Focus on Anxiety

A personal confession: I was, prior to retirement, a programmatic pastor.  In my defense I wanted to increase the percentage of church members who were active rather than passive.  And I was also motivated by the hope that more programs — and groups — meant more lay people exercising their ministry gifts in leadership roles.  However, this pandemic has been a startling reminder of how quickly many of our church “programs” have become, under our current circumstances, untenable and perhaps even non-essential.

Author and pastor Thom Rainer — whom I know I have quoted in previous columns — addressed this issue in July.  And given the fall COVID surge most states are currently experiencing, Rainer’s comments are still timely.  Rainer writes, “It is time (for congregations) to revisit the need to simplify…to do only a few things well and eliminate the rest.  Many of our churches have become so busy that we have hurt our best families.  Many of our churches have become so cluttered with activities that we don’t give margin for our members to have a gospel presence in the community.  The pandemic, for the most part, provides us a blank slate.  It’s time to rethink our busy schedules and become a minimal church.”

Rainer continues, “A minimal church is not a church of minimal impact.  It is a church that has decided … to unleash our members to have more time to disciple their families, to become a gospel presence in the community, and to develop relationships in their neighborhoods.”

An additional congregational challenge looms large during this pandemic; a challenge that is currently of far greater importance than most of our “programs.”  This particular challenge has to do with the mental and emotional health crisis millions of Americans are enduring as a result of COVID 19.  New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, this last August, wrote about this crisis in American life: “Let’s start with the numbers.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, roughly one in 12 American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder at this time last year; now it’s more than one in three.  Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a tracking poll showing that for the first time, a majority of American adults — 53 percent — believes that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health.”

Psychologist and author Daphne de Marneffe defines trauma, in the context of COVID, this way: “What trauma is really about is helplessness, about being on the receiving end of forces you can’t control.  Which is what we have now.  It’s like we’re in an endless car ride with a drunk at the wheel.  No one knows when the pain will stop.”

So, what about your congregational members?  How are they holding up?  Do you have a clear picture of whether many of them — especially those who are living alone — are being overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness?  How is your congregation doing, during COVID, when it comes to member care?  This is probably a simpler task for small congregations than it is for mid-sized and larger churches.  But the truth is this: Even in “normal” times most congregations have members who are “falling through the cracks” when it comes to pastoral care.  But these times are anything but normal; they are extraordinary in the bleakest sense of that word.  And the larger the congregation the more likely member care needs to be an urgent, organized effort.  This is not about another program.  This is about one of the most crucial and central tasks within the Body of Christ.  The Apostle Paul sums it up this way:

But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1st Corinthians 12:24-26)

Pastor Don Brandt