By Rev. Dr. Rachael A. Keefe
Five months into pandemic restrictions and even the most positive among us are now realizing that it is going to be a long while before a new normal emerges. Congregations are meeting online or outside. We are worshiping via Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, and other platforms. We are wondering what fall programming will look like and, some of us, are already thinking about Advent and Christmas. How do we make these special services meaningful online? There is so much to think about as this unusual summer draws to an end. However, the most important questions are not about programming or even whether synchronous or asynchronous worship is best.
The most important question to be asking right now is this.
“How is it with your spirit?”
How is it with the worshiping community? And how are the most vulnerable among us holding on?
Before March and COVID-19 made its presence known, one in five U.S. adults experienced mental illness in any given year. I’m guessing that number has increased. I’ve spoken with many people who have never struggled with anxiety or depression before and are struggling now. I’ve also spoken to many people who are struggling with other symptoms of mental illness who previously felt their symptoms were well-managed. The reality is that we are all living with a tremendous amount of stress. We’ve managed to accommodate it to some extent, some of us more than others, but the stress has not lessened. People are tired, anxious, overwhelmed and can more easily reach the point where healthy coping doesn’t seem possible. If life was challenging before the pandemic, it is even more so now.
My concern is for the most vulnerable among us—those who are or become suicidal. We don’t like to think of faithful, church-going folx as struggling with suicidality. Yet, it was a reality for some before March and it is a new reality for more folx now. There are ways you can help, though. In fact, it is essential that every congregation engage in some potentially lifesaving measures right now. It’s possible that your congregation is already doing some of these things without even realizing that they are lifesaving.
Here is a list of some things you can be doing right now:
- Increase your knowledge about mental illness and suicide prevention. NAMI is a great source for mental health information and AFSP is a good place to learn more about suicide prevention.
- Create small groups of active members and friends of your congregation with a designated leader. The leader would be responsible for making sure each small group member is contacted each week. This can be done via Zoom or another platform, emails, texts, phone calls, or letters. In the congregation I serve, small groups have lessened the burden for congregational care teams.
- Consider creating interest groups for building kinship. These groups would meet online monthly (or weekly if there is interest). The topics of the groups can vary from book clubs to hobbies. There is no limit if people are willing to share their skills, interests, and hobbies.
- Ask your pastor to host a weekly online gathering time for folx to check in. There’s no specific topic, just a time to talk with each other.
- Identify any people who might be particularly vulnerable during the pandemic and make sure they are connected to the community. Make sure to note those who live alone and might be feeling isolated, elders living in care settings who are not able to have in-person visits, those who live with ongoing mental health challenges, and those who are struggling with physical health conditions. There may be circumstances in your community that increase the risk for mental health conditions for a particular population (e.g. farmers, factor workers, those who are furloughed or unemployed due to COVID-19). Be sure to include these people on your list for additional outreach.
- Include local resources for mental health care in your church newsletter.
- Online support groups can be started for people experiencing an increase in mental health challenges.
- Online support groups can also be started for those experiencing grief or loss.
- Explore the possibility of getting connective technology to those who don’t have it. For example, can simple tablets be donated or purchased for those who don’t have a smartphone? Are there internet providers in your area offering free or reduced price services for those in need?
- Name mental health struggles in prayers during worship. It is as important as ever to break the stigma and silence surrounding mental illness.
Remember that you don’t have to do everything on this list. Neither is this list meant to be an exhaustive list of potentially lifesaving activities. The idea is that we engage in activities to strengthen relationships and ties to our communities. These are among the strongest protective factors a vulnerable person can have. We all need to feel loved, valued, and wanted. As churches this is our job. Paul describes the church as one body made up of many parts in 1 Corinthians 12. He goes on to describe how important each part is to the functioning of the whole. Then he reminds us that we are to take special care of the most vulnerable parts. This is true for our physical bodies and it is true for the Body of Christ.
For the health and well-being of our congregations, we must take the time and energy to reach out to the most vulnerable among us. And, yes, some days it will be hard to tell exactly who that is. In any given day, anyone of us can be overwhelmed by anxiety about the future and the safety of our loved ones. At any time, anyone of us can slide into despair or become depressed over the ongoing need for physical distancing that causes feelings of isolation. Not one of us is immune to having a mental health challenge or for that challenge to become more of a crisis. The only way that our congregations will survive this pandemic is to focus time and attention on those who are vulnerable.
- The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is a great resource for increasing mental health awareness in congregations.
- If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741. Help is available.
- Life Line for Veterans is a branch of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for veterans. Call: 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1; Text to 838255; or Chat online 24/7/365.
- You Matter is for youth between the ages of 13 and 24. It is a safe space for sharing and supporting one another. It is monitored by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- The Trevor Project is a national organization that provides suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBTQ+ people ages 13–24.
- The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors is a nonprofit organization that seeks to offer support and hope to survivors of suicide loss.
- Compassionate Friends is a national organization that offers support and resources for those who’ve lost a loved one to sudden, violent death.
About the Author
Rev. Dr. Rachael A. Keefe is the author of The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice, 2018) and the senior pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, MN. You can find out more about her books and her blog by visiting https://beachtheology.com/.
Photo by Natalia Lavrenkova.