization of medicine. The extent of disruption to the day to day work of ministry caused by COVID is going to take a heavy toll in terms of both physical and mental health for pastors and church staff. To compound the challenge of needing to rethink pretty much everything they do, church leaders will also be impacted by:

  • Less money. Between the folks no longer contributing because they drifted away from church and the tens of millions of people who who have lost jobs or businesses, financial resources are likely to become much tighter in years ahead.
  • Fewer volunteers. Volunteers are the currency of ministry to the extent that it’s impossible to run a church without them. Who teaches Sunday school? Runs the nursery? Hosts youth group? Our church (pre-COVID) did great respite nights for families of kids with disabilities. Hosting 80 kids might require 200+ volunteers. Where are they coming from?
  • The challenges of doing ministry in a culture increasingly composed of hostile, secular people.

In many ways, Key Ministry offers a useful model for what ministry might look like after COVID. Huge mission. Dependent upon a relatively small staff and an even smaller budget.

Based on our experiences, here are some thoughts about the approaches of churches likely to survive and thrive after COVID and how our team is planning to navigate the months and years ahead.

Churches in a position to impact their communities when this is over will need to become very good at identifying people with gifts, talents and vision for ministry and resourcing and empowering them to do serve where God has uniquely placed them vocationally and geographically. Our team is continually on the lookout for leaders with new ideas on disability ministry and eager to provide them with opportunities to share ideas and influence a larger audience. If I’m leading a church, I’m looking for members and attendees with ideas and opportunities for doing good, offering ministry staff to come alongside them and allocating my missions budget to support them.

Thriving churches will effectively integrate “face to face” ministry and online community. Our experience has been that online relationships become more meaningful and impactful when we have opportunities for interaction in the physical presence of one another. The next time we’re able to do a live and in-person ministry conference, we’re going to be building in more opportunities for church staff and volunteers and family members to hang out with the speakers and authors whose work they follow online. For a church, this might mean hosting special events where predominantly online attendees get to spend time with pastors and staff who represent the “face” of the ministry. It might mean providing child care and supports so the parents of kids with disabilities in online small groups occasionally have the opportunity to get together in person. It might involve a roundtable discussion of that week’s sermon led by a pastor that can be joined either in person or virtually by online attendees. The more leaders you can identify to represent your church online, the less likely they are to experience interaction fatigue.

The church needs to develop more sustainable career models for ministry leaders. Burnout is likely to become ubiquitous among pastors and church staff over the next 12-24 months. If I were running a seminary, I would want every one of my graduates to have the necessary knowledge and experience to support themselves and their families outside of paid ministry work for an extended period of time. In the course of my day job I’ve come across far too many situations where leaders have given all they have to give to the point of becoming utterly ineffective who find themselves unable to step away from ministry because their families would be destitute without a paycheck. As we look to grow our ministry team going forward, our team will continue to depend upon co-vocational staff who will be able to continue to serve in ministry during times when we wouldn’t otherwise have the funds to pay them.

Where does that leave our field? The background for this discussion is that we need to understand what churches are going through to appreciate their ability to minister with families impacted by disability and how they might minister most effectively. As our team plans for the remainder of this year and a 2021 during which COVID will likely continue to cause extreme disruption to large group activities, here are some of the approaches we’re considering:

A focus on building relationships with church leaders – perhaps through providing care and support. Pastors and church staff should be thought of as “first responders” during the pandemic. The lack of resources for pastors and their family members struggling with mental health issues is a disgrace. In the same way that pastors with children or grandchildren with autism and other developmental disabilities were the original champions of special needs ministry, church leaders with firsthand experience with mental illness are most likely to appreciate the need for inclusive ministry.

We envision getting out on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so and setting aside more time for one to one conversations when we do do. COVID hasn’t changed the need for pastors and church leaders to access high quality disability and mental health ministry training within a half-day drive of where they live getting out and meeting leaders in person. We’ll also plan more opportunities for face to face interaction at big conferences. 

We’re going to be spotlighting individuals, churches and organizations doing disability ministry outside the walls of the church. The church is open wherever and whenever the people of the church are sharing the love of Christ with someone in need. At a time when Christians and Christianity are viewed negatively by large segments of the population, the people of the church need to be seen doing good!

We’ll continue to seek out leaders who are developing innovative approaches to disability ministry in the midst of COVID while expanding our ability to put their ideas in front of as many pastors, church staff and volunteers as possible, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible. The ability to rapidly change direction during this time is critical. Carey Nieuwhof, the influential pastor and blogger recently said that “agility is the new superpower.” Strategies will change, but the mission remains the same.

God’s going to use this time for good. The other day, I saw these tweets as part of a thread from Beth Moore and found them to be a good description of where we’re at as a church. We’ll be OK.

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Join the Key Ministry team on Wednesday, July 22 at 12:00 PM as we talk with Shannon Royce, Esq., head of the Center For Faith & Opportunity Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shannon will discuss “Compassion in Action,” a newly published guide designed to help churches and other faith communities care well for individuals living with mental illness. We’ll also talk about other initiatives from The Partnership Center to help churches support the mental health needs of the people within churches and the local community.Learn more or register here:

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A new mental health resource for churches from an unlikely place

For the last 2 ½  years, Catherine and I have had the privilege of being part of a most unlikely and extraordinary group of religious leaders and Federal government officials looking at how congregations from America’s diverse faith traditions might better care for and support individuals and families affected by mental illness, organized by the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  This past week, HHS released a resource developed by the group that we highly recommend to churches of all Christian traditions.

Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness  is available as a free download through the HHS website.  The guide is organized around seven key principles applicable in all faith traditions that offer a way for spiritual leaders to address mental illness in the communities they serve. The guide also identifies concrete houses of worship might take to “put their compassion into action.”

Each of the seven principles is accompanied by a set of action steps informed by the wisdom of the 75 faith leaders, academics, caregivers, and mental health professionals experienced in addressing mental illness in their own communities, accompanied by a compilation of resources applicable within and across faith traditions. 

The guide is an excellent resource to share with pastors, elders and ministry leaders as an educational tool on mental illness and a spark to discussions on ways churches might better care for and support affected families. Consider it background reading for leaders prior to implementation of a mental health strategy based upon the model presented in Mental Health and the Church.

The HHS Partnership Center has a webinar –  The Seven Principles for Faith Communities Addressing People Experiencing Mental Illness and Their Caregivers offering an overview of the principles in the Guide scheduled for Tuesday, June 23rd at 12:00 PM. Free registration is available here This is the first segment in a webinar series intended to encourage more faith communities to walk with and provide community for a lifetime to persons impacted with mental illness.  

I’d shared previously that the HHS initiatives represent a small component of a much larger effort initiated by a law passed at the end of the previous administration – The 21st Century Cures Act. Through this Act (Public Law 114-255), the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC) was established to recommend actions that federal departments can take to better coordinate the administration of mental health services for adults with a serious mental illness or children with a serious emotional disturbance. Leaders serving on ISMICC came to recognize the large body of evidence that religious belief is associated with significantly better mental health outcomes.

Much of the credit for this amazing work rests with Shannon Royce. Shannon serves as Director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at HHS and has a long history of mental health advocacy. We became familiar with her work while she led Chosen Families, a non-profit organization that championed the needs of families impacted by “hidden disabilities.” She is a longtime advocate for mental health ministry within the Southern Baptist Convention, her home denomination.

Through our participation in these initiatives I was encouraged to encounter very good people in the government highly committed to supporting children and adults with mental illness and their families. All of this work was done by an incredibly diverse group of leaders, many of whom come from religious traditions both within and outside of Christianity very different from our own. This interfaith effort stands out as a beacon of hope at a time when the divisiveness in our country around the function and role of government is overwhelming. 
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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

 

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Why families think online church is indispensable for disability ministry

One unanticipated blessing of the disruption caused by COVID-19 is the appreciation we’ve gained for being gathered together for worship.

We’ve also had a relatively brief taste of what church is like for families caring for children with intellectual, developmental, mental health and complex medical disabilities. For the past three months they’ve been on a level playing field with the rest of us when it comes to taking part in worship, fellowship and Christian education activities, eagerly accessing ministry available online. Many legitimately fear they’ll be left behind and quickly forgotten as church life gets back to “normal.” The church can’t let that happen.

I’d argue that online church services, small groups and Christian education have become indispensable disability ministry tools over the last several months. Many of the families our ministry helps churches serve strongly agree. Here are three reasons why.

Life may not return to normal for them for a very long time.

Before the virus had spread widely throughout the U.S., we anticipated the disability community would be more severely impacted  by COVID-19. That’s proven to be true. A recent study reported that children under 18 with intellectual or developmental disabilities were nearly nine times more likely to contract COVID-19 and sixteen times more likely to die from it than age-matched peers. Adults with autism and other developmental disabilities are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die when they become infected, while those  living in group homes have a COVID-19 mortality rate four times that seen in “neurotypicals” who become infected. A researcher from the University of Colorado described COVID-19 as the “perfect storm” for persons with Down syndrome as a result of the the immune dysregulation caused by trisomy 21.

Evana Sandusky is a speech and language pathologist who serves in special needs ministry while raising her daughter with Down syndrome. She writes here of her concerns as churches transition back to in-person worship. The bold type is hers.

I cannot wait to go back to church, but it will not be anytime soon. My daughter is medically complex and falls into the at-risk category. To put her health history briefly, she sees a cardiologist for two different heart conditions and a pulmonologist for four different lung issues. For a number of reasons, our family will be avoiding situations that have substantial crowds for some time.

The idea of staying home to protect our daughter is nothing new for our family. At different times, our daughter’s medical team has suggested that we conduct school at home and avoid crowds for varying amounts of time in order to minimize risks for her. With COVID-19, we will be listening to those team members again on how to safely return to those riskier parts of life.

There is something I would like to remind people as churches reopen: do not forget about the at-risk families. I know everyone is excited and grateful to be reunited in person again. As you gather together to sing and pray, please remember that not everyone is there with you. You may feel happy to return and elated that things are becoming more normal. However, there are families like mine that are still muddling through without the sense of community at church services.

She expresses a hope that families like her won’t be forgotten during the return to church.

For those returning to church, pray for families like mine. Ask God to give us more strength to sustain us through the isolation that has been happening. Reach out to help us make those connections that we cannot do from a computer screen. Please remember that your whole church body is not completely together yet.

How can we deprive our families of the ministry supports we used to get through quarantine when their ongoing isolation is likely to persist for many more months?

Online ministry is effective for outreach and few people groups are more in need of outreach from churches than families of kids with disabilities.

Many of my friends in disability ministry have seen this slide, but it demonstrates the impact of common mental and developmental disabilities in children on family church attendance.

Six months ago an argument could easily be made that most churches didn’t know how to do ministry with people who are cut off for one reason or another from church. That argument is no longer valid. Online services, small groups and Bible studies were a lifeline for untold millions of Christians unable to gather over the past three months because of COVID-19. Why can’t they continue to be a lifeline for:

  • Families who continue to isolate because of COVID-19?
  • Families who can’t leave the house because they can’t find or can’t afford sitters or respite care?
  • Families in which parents never attend church together because they take turns serving as caregiver?
  • Families who choose not to leave the house because the process of transitioning their kids to church is so difficult that parents are exhausted by the time they arrive?

Many churches streamed services over Facebook and encouraged members to invite friends and neighbors without a church. What about continuing to stream services while encouraging members to invite those unable to attend church because of physical, developmental or mental health disabilities?

Many families impacted by disability are describing more joyful, impactful and meaningful experiences of church than they had before COVID-19.

Dr. Janyne McConnaughey is an educator and trauma expert who promotes effective educational, spiritual, and therapeutic methods for the healing of inadequate attachment and childhood trauma. I came across this post of hers in which she described her experience of online church as a trauma survivor as our ministry team was preparing to host one of her webinars.

The book explained how many church experiences are difficult for those who are struggling with mental health–especially anxiety. I deeply understood this problem at many points in my life. While reading, I wondered what it would feel like to be able to experience church online? Not just streamed services, but relational connections all through the week. Could I convince anyone to try it?

Then came a pandemic. What my church (Bethel Church of the Nazarene) has provided during this time has involved me in ways that I truly needed, but was struggling to access by walking in the door. (Healing is a life-time commitment.)

I have met more people than I did in a year. I conducted a Zoom Bible Study and Scott attended a Zoom hangout with the pastor. And then there were times of worship (where my back didn’t hurt while standing). I got to watch both the adult and children’s messages and watch my grandson play cello on a synchronized video. And then last week, I invited a friend from England to attend with me.

Honestly, I will be sad to return to “normal.” I feel like (as the book suggested) that my time online will help me to feel more a part of the church when I return, but there are so many things I will miss. I understand it has been hard work for the staff, but their creativity and dedication has not gone unnoticed.

For those who long to be together again, I want that for you. There were times in my life when I would have felt exactly the same. But anyone who says that their right to worship together has been withheld from them, may have missed the best opportunity of all time. The pandemic forced churches to think differently, and for those who struggle with traditional formats, this has been a gift.

The church has not been hindered–I am grateful for my church leaders who have kept us both connected and safe! Thanks for proving it was possible!

We asked families served by our parent support ministry if online church (worship services, small groups, Christian education) has been helpful to them and whether they want churches to continue online services after life returns to normal, along with asking about the negatives of having church online? Here are some of the comments they shared.

We love online church. Our daughter with special needs cant go often to church so one or both of us stay home. Our church didn’t have online services until this pandemic. Now we can be a part of our services every week. The podcasts arent the same. And they didn’t include the worship, which is so important.

Church is my son’s happy place. Online services help us stay connected and not feel so disconnected.

We have missed live church. While our church does not have a special needs ministry per se (although we would love that!), the children’s ministry has the ability to have volunteers stay with our kids and any other children who were overwhelmed in a dedicated room. It allowed my husband and I to worship without worrying about our kid. While we have tried to keep our kids occupied so we could watch a Sunday service, inevitably something would always come up with one or both and we would get pulled away.

My kids have really enjoyed the online church services because going to church in person is so hurtful to them. They both have autism, and no one really engages them in conversation at all, other than to say hello. They feel ignored.

My family has truly enjoyed the laid back on the couch watch service when it fits best for us online services. Yet I truly love being able to worship with our congregation. I enjoy having the option and hope it continues so that if one of the kids are sick we can still enjoy the service without being split up, especially during winter months!

Being parents to a total care son we have loved online church..

I miss the singing and the personal connection to people. Many in our small church are older and don’t have internet connection, so we are looking forward to having parking lot services together as soon as possible! I have enjoyed hearing the sermons on-line though. Discussing the sermons with others helps get them into my long-term memory and apply them to my life..

If your church is has an online presence and an interest in disability ministry, your online presence needs to be a critical component of your disability ministry strategy.

For more on this topic, I included an entire chapter in Mental Health and the Church on the topic of developing a church-wide communication strategy that incorporates online ministry.

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In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

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Race, reconciliation, disability and the church

Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Ephesians 2:12-16 (ESV)

If we’re to have any hope of putting our society back together, the church will have a very large role to play in that task. A good place for us to start is by showing concern and support for some of our friends and neighbors who are going through an especially difficult time.

In my job as a child and adolescent psychiatrist I get to witness lots of pain and sadness. In that context, the extent of the hurt and fear and many of our African-American friends and neighbors are experiencing is overwhelming.

Even after 30-plus years of working with kids and families, I never fully appreciated the level of fear common to parents of Black kids that something bad will happen to them because of their race. In the last few days, I’ve seen story after story after story in my Facebook feed about police showing up at their homes after their child went door to door looking for pet-sitting jobs or was simply playing in the neighborhood. Stories of parents having to have a different kind of “talk” with their teens when they get their first driver’s license.

I’ve learned of concerns of parents raising Black kids with disabilities that I never knew to ask about before. A woman who writes for our ministry described her terror when her son with autism left their yard and climbed into a car appearing very similar to hers in the driveway of a neighbor who is a combat veteran with severe PTSD. We know that African-American families impacted by mental illness may experience unique challenges in approaching their churches for care and support – a huge consideration at a time when anxiety and depression are present in record levels and members of the Black community are at heightened risk for mental health issues as a result of trauma, toxic stress and fear of profiling while wearing face masks.

Everyone’s struggling right now, but our black friends and neighbors collectively have it worse. Blacks are more likely to have lost jobs because of COVID-19 related closures. They have all kinds of elevated risk factors for the virus, including a lack of health insurance, disproportionate representation in frontline jobs, living in densely populated areas and living in multigenerational households where it is more difficult to take precautions to protect older family members or isolate them when they’re sick. The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times the rate for Asians and Latinos.

Yesterday morning a psychologist friend reached out to me who had been broken by a recent experience. To put this in context, she’s an expert in trauma who runs an orphan care ministry and makes several trips to Africa each year to serve children of parents who died from AIDS, or political strife. In her role as an organizational coach she’d recently been invited to work with a predominantly African-American church. Here’s a portion of the story she related to me…

My brain is mush. I heard back from a 70 year old sweet lady. Her daddy and MLK senior worked together joining the black universities of the south. I just listened for about three hours last night to the pain she feels and how the black community feels paralyzed and in chaos right now. We unpacked that for awhile and why the current hurts are more crippling than the past. She said a few key leaders would like to talk to me as well to try to unpack the pain and find their way forward. I feel very unqualified after seeing through her eyes and humbled that I am who they are wanting to speak to.

After hearing about her witnessing her great grandpa’s lynching in the front yard and watching her family take his body down and so much more …. I’ve realized I’ve lived in a bubble.

I rescheduled my patients today so I could be at the Black Lives Matter rally in Chagrin Falls, It’s the least I can do to show my support for the families raising Black kids served by our practice. I also want visitors from outside our town attending the rally today to know there are Christians living here who will welcome them and help them feel safe when the boarded up windows throughout our downtown might convey a different impression.

Our ministry will be sharing content on the influence of race and ethnicity on the experience of disability. You can expect to hear from a number of our writers and speakers, as well as new voices from outside of our organization through our blogs, roundtables and webinars.

I’ve been most impacted by the stories shared by friends and neighbors over this past week. We’d like to extend an invitation to our ministry followers, especially our African-American friends to share your experiences of disability as a person of color or member of an ethnic minority. Your stories, which you can choose to share anonymously, will help churches better understand how to welcome and minister with people of all races and ethnicities impacted by physical, developmental, intellectual or mental health disabilities.

We know the lives of our Black brothers and sisters are precious to God. It’s important they know their lives matter to us.

 

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The pandemic as an unexpected blessing to the disability community

A little over six years ago, our ministry began to experiment with an idea that was clearly too far ahead of its’ time. We were looking at different applications of online church as a strategy for outreach with individuals and families impacted by disability.

Our Board pulled the plug on the project for a variety of reasons. Too many people experienced challenges connecting to the platform we used to host the services. The vast majority of our ministry’s followers already had a church and didn’t sense a need to watch or to invite others to watch. Online advertising at the time was either expensive or inefficient. Music licensing made it impossible for us to share complete worship services from partner churches on our ministry’s platform. The number of churches streaming services online was relatively small, and a lack of awareness of the extent to which families with disabilities were excluded from church limited the buy-in from church leaders.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancelation of public worship services and forced most churches to make their worship available online, individuals and families impacted by significant physical, developmental or mental health disabilities were finally on an equal footing with their non-disabled peers.

I’ve seen more and more social media posts suggesting that the church’s efforts to make ministry available online are bearing fruit in the disability community. I shared this comment from a family from my area in last week’s post on why COVID-19 related health risks many keep many individuals and families from attending church for a very long time.

Having a son on the Autism spectrum/ADHD can make attending church hard. The environment can be overwhelming, the sounds too loud, and the “being still” for a long period of time is difficult.

Being home for church has been hard for us—but for Isaac, it has been refreshing. He is worshiping with us, listening to the message (as best as he can) and can stay in a comfy blanket and jammies. He can also talk to us during the message and not feel like he will get “in trouble.”

In light of missing my church family in person, I am seeing the little joys of being home and watching the ways Isaac can be a part.

While I was serving as a chat host this morning during my church’s online worship services, a mother of a teen with autism from our disability ministry was expressing her joy at seeing her son loudly singing the words to the worship songs. In the course of flipping back and forth to gather resources for this post, I saw this video from another mom worshiping at home with her son with autism.

I’ve seen multiple posts in the last two weeks in the Facebook group our ministry hosts for approximately 2,000 special needs and disability ministry leaders on scheduling and launch of online groups. On Friday night, a group member who recently lost a young adult child with a disability posted this:

I just want to put this out there. Aria passed away a few months ago, and for the last couple of years before she did, she was mostly homebound during church and would hardly attend church services.

With COVID-19 we’ve seen people make a way to minister to people in their homes like we never experienced before, and as a father of a special needs child and former special needs ministry director, it makes me a bit jealous if I’m honest. Jealous that she missed out on the greatest effort ever put forth to minister to people in situations like hers.

But I am also filled with hope.

I hope that we learn from this (if we’re not doing it already) that homebound individuals that are in our faith communities need us now AND after this. I also hope that the empty seats that we see now in our congregations continue to convict us and that each time we see that seat or spot where a person used to go, that we remember that person still exists and wants to be loved on by the body.

Lord teach us in this season.

It’s very possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will have provided the impetus for introducing many local churches to people in their communities with conditions that would otherwise make in-person attendance highly unlikely or impossible.

Based on our earlier experiences with online ministry, here are some suggestions we’d make to churches interested in serving the disability community during this time.

  • Continuation of online services and online groups after churches continue to meet again is essential. We know that the risks of attending worship services in person may be unacceptably high for older members and members with complex medical conditions for up to a year or more. Why would your church eliminate an essential avenue for people homebound for any reason to access your church?
  • Use your online platforms to make it easy for families impacted by disabilities to connect with someone from your church who might come alongside them and help include them in other church activities. You might consider using staff, volunteers or individuals familiar with your church’s disability ministry to serve as chat hosts during online services. If your church has a text line to field prayer requests or facilitate contact information, let families watching online know they can access support by texting “DISABILITY” or “SPECIAL NEED” to that line.
  • Encourage families served by your disability ministry to host watch parties for services streamed through Facebook and invite other families they know without a church to join them for worship.
  • Consider how your church might include families with disabilities into small groups taking place online, or how you might establish creating new types of support groups online as a strategy to attract individuals and families without a church.

Wouldn’t it be great if God were to use our current circumstances to draw more people into a relationship with him through the online resources developed by local churches in result to the pandemic?
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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

Posted in COVID-19, Key Ministry, Special Needs Ministry, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronavirus, church and the “least restrictive environment”

Ever since we started contemplating all the implications of the coronavirus, I’ve been wrestling with the impact of health and safety restrictions on the incredible progress the church has made in disability inclusion over the last ten years. Two months ago, I shared data describing the increased vulnerability of large segments of the disability community to serious medical complications associated with COVID-19. With most churches across America shut down for public worship over the last 6-8 weeks and the shift to online services, Bible studies and small groups families impacted by disability have pretty much been in the same boat as everyone else. But as churches focus on reopening their doors for worship services in the weeks and months ahead, the disabled are again likely to find themselves on the outside looking in.

Earlier in the week, I came across these guidelines issued by the state of Tennessee for gathering together in houses of worship during COVID-19. This paragraph jumped out at me:

A phased approach to resuming in-person gatherings is recommended. Vulnerable populations (everyone 65 years and older, people with disabilities, people with serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and others) and children’s activities/nursery programs should not gather in person until a later time.

The reality is “until a later time” may be a very long time! According to research out of the University of Minnesota, the virus may continue to represent a substantial risk to persons who are medically compromised for another two years.

Borrowing a concept from disability law (specifically, IDEA), what might represent the “least restrictive environment” in the church for our older members and those with disabilities or other medical conditions that place them at increased risk in worship services until the danger from COVID-19 has passed?

According to Rick Warren, there are five main purposes of the church that are derived from the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: Worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission. From where I sit, the leaders of our churches probably place the greatest emphasis upon worship. It’s the most public of Warren’s five purposes and the purpose for which the church’s most senior leaders are directly responsible. The corporate worship experience is what most people associate with “church” and resumption of large group, weekend worship events has been the highest priority of church leaders since the cancelation of services in mid to late March.

Our ministry’s mission is driven by the the idea that welcoming and including individuals and families impacted by disability into the church is critically important because it’s through the church that disciples are made. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, the church has been struggling for a long time with spiritual formation. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working for too many people. COVID-19 is providing the church with an opportunity to consider how we can help everyone to grow deeper and stronger in their faith and use their gifts and talents to honor God wherever they’ve been placed. Worship as a way of life, to quote Louie Giglio from one of my favorite books.

If our focus in is on inclusion at intergenerational worship services and all of the other “stuff” that takes place at church on Sunday mornings over the next 12-24 months it will feel like the disability ministry movement is in full retreat. From an inclusion standpoint, large group worship services don’t represent the “least restrictive environment” for many persons with disabilities and older church members with chronic medical conditions because attendance fails to support their physical health needs. The least restrictive environment needs to be consistent with the welfare and safety of the individual.

Maybe what the church needs to be looking at over the next 12-24 months is how do we do a better job practicing inclusion with all of our people – both with and without disability – into practices and activities that help people grow in their faith, become more connected to one another, share their faith with others who don’t yet know Jesus and use their gifts and talents in meaningful service to others? Maybe we learn that our online worship services are actually a blessing in disguise for many families impacted with disability (such as Isaac’s family as described below – link to the video doesn’t work), especially those with social communication or sensory processing differences?

Might we become more intentional in our outreach to persons in our community with social or sensory issues that have precluded them from being part of church up to now through sharing our online church services with them??

Sandra Peoples wrote a wonderful piece for our ministry a few years ago describing what families of kids with disabilities really want from their churches.

They need to know they are safe and they need to believe they are loved.

“Inclusion” during this time may mean doing what we need to do to ensure that our friends with disabilities are safe while demonstrating to them that they’re loved. What does it look like for a church to love a family during a pandemic? This is taken from a post I saw from a Facebook friend in my feed yesterday morning.

Yesterday afternoon, I was overcome with joy and gratitude. A beautiful begonia plant and a handwritten note with a very lovely Mother’s Day message was left at my front door. This gift is from BPC ( Bay Presbyterian Church) from the Special Needs Ministry.

This ministry is a blessing to all special needs families. Prior to quarantine, my son Ryan attended the adult special needs Sunday “In His Image” class…. however now on Tuesday and Friday afternoons at 4pm a Zoom gathering is scheduled. He, along with his friends visit with one another, partake in a Bible lesson, and sing songs. Yesterday, the song was ” This Little Light of Mine”… Ryan was happily singing it until he dozed off to sleep last night. A blessing!

Shortly after quarantine, a BPC Special Needs Parenting Group on Facebook evolved…it is a great place for parents to check in with one another, ask for prayers, share stories, get creative ideas… it is where we special needs parents are reminded that we are not an island… even thoug we have been quarantined, it certainly does not mean that we have to be socially isolated from one another. A blessing!

BPC Special Needs Ministry offers special needs families with quarterly Respite events, a wonderful opportunity for parents to have a night out while their children are safely enjoying an evening of fun and festivities. A blessing!

Recently, this past February , BPC hosted Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine Prom. My husband and I were amazed and deeply moved at how beautiful the ballroom looked…the volunteers were truly happy to be there, each one smiling and ready to be of assistance in any way. Parents and caregivers were treated to a special night of our own in a separate room, dinner, socializing, and wonderful gifts… It was a spectacular evening for all! A blessing!

Whether it is a Sunday class, Zoom or Facebook Group, Respite Event, Prom, each blessing has lots of love woven in. An abundance of blessings!

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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

 

 

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How pastors can support mental health in the age of COVID-19.

The Barna Group surveyed pastors in mid-April regarding their personal mental and emotional health and the mental health of their congregations. The most significant finding from the survey was that only 30 percent of pastors reported feeling well-equipped to help their people deal with matters of mental or emotional health.

Our ministry team would like every pastor to feel confident in their abilities to support their congregants during the greatest economic and medical crisis most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Here are nine specific ideas for how pastors and church leaders can help promote the mental health of their people while advancing the Gospel throughout what is likely to be a lengthy period of social, vocational and economic disruption related to COVID-19.

Talk about mental health during your preaching. One of the most encouraging findings from the Barna survey was that 39% of pastors reported they had already preached on the topic of mental health. A Lifeway study on Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith in indicated that nearly two thirds of family members of persons with mental illness wanted their pastors to talk more openly about the topic at church, while a similar proportion of pastors reported preaching about mental illness “once a year, ” “rarely” or “never.” Preaching on mental health is one of the most direct ways of addressing the stigma associated with the topic and helps attendees feel more comfortable in seeking care and support from others in the church.

Combat social isolation. Our team strongly encourages pastors and church leaders to make available as many opportunities as possible for online interaction. Most churches have found ways of making worship services available online since states have mandated social distancing. We need to go further by making interactive small groups, Bible studies, Christian education, committee meetings and chats available online as well. Any church can make a point of calling and sending cards and letters attendees living in homes where someone is medically compromised and seniors who may be less tech-savvy.Whatever your church can do to in this time to help your people feel more connected will help mitigate increased risk for acute mental health and substance abuse issues.

Increase awareness among your people of how they might find counseling and other mental health services. With May 3rd-9th being Mental Health Week, the church I attend is hosting a chat between our lead pastor and a local psychologist from a Christian-oriented practice as well as an event featuring counselors associated with the church. Ensure that anyone providing counseling or support through your church has access to the technology to continue their work online for as long as social distancing is being practiced. Consider creating or updating your church’s list of mental health resources to identify practitioners and clinics available to see attendees during and after COVID-19..

Support the startup of a Christian-based mental health support group. The Grace Alliance and Fresh Hope are outstanding ministries with well-designed and established models for providing biblically-based support for teens and adults struggling with common mental health issues. Each ministry offers extensive online training for prospective leaders and low or no-cost resources for group participants

Build your church’s care and support resources. Given the numbers of individuals and families who have lost jobs or businesses, serious illness or death or major educational disruptions since the beginning of the pandemic, the need for care and support is likely to exceed your response capacity or that of your church’s staff. Encouraging as many of your people as possible to obtain training in Psychological First Aid is one way of greatly expanding your church’s capacity to respond to surges in demand from persons in crisis. Launching or growing a peer support ministry along the line of Stephen Ministry is more time-intensive, but an appropriate strategy for helping to meeting enduring care and support needs resulting from the pandemic.

Offer practical support. Unemployment is a significant risk factor for both suicide and death by opiate overdose. Helping people find work and navigate an unemployment benefits system grossly unprepared to meet the current demand is one tangible way to help. People need food and short-term rent support. Persons who have lost their jobs may not have the finances to access needed counseling or medicine, even if they still have health insurance through their employers because of high deductibles. Members of your congregation might greatly benefit from financial support to access emergency or short-term mental health care.

Provide opportunities to serve. Research from natural disasters suggests involving vulnerable children in family and community responses during times of potential danger increases resilience, defends against development of helplessness, and may help protect against post-traumatic effects through promoting a sense of agency and self-efficacy. Involving your people in ministry is a tangible way of demonstrating the love of Christ to persons in your church or the surrounding community experiencing acute need while affording them some measure of protection from the trauma often resulting from such impactful events.

Consider developing a mental health inclusion strategy to identify and overcome specific barriers families affected by mental illness might experience in engaging with your church. Recent research tells us families of children with depression, anxiety, ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders are far less likely to ever set foot in a church compared to their unaffected neighbors. Our ministry’s strategy has been to help churches recognize how functional limitations associated with common mental health conditions cause difficulties in meeting expectations for social interaction and behavior across our different ministry environments. A mental health inclusion strategy will help your church reach one of the largest underserved people groups in your surrounding community.

Invite individuals and families impacted by mental illness in the communities you serve to connect with your church. A key finding of the LifeWay study referenced earlier was that 55% of all unchurched adults believe that persons with significant mental illness won;’t new welcomed at church. Here’s a fabulous example of how one church in our home region created a video invite from the founding pastor for members to share through social media with individuals and families impacted by mental illness within their sphere of influence who don’t have a church.

Still uncertain about supporting the mental health needs of your congregation during this time? Our team would be happy to jump on Zoom with you or your ministry team to talk about specifics of your church’s situation. Use this form to contact Catherine Boyle (our mental health ministry director) and note in the form that you’d like to set up a videoconference to discuss next steps for your church. We don’t charge for consultations and seek to provide as many of our resources as possible to churches free of charge. You’ll find lots of additional resources for mental health ministry here, and COVID-19 specific resources here.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, here’s video from a webinar I participated in this past Tuesday with Kay Warren and Dr.Tim Murphy sponsored by the HHS Office of Faith-Based Partnerships to help pastors and other faith leaders respond to the mental health needs of their people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Why does God allow Coronavirus and other types of suffering?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve posted prayer requests on Facebook for a young single mom who was critically ill and near death with a respiratory distress syndrome like that seen with COVID-19, and more recently, a young father who contracted the virus working as an ER nurse in the very same hospital where he now lies in intensive care, connected to a ventilator. A former coworker posted this reply to my prayer request:

This might be a controversial comment, but please don’t judge. I struggle with the topic after my husband passed away from a sudden heart attack when my boys were 7 and 9 yrs old. So if God is great, all knowing, all powerful…how do these things occur? Please delete, as it might be inappropriate. I pray, however for Travis and this family.

Earlier this week, I saw in my news feed that another young mom who serves as a mental health advocate within the Christian community and her husband lost their young child eight days after he was born. Families everywhere are in great distress as parents lose their jobs and businesses, kids with disabilities lose access to support services they depend upon and the medical precautions necessary to control the spread of the virus has left those who are ill desperately isolated and alone when they’re most in need of the presence and support of family and friends.

How should we respond to the question posed by my former coworker? Or parents who have lost a child? Or the family in which the care and support needs of a family with a disability become so overwhelming that the marriage falls apart? The Bible teaches us that we’re to be prepared to share with others the reason for the hope we have in Jesus, but the first question we’re likely to encounter when doing so is often some version of how can a loving and all-powerful God allow a young father to die and leave a wife and two little boys behind, or allow a child to grow up in a home where they experience ongoing physical and sexual abuse or allow millions of people in Third World countries to die of starvation, war or curable disease?

Here’s the message I sent to my coworker (privately) in response to her post:

I’m not sure I heard about your husband. Facebook can be rather selective in who sees what. I am so sorry for your loss! I saw the question you posed in responding to my friend’s prayer request. I’ll try to answer based upon my understanding of the Bible.

There’s an entire book of the Bible (Job) written on the topic of suffering. Job had suffered unjustly, but he never learned the reason for his suffering while he was alive. I suspect that’s true for most of us – we’ll never fully understand the reason for our suffering or the suffering of our loved ones on this side of Heaven.

A central theme in Christianity demonstrated through the Easter story is that God responds to suffering not by sparing us from it but by entering into it with us and by experiencing it for us. If you’re interested in the Christian perspective on why suffering exists, take a look at this conference talk from John Piper. He’s a retired pastor from a church in Minnesota who has written extensively on suffering. I’d encourage you to watch from the beginning but if you only have a few minutes, start at the 31:55 mark. His key point…

“The reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in himself as he suffers, by entering into it, suffering himself, that he might by grace deliver us from everlasting suffering.“

 

Upon further reflection, trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who hadn’t been immersed in Christianity for years and years, the response I sent to my former colleague felt inadequate. Piper’s quote sounds very narcissistic upon first hearing.

“that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God in himself as he suffers”

If God allows suffering so that he might be glorified, why is God’s glory of such great importance that the unimaginable suffering necessary to achieve it is justifiable?

Dr. Piper addresses this question in a blog post explaining why God’s passion for his own glory isn’t selfish. I encourage you to go back and read the whole thing because he does a wonderful job of explaining how God’s insistence on glorifying himself justifies the presence of suffering in the world and demonstrates why the death and resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate this weekend is truly the most wonderful event in the history of the universe. Here are some key excerpts:

How is God’s passion for his glory not a sinful form of narcissism and megalomania? The answer is that God’s passion for his glory is the essence of his love to us. But narcissism and megalomania are not love.

God’s love for us is not mainly his making much of us, but his giving us the ability to enjoy making much of him forever. In other words, God’s love for us keeps God at the center. God’s love for us exalts his value and our satisfaction in it. If God’s love made us central and focused on our value, it would distract us from what is most precious — namely, himself. Love labors and suffers to enthrall us with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: God. Therefore, God’s love labors and suffers to break our bondage to the idol of self and focus our affections on the treasure of God.

He goes on to illustrate this principle through Jesus’ act of resurrecting his friend Lazarus from the dead:

Oh how many people today — even Christians — would murmur at Jesus for callously letting Lazarus die and putting him and Mary and Martha and others through the pain and misery of those days. And if they saw that this was motivated by Jesus’s desire to magnify the glory of God, many would call this harsh or unloving. What this shows is how far above the glory of God most people value pain-free lives. For most people, love is whatever puts human value and human well-being at the center. So Jesus’s behavior is unintelligible to them.

But let us not tell Jesus what love is. Let us not instruct him how he should love us and make us central. Let us learn from Jesus what love is and what our true well-being is. Love is doing whatever you need to do — even to the point of dying on the cross — to help people see and savor the glory of God for ever and ever. Love keeps God central. Because the soul was made for God.

Piper’s key take-home point:

Oh how we need to help people see that Christ, not comfort, is their all-satisfying and everlasting treasure. So I conclude that magnifying the supremacy of God in all things, and being willing to suffer patiently to help others see and savor this supremacy, is the essence of love. It’s the essence of God’s love. And it’s the essence of your love. Because the supremacy of God’s glory is the source and sum of all full and lasting joy.

It’s easy for us to not see beyond our circumstances and fail to consider God’s perspective on our suffering. If God created us to be in relationship with him forever, anything that advances that purpose, including allowing us to suffer for a time is justifiable as the most loving thing God could do. At the same time, our ability to remain steadfast in our faith while suffering with anxiety represents a more powerful witness that draws other people to God. In another sermon, Dr. Piper said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Is it possible that the works of God are most on display in us when we demonstrate contentment and joy in the midst of distress?

May you and your family experience a blessed a joyful Easter as we worship and reflect upon a savior who didn’t leave us to suffer alone, but enters into our suffering with us.

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Many speakers who planned to attend our disability ministry conference have put together an Easter Sunday service for families affected by disability without a church. Most contributors have a disability themselves or a family member with a disability. Our teaching pastor for the morning is on the autism spectrum. We seek to inspire families and give them hope while calling attention to the gifts and talents the church misses out on when families with disabilities are excluded.

Our Not Alone Easter Service will be streamed at 9:00 AM Eastern Time on Easter Sunday on both the Key Ministryand Not Alone Facebook pages. The service will be available all throughout the day on Easter Sunday, and we’re encouraging our followers to host watch parties for friends and neighbors on their individual Facebook pages.

 

 

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An Easter service for the disability community

It was one month ago today when most Christians last experienced a Sunday worship service inside a church building. The quarantines and social distancing necessitated by the coronavirus have produced the unintended benefit of reminding us of how much we value corporate worship. I’ve seen many friends express their sense of loss on different social media platforms, especially during Easter Week.

Our experience of church over the last four weeks is what every week is like for too many families affected by disability.

Easter is celebrated this year in the middle of Autism Awareness Month. The largest study ever undertaken examining the relationship between disability status and church attendance found that families with a child with autism are 84% less likely than their friends and neighbors without disability to have set foot inside a church in the past year. The rates aren’t much better for families of children with common mental health conditions. Church attendance is:

  • 73% less likely when a child has depression
  • 55% less likely when a child has conduct disorder
  • 45% less likely when a child has an anxiety disorder
  • 36% less likely when a child has a learning disability or developmental disability
  • 19% less likely when a child has ADHD

Our mission is to help connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We had a large conference planned for April 24th and 25th featuring over seventy speakers who were giving of their time and talent to train pastors and resource families to make church far more accessible to the disability community – especially individuals and families impacted by autism, mental illness and other “hidden disabilities.” God and our state and local government officials had other plans.

Our team wanted to do something to increase awareness of the needs of the disability community while putting their gifts and talents on display. What better way to do that on this very unique Resurrection Sunday than to put together a special worship service for families impacted by disability who don’t have a church this Easter morning?

Our Not Alone Easter Service will be streamed at 9:00 AM Eastern Time on Easter Sunday on both the Key Ministry and Not Alone Facebook pages. The service will be available all throughout the day on Easter Sunday, and we’re encouraging our followers to host watch parties for friends and neighbors on their individual Facebook pages.

This isn’t simply a worship service…it’s also intended to be a disability ministry teaching tool. Over thirty of our conference speakers had a hand in putting the service together. Barb Newman will demonstrate how to adapt teaching for all types of learners while presenting the children’s message. Ryan Wolfe has an Easter message for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Most people appearing the service either have a disability themselves or an immediate family member with a disability. With April having been designated Autism Awareness Month, our worship pastor (Kyle Broady) and the pastor sharing the benediction (Lee Peoples, together with his wife Sandra) have sons with autism. Our teaching pastor, Lamar Hardwick described his experience of leading a church as a person with autism in I Am Strong, Lamar is a remarkable preacher with a special message for us this Easter.

We intend for the service to demonstrate the amazing gifts and talents the church is deprived of when individuals and families impacted by disability are left out of the church. We hope that many taking part in the service will consider how God might use their gifts and talents in ministry to others.

We trust you’ll find encouragement and comfort in what we intend to be Key Ministry’s one and only original worship service. Our hope for next Easter is that ALL of us… persons with autism, mental health concerns, developmental disabilities or any disability will be worshiping our risen Lord together inside the churches we call home.
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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a resource center for churches and families to access during this time regarding COVID-19. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

 

 

Posted in Advocacy, Autism, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Caring for our neighbors in a COVID-19 mental health crisis

How can the people of God provide the most tangible care and support to their friends and neighbors in the midst a long and drawn out medical and mental health crisis?

For the last couple of weeks, our team has been wrestling with the short and long-term mental health implications of COVID-19. We know churches are the first place many will turn to in the days and weeks ahead as life becomes more difficult. Even the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes that pastors and other faith leaders serve as gatekeepers or “first responders” when individuals or family members experience mental health problems. One recommendation of the APA that we have echoed in our work with churches is for pastors and lay leaders to learn more about the basics of mental health conditions and appropriate responses through programs such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

Our team came up with the idea of providing an online mental health first aid course for churches and lay leaders around the country. We reached out to a highly respected organization led by a pastor who is a national trainer for MHFA and a contact within the Partnership Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to brainstorm the necessary steps to make the training happen.

The unprecedented situation in which our country finds itself is bringing to light many vulnerabilities in our disaster relief system. We quickly discovered that no remote training option exists for MHFA, and live trainings are precluded by orders issued by most state governments against gatherings of ten or more people. The same orders have caused churches to close, leaving staffs scattered and pastors under extraordinary strain, having to completely rethink their methods of doing ministry while managing feelings of helplessness from their inability to provide their customary care for the sick and dying during the pandemic.

We’ve concluded that the rapidly mounting support needs emerging as a result of the social isolation, quarantine, economic and job losses from steps taken to mitigate COVID-19 will require an entirely different approach than people are accustomed to from their churches – an “all hands on deck” response from all of God’s people far exceeding the capacity of our pastors and church staff alone.

Dawn Skaggs is a national expert on disability inclusion in emergency management who planned to offer a workshop at our now canceled conference on the church’s role in disaster preparedness. She also serves as a psychological first aid mentor for a course offered through Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that represents an outstanding resource for pastors, church staff and individual Christians who want to be better prepared to care for and support their neighbors in the days and weeks ahead.

Psychological first aid (PFA) is a concept similar to physical first aid for coping with stressful and traumatic events in crisis situations and at disaster sites. PFA was partially funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and is recommended or endorsed by the Institute of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Red Cross, and the American Psychiatric Association. Psychological first aid may be defined as a compassionate and supportive presence designed to mitigate acute distress as well as to facilitate access to continued care. The approach taught at Johns Hopkins was developed in response to trauma experienced by soldiers and military personnel during the Kuwait War and further refined following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11.

I first heard about psychological first aid from Dawn during a ministry idea share our team conducted last Monday. I was able to complete the free, seven module online course in five days while maintaining my child psychiatry practice in the midst of an unusually busy week of trainings and responsibilities for Key Ministry. Having personally gone through the course, here’s why I’d recommend it to any pastor or church leader interested in quickly building capacity to care for large numbers of hurting people during the pandemic.

  • Psychological first aid is a skill set anyone can master – it was intended for persons with no training or experience in the mental health field whatsoever. It’s not treatment. It’s better characterized as a means of helping people rebound from adversity through fostering necessary resilience to function in the midst of adverse circumstances.
  • Psychological first aid was specifically designed to respond to surges in need associated with natural disasters and other traumatic events. It is most effectively implemented by people familiar with available supports within their local communities.
  • Psychological first aid offers practical ideas for responding in conversations with people experiencing COVID-19 related distress or loss. Spouses and children unable to comfort loved ones who are sick or dying in hospitals or other care facilities. Men and women who have lost their jobs or businesses. College students separated from peer support while facing an uncertain future. Healthcare workers who watch the sick die alone while knowing they themselves are at great risk of contracting the virus and experiencing a similar fate.
  • Psychological first aid provides a framework for helping people tap into their faith to cope with the realities of their immediate situation.
  • Psychological first aid serves a vital triage function in identifying persons most in need of medical, mental health or spiritual support and optimizing the ability of healthcare professionals and pastoral care to help the most people with limited resources.

Christians run to, and not away from neighbors in distress. One factor contributing to the growth of the early church was the self-sacrifice demonstrated by Christians who stayed in the cities to care for victims of the plagues that periodically ravaged the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries. Eighteen centuries later, we’re blessed to have an advanced healthcare system capable of helping the vast majority of people infected by the coronavirus to experience a full and complete medical recovery. The system isn’t remotely prepared to care for all of the people who will be incapacitated by anxiety, depression or PTSD in the weeks and months to come.

How will the Christians of the 21st Century church respond to the victims of this pandemic?

Click here to learn more about or to enroll in the free course in psychological first aid offered by Johns Hopkins University through Coursera.
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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a resource center for churches and families to access during this time regarding COVID-19. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

 

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