Being Church In A Pandemic
Pastoring In a Pandemic
As clergy we have all had long days where pastoral calls and visits have tired us out. Days where we have given all that we could and were glad that the day had come to an end. I can remember days of complaining about how draining at times our work can be. During this pandemic one of the things that I have learned is that the very same thing that I used to complain about is one of the things that I missed the most. I miss the intimacy of interaction that this pandemic has taken away.
With the need for social distancing and all of the other protocols and safety measures that we have been made to take, things like visiting a home, a hospital bed or even a simple hug during times of distress as we reach out to parishioners have proven difficult and possibly even a luxury. At times a phone call just doesn’t seem to be enough. What has proven to be even harder is having to be pastoral when this reality hits home, when family members are not able to be at the bedside of loved ones who are sick or dying.
For me this has been a reality several times since March, but none so real as with a couple in my parish who were married for more than fifty years. Mr. and Mrs. H had a good life together. Three children and a few grandchildren. Mr. H had taken ill just before I arrived at the parish and had been in and out of hospital for most of the time since. Mrs. H visited him faithfully while he was in hospital, and when he was home she was his primary caregiver. Her life revolved around his care, but as far as I can remember she never complained, never even said she was tired. After all the years they were married, he was her everything and she was his.
Mr. H went into the hospital shortly before COVID-19 hit, and eventually went into hospice. Because of COVID, for the last month and days of his life she could not visit (at least not inside the facility). She tells of visiting the center where she could only see him through a window. The nurses would bring him to the window and the saying, “so close but yet so far,” held true for them.
As his health declined, he could not understand why she wouldn’t come inside to see him. He began to fade as the days went on, and it was obvious that Mr. H would soon no longer be with us. Mrs. H would call me from time to time for words of encouragement, but sometimes I really didn’t know what to say, because I couldn’t even imagine what she was going through. I wanted to visit them both, but I couldn’t because they both had health issues and therefore fell into the vulnerable COVID category.
It weighed on me that I couldn’t go in to say prayers with Mr. H or even when the time came give him last rites. It weighed on me because I couldn’t go and sit with Mrs. H (if even to just be a presence). When he eventually passed, she said to me, “Father I didn’t get to say goodbye, give him a hug or even a kiss one last time.” At his funeral the numbers had to be small, and everyone had to be socially distanced. There was no placing a hand on the shoulder, giving a hug or any other physical show of support. To me it seemed so cold. Because of governmental guidelines we only had 25 minutes from start to finish for the service.
Changes in ministry call for sharing the work and self-care
My reflection on how ministry has changed during this pandemic offers a reminder of how important human contact and interaction are. As a part of who I am as a person and as a priest, giving a handshake and a hug are simply what I do. Mr. and Mrs. H are a harsh reminder of the way things have changed. Her experience of the harshness of losing a loved one and that of so many others offers us a heartbreaking reality check. To lose a loved one is never an easy thing, but to be unable to say goodbye, give a hug or a kiss one last time seems so cruel and unfair. I have checked on Mrs. H many times since her husband passed, and at times she still brings up how hard his last few days were for her and how some days all she can do is cry. Unfortunately, I am still not able to visit with her because she is also very cautious because of COVID, and rightly so.
Our church has formed a calling and grief ministry aimed at helping each other through these tough times. We, like everyone else, are doing the best we can in these difficult times. I have found that it is especially important to have other members of the congregation involved in the ministry of the church at this time, and the vestry in particular, because this is simply too much for the clergy to take on by ourselves. This, of course, should have been our practice even before the pandemic. Not only does it take some of the weight off of our shoulders, but it also gives us extra ears as issues may arise. I have also found it necessary to find ways to offload some of the burdens of this time.
Taking time to talk to someone (therapist, other clergy, friends) is important. Self-care is paramount, and we must take the time to take care of ourselves. Taking time off, exercise, quiet time, hobbies, etc., are necessary and we must not feel guilty about it. If we don’t take care of ourselves, then eventually we won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
I pray God’s continual guiding hands upon us all, that we may all dwell in safety. Until then, “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart one from another.”
The Reverend Angelo S. Wildgoose is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Plainfield, New Jersey. He grew up on the island of Grand Bahama (Freeport), where he attended Christ the King Anglican Church. In 1999, he graduated from Codrington College in Barbados with a diploma in Pastoral Studies, as well as a BA in Theology from the University of the West Indies. Ordained a priest in 2000, he served several congregations in the Bahamas and also trained and certified as a secondary education teacher in religious studies.
Fr. Wildgoose left the Bahamas in 2004, and has since served congregations in the Dioceses of Bermuda, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania prior to coming to St. Mark’s in 2016. He has served on the design team for the S.O.U.L. conference put on by the Office of Black Ministries of the Episcopal Church and is currently pursuing a Masters in Ministry Degree from Colorado Theological Seminary.
- Ministry in a Global Pandemic an ECF webinar presented by Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs on June 11, 2020
- Pray for Your Priest by Linda Buskirk, an ECF Vital Practices blog, December 22, 2020
- Dealing with Loss and Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic, an ECF webinar presented by Lynn Ronaldi, Laura Masterson and Rebecca Roesch, December 2, 2020
- Self-Care During the Pandemic by Sandra T. Montes, Vestry Papers, November 2020