Three people in profile outside wearing masks.
Cultivate Community

Singleness in the Time of COVID

How the Church Can Play a Role in Mitigating Isolation
by Faith+Lead | December 14, 2021

By Sandhya Jha

Carton image of four people that says Relationships in Ministry

“How are you holding up?” I asked a friend. We were about a month into shelter-in-place. My friend had set a container of gumbo on the ground and backed off. I had picked it up and placed a container of kitcheree (Indian rice and lentils) in its place and backed off. That’s how we were showing love in those days.

“You know,” she shrugged sort of helplessly. “I know my roommate just well enough that I’ve told her I will probably make her give me hugs just so I can make it through.”

And that was (and is) one of the complicated parts of this seemingly endless season of COVID to navigate for single people.

COVID was hard for families, cooped up together in a way completely unlike how they had ever interacted before. It was hard for couples whose relationships were put to the test in whole new ways. This was especially true for people living in small spaces together. If I’m remembering correctly, when the incredibly strict shelter-in-place restrictions in Zhejiang first lifted in late spring 2020, thousands of couples left their cramped apartments to seek divorces. And in all seriousness, those close quarters saw a devastating increase in child and domestic abuse that continues to haunt me with our inadequate support systems for people seeking safety even in non-pandemic times.

And for single people, this season had very distinct impacts. The solutions aren’t simple, but they may be life-saving.

The Physical and Psychological Challenge 

Few churches are unaware of the physical challenges of single people during the pandemic. It frequently showed up in the complex calculus of whether and when and how to open.

“The seniors [particularly widows] in our church only get touched once a week—when they come here on Sunday mornings and get to hug everyone here.” People know how important touch is. I get a little teary just writing about how scientists have shown the impact of positive touch on our mental health. (The tears come, for transparency’s sake, from having to seriously think about the impacts on me as a single person. The scientists even have a term for it: to be “touch-starved,” which is such a haunting term.)

When I ask other single people whether this season has been hard for them, too, they just groan in a “you know what we’ve been going through” tone, as if we don’t even need to explain it to each other and probably shouldn’t try to explain it to others. We as a society know the costs of isolation, what it does to the brain in general and what it does particularly for people who already have mental health issues that were moderated by social connection. 

The tension of Zoom fatigue mixed with the reality that Zoom was the almost exclusive source of social contact for many single people has been a lot to manage. Particularly for immunocompromised people who still have to stay relatively isolated to protect themselves, the lack of an ending point can create so much emotional strain.

Even as things open up, the choices about how often to take the risk of connecting with others in order to stay emotionally healthy but minimize risk to self and others becomes a constant mathematical equation burning in the back recesses of the brain. And those choices look different from person to person.

The Theological Challenge (What It Laid Bare)

What this season of COVID has laid bare is that the scripture’s call to care for the orphan and widow ends up being timeless, even as society changes.

COVID laid bare the reality of social inequity. People struggled mightily with the financial realities of the pandemic while this season also saw the creation of a new economic category, centibillionaires.

Another inequity for the church to wrestle with in this particular season is that while almost ⅓ of adult Americans are single, that is not evenly distributed. About ¼ of white people are single, but almost ½ of Black people. About ⅓ of straight people are single but almost half of LGBTQ+ people. Young men (18-29) and older women (65+) are both at around 50%.

So who the church is in relationship with shapes who the church can support, which ends up showing up even in terms of who needs the most support in this season of social isolation and its very real potential ramifications, as we move into a season where the toll of that social isolation will begin to show up in our society.

What are the scriptural calls on us to create community in new ways, in this moment?

The one other thread I want to acknowledge is the unique impact COVID had on single clergy, who bore so much of their community’s anxiety and fear and grief (and bad behavior) without a robust system of emotional support. Clergy in general navigate an imbalance of pouring out and being poured into, but to do all of that through a computer from one’s living room, and to have no one outside that system to curl up with, that created some burdens and strains that I think will affect churches for years to come because the cost was so high.

Some Strategies

I asked friends to share how they navigated this season, and how many of them continue to navigate this season now. Here are a few strategies, tips and tricks learned along the way:

  • A few single people did figure out how to create pods with other people who followed the same safety protocols they did (only going out for groceries or take out, not interacting with friends or family with different safety protocols, or if so, isolating for ten days after). For some people it meant forming pods with other people whose jobs put them in the same risk category (restaurant or grocery worker, medic, etc.). 
  • For myself, because I live in a relatively mild climate, a group of four clergy got together from 3-5 every Friday, socially distanced, to process our weeks together and see people we loved, even if we couldn’t touch.
  • More than one colleague said having a pet was an absolute life saver. And this summer when I did eat outdoors at a restaurant with friends in from out of town, I confessed that I had pulled out my childhood stuffed animals for a little bit of company. The big bear of a single man they were staying with said he didn’t have any childhood stuffed animals, so he had bought a big stuffed dog for the same reason.
  • As a single person with a widowed mother I couldn’t see as much as I wanted to, I set up a weekly movie date where we both queued up the same Netflix movie, counted down together on the phone, and hit play at the same time, so we could discuss it together afterward. A friend said she used my devotional the same way: she and her mom had a time scheduled every night to read it together and discuss it.
  • A friend shared that her therapist suggested self-touch, and that when she hugged herself for the first time and thought of all the people who wanted to hug her while she did it, she sobbed at the intensity of feeling but in a way that was healing.

The Ongoing Challenge

More and more researchers are noting that we need to begin shifting to a “mitigate the impact of the disease” strategy: mask to reduce spread and vaccinate to reduce impact, but don’t expect not to get it at some point. And most of us feel the emotional strain of continued isolation. We are making choices about how to be with other humans at the lowest risk we can, but not at a zero risk.

And even as we get more comfortable with those risks, single people continue to have fewer points of contact. Dating has different and challenging rules to navigate with differing levels of risk tolerance. Single clergy in particular are caught in the bind of not being able to be as risk tolerant, because those choices affect the congregations they pastor. (Even though I’m not in a formal congregational position, I had to and have to make those choices in order to be available to people in need of pastoral care who might be dealing with health issues, as well as to protect the churches where I preach.)

And the scariest challenge is that many of us have learned to adjust to this level of social isolation. I don’t know what the cost of that is going to be.

I’m curious to see what it could mean for the church to find ways to be a source of support and love to the single populations they weren’t aware of before (Black, queer, young and male, as well as older and female). I wonder if the church might take note of the burdens of this pandemic on clergy and especially single clergy. And I wonder how we might show up to support each other in this ongoing season of navigating risk, alone, together. 

Your Turn

When are opportunities to address the unique situation of single people in your ministry? 

  • Have your leadership set aside a time to specifically think, pray, and hear from single people inside or outside of your congregation. 
  • Contact your synod, diocese, district, or other judicatory office to urge tangible support for especially single clergy. 

About the Author
Sandhya Jha (she/they) is a Disciples of Christ pastor who helped First Christian Church of Oakland transform their building into the Oakland Peace Center, a collective of nonprofits working to end violence in their city. Having stepped down as executive director of the Oakland Peace Center at the end of 2020, Sandhya is now a full-time anti-oppression consultant with a focus on anti-racism in faith communities, nonprofits and business settings. Sandhya is working on their fifth book for Chalice Press, on connecting with our ancestors in order to dismantle white supremacy.

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