Care of congregants and neighbours

Preparing for a pandemic is perhaps the longest and most important stage of preparedness because it lays the groundwork and sets the tone for how the church will respond in the crucial times ahead. By taking time to assess and plan appropriately, church members will be better prepared to handle the issues that come their way because they have thought carefully about what needs to be done. A congregation that is ready, willing and able to assist during a pandemic will undoubtedly fare better than a congregation that has not prepared. Care Groups or other small groups, as well as health-care workers, in the congregation, are ideally suited to care for each other in an emergency, but also to extend beyond their group or circle within and outside the church body in an organized manner. This is discussed in the “Getting Started” section of this website.

At risk within the church

People at risk within the church include the chronically ill, those with developmental or sensory deficits, seniors who live alone, single parents and new immigrants. Planning should include an updated list of such individuals so that they are the first to be contacted as a pandemic unfolds. Involving people at risk in the planning stages is important as they can be helpful in letting the church know what their specific needs are and the best means of contacting them. Collaboration can promote dignity and independence because it involves individuals and families rather then deciding what are in their best interests.  Preparation of a telephone tree is one way of ensuring that vulnerable congregants will have regular contact with those who have the capacity to assist.

Caregivers within the church with children will likely need childcare services as the emergency continues. Provision of such an organized and pre-planned service will be invaluable in helping sustain caregivers over the lengthy emergency.

At risk neighbours

On any day, one only has to walk a short distance to see neighbours that are at risk in the community surrounding your church. Whether it is a senior with a walker, a homeless person with a cart, an unkempt individual wandering aimlessly and talking to his or herself, or a new immigrant that cannot communicate with you due to a language barrier; all may be at risk in the event of a pandemic.

Please review the questions for congregational discussion and focus posed in the “Getting Started” section of this website, particularly questions around who are your neighbours that you want to help – those in your church neighbourhood as well as each congregant’s residential neighbours. It is important, when introducing yourself to the neighbours on your street, to indicate your motivation and provide some background as to why you want to be of support, especially if this is an unfamiliar neighbour. Your connection to your congregation and its service motivation will not normally be clear to these neighbours, nor is it of great importance – you are a neighbour available to provide compassionate, practical help in the event of an emergency and you and your church are expecting to be a good source of information during such an event.  The 'neighbourhood needs assessment' form may be useful in helping your own neighbours in an emergency, provided they want to share such information. 

Before a pandemic starts, it is important to know who these neighbours are and to try and establish rapport. Otherwise, they may become neglected during the chaos of a pandemic, as you may not have knowledge of how or where to find them.  In order to demonstrate concern and establish rapport with the variety of neighbors in the surrounding community, church members can:

  • Learn about mental health concerns and how to be of assistance
  • Learn about health issues in other cultures
  • Learn key phrases of the predominant cultures in their community
  • Learn about predominant faith groups and what they believe
  • Advocate for homeless shelters
  • Learn about sensory and developmental challenges
  • Hold ESL classes for new immigrants in the community
  • Organize neighbourhood kids' activities/clubs

All of these points can make a church more responsive to the needs of the vulnerable people in their community. And the source of this responsiveness may well be noticed by neighbours.

Also see:

The healthy within the church

The more that individuals and families can stay healthy, the more assistance they can be to others during a pandemic. This means educating yourself and your family on pandemic preparedness and having appropriate supplies on hand in case of an emergency.

Understanding hygiene techniques to prevent spread of influenza is crucial. Who knows, you may very well inspire your fellow congregants to take personal hygiene more seriously. After all, hand washing is the single most effective deterrent against infection.

The better prepared you are for a pandemic, the more you can assist those in your church and surrounding community, thereby building greater resilience. As your church prepares for a pandemic, here are some examples of things your church can do:

  • Advocate for those who are vulnerable in your community by getting involved on boards and committees
  • Connect with other churches and organizations and decide how you might work together to assist church members, neighbours and surrounding the church
  • Support your leaders in getting the training they need regarding disaster trauma
  • Educate yourself about community resources and prepare a list of services in your neighborhood that can be accessed by those you will undoubtedly be caring for – include addresses, phone numbers, and type of services offered
  • Create a deacon’s or mutual aid fund that can be accessed by those who experience sudden financial loss during a pandemic; starting early allows for the fund to grow over time (see also Congregational Mutual Aid Responses During a Pandemic [PDF document]
  • Explore expanding kitchen capacity to feed not only members but neighbours as well

Caregivers within the church

Prior to a pandemic, or any other disaster for that matter, caregivers need to be involved in disaster training in order to prepare them for the responsibilities that will inevitably come their way. Caregivers need to know what interventions are appropriate for them to handle and what interventions they should pass on to other agencies. They also need  know how to be respectful of different cultures and faith traditions.

Education in areas such as critical incident stress management will assist caregivers within the church to deal with the death and grief that undoubtedly will mount in the event of a pandemic. Ensuring that caregivers are more knowledgeable about the toll this will take on themselves personally, can assist them in setting appropriate boundaries so as to avoid the long-term consequences of burnout.

The healthy outside the church

The song, "They will Know we are Christians by our Love", takes on new meaning in a disaster setting. Pamphlets on what your church is doing to respond to a pandemic can be distributed in the community. They could include invitations to a community forum inviting neighbours suggestions on what the church can do to assist the neighbourhood in the event of a pandemic or other disaster.  Our neighbours will watch for our responses to the community outside the church’s walls during times of disaster.  Our intention is that people will observe the church as an embodiment of love.

At-risk within the church

As the pandemic unfolds, those who are at risk may surprise us. Hitherto healthy, vibrant families, after weeks of illness, mortgage and bill payments, may be threatened by financial crisis including bankruptcy. If there is a primary breadwinner in the family who becomes ill, it can create great caregiver strain for the spouse. Children are worried about what will happen to their parents as their lives are suddenly disrupted.

A church that has done advance preparations through organizing individuals, care groups and Deacons is ready to send out volunteers to help others.  Congregants may assist families with driving children to school, taking the sick individuals to the doctor, providing respite care so  spouses can get out for a few hours, or delivering meals to tide the family over for a few days. The deacon’s or mutual aid fund that was developed during the pre-pandemic period is ready to provide for bills that have gone unpaid and for medication that is urgently needed. A member of the congregation who has accounting skills may offer help to ward off bankruptcy. A member with counseling skills may visit a caregiver who is struggling with depression under the huge strain. People who can organize or offer reliable and ongoing childcare to pastors and other caregivers can get organized and determine which families need childcare support. This need will grow, even if the families initally believe that they can cope on their own or may be nervous about their children having more contacts.

As more and more congregants and their families are affected, the church kitchen can become a cafeteria and food distribution centre from which groceries and meals can be distributed. Volunteer drivers can make deliveries to vulnerable congregants who are on their list that is updated daily at the church call-in center.

At-risk neighbours

Visitation teams from the church already have their list of vulnerable people in the community to visit. They have an assignment that has been pre-determined so they are ready to act once a pandemic has been declared in their community. Their work is based on referrals they received at the community forum held in their church several months prior to the onset of the pandemic or from their congregation’s work at carrying out neighborhood needs assessments (please link to neighbourhood needs assessment in the Pre-pandemic section). Calls are made to check in with these individuals and provide them with assistance as needed. If they do not answer their doors, surrounding neighbours are contacted to see if they have seen the individual or family. It may be that they are afraid to leave their house, or are unable to contact anyone for assistance or make their needs known. When the visitor is unable to contact the neighbor, it may be necessary to contact the police to ensure that a serious incident has not occurred.

Those who visit at risk neighbours need to be sensitive to the cultural differences or religious views of those they serve.  Learning about different cultural and religious views ahead of time will greatly enhance the compassion of the church volunteers serving in their communities.

The healthy within the church

During a pandemic, healthy congregants will begin to feel the strain of continually helping families and neighbours. Rotating volunteers rather than calling on the same individuals over and over will be crucial for maintaining some sense of equilibrium among members. Debriefing meetings with spiritual support will be necessary so that volunteers are not disabled by the grief they need to bear each day. They will be asking questions of hope and meaning that will need compassionate listeners.  It will be important for volunteers to have constant updates about the pandemic so that they can counteract fear and paranoia with current information.

Caregivers within the church

Caregivers within the church will be at risk because of the emotional and spiritual burdens they carry during a pandemic.  This is particularly true of pastors who by the nature of their calling, their personalities and responsibilities tend to take a very active role in caring for congregants and neighbours. In the midst of a pandemic, caregivers will need assistance in managing workloads, boundaries and their overall well-being. Church leadership will need to be alert to the burdens they carry, ensuring that workloads are rotated between staff and regular debriefing opportunities are provided.

See also: Resources for responding to emergencies and disasters (Canadian Psychological Association)

The healthy outside the church

As church members reach out to their neighbors, they will connect with healthy individuals in the community that are caring for their loved ones or seeking to find purposeful involvement in the midst of a pandemic.  It will be important for congregants to listen to the concerns and questions of these individuals and invite them to participate in community outreach activities if they so desire.

In the subsequent days and months after a pandemic, congregants and neighbours will undoubtedly struggle with anxiety associated with the uncertainty that results from their long struggle and from having survived the pandemic, when some other congregants and neighbours have not. Even the most resilient will struggle with some degree of emotional or spiritual distress. Those congregations that have studied what to expect after a pandemic will fare better than those congregations that have not carefully planned how they might assist their ailing congregants and neighbours.

At-risk within the Church

Those who are at risk within the church will continue to need to be monitored to ensure they are safe and that their basic human needs are met. Re-establishment of services in the community will be sporadic and unreliable at best, so it will continue to be important for the healthy within the church to check in with congregants that have been isolated. This need will likely continue until community services are restored.

The need for the church to continue pandemic exercises will not cease just because the pandemic is over. There may be more suffering in isolated, vulnerable individuals who have not had the benefit of attending church services or enjoying group interactions. Grief may be accentuated due to the inability to say goodbye to friends and family members who died during the pandemic. Some may struggle with an overwhelming sense of survivor guilt. It will be important to involve them in memorials and special services so they can grieve along with their fellow congregants. And it will be important for the church not only recognize these losses, but also  to return to a more normal church life, both weekdays and during worship, as soon as this is feasible.

At-risk neighbours

At risk neighbours also may be in greater difficulty after the pandemic, particularly if there are no concerned friends and family that follow-up on their health and safety requirements. In the lengthy aftermath of the pandemic, they may be forgotten and experience psychological and spiritual trauma. It will be important to follow up with them to see how they are managing and to connect them with available church and community resources.  As caregivers are once again focusing on their own families and activities, this group is at significant risk of being forgotten. A detailed plan for caring for neighbours at risk may be required for some time. This can include sensitively extending them an invitation to visit or become part of the church life and eventually part of the congregation, or to encourage them to reconnect with a congregation from their past.

The healthy within the Church

Those who have been able to stay healthy throughout the pandemic, or who have returned to health, will have no shortage of work to do in the aftermath of the pandemic. Support for vulnerable congregants and neighbours and their own families will consume much of their time. Family members may feeling neglected as healthy church members continue to support those whose health is compromised. This may lead to discord in families. Questions like "Why are you gone all the time?” or “Our lives have been on hold for too long – when are you finally going to make us a priority?” may be troubling to those whose energies are still immersed in dealing with congregants and neighbours. 

In the aftermath of the pandemic, it is important to make spending time with family a priority to try to regain some balance. It will be important for the church to encourage healthy church members to attend to their own needs by relaxing and enjoying time with family and friends.

Caregivers within the Church

The long-term effects of being pastors and caregivers during a pandemic cannot be overestimated. The onus will be on healthy leaders in the church to ensure that they give weary caregivers time for rest and replenishment. Some ways that congregations can assist caregivers in restoring health and wellness include providing opportunities for them to share their own stories and feelings through the development of support groups or organizing time for them to share one on one.  Knowing that the congregation cares enough to listen will assist in re-establishing equilibrium in the lives of those who have devoted so much time to helping others.

Churches will need to be alert to behaviours in their caregivers that are unhealthy. Congregations may need to develop committees to support weary caregivers that are exhibiting behaviours such as sleep disturbances, grief and depression, substance abuse, irritability, anxiety, various physical complaints, and possibly domestic aggression. If health issues are not resolved within a reasonable period of time it may be necessary to refer these individuals to professionals, for assistance.

During the post-pandemic phase it will be important for church leaders to be deliberate about restoring the life of the church. There is hope and security in normalcy, so the sooner the church meets together as a community of prayer and worship, the better. At the same time, certain aspects of pandemic planning will need to continue for an indeterminate amount of time as vulnerable church members and neighbours continue to deal with trauma in their own way.  No one can really predict how the life of a congregation or its members will change due to such an event, and normal may mean a new different normal. Some ways for caregivers to continue to take these needs seriously include:
•    Operating a crisis response centre where concerned congregants and neighbours can call about their specific concerns. The centre would need to be staffed by sensitive people who have an excellent understanding of resources available in their immediate community
•    Planning services that commemorate the lives of those who succumbed to influenza in order that the living can grieve and move on with their lives
•    Working together with other church groups in order to increase the amount and quality of services available and to avoid duplication.

The healthy outside the Church

As church members reach out to their neighbours, they may connect with healthy individuals in the community that are seeking purposeful involvement in the recovery phase. Some may have been overwhelmed with the love that they felt from church members and want to explore church involvement. Others may be full of questions and need a non-judgmental forum to express their concerns before they are able to be part of any recovery effort. Offering hope and reassurance to those who may be struggling with survivor guilt may be another ministry that church members can provide for their neighbours. 

Integral to all relationships developed during and after the pandemic is the need for congregants to love and respect their neighbours no matter what their ethnicity or religious expression. The suitability of these interactions will in large measure be determined by appropriate training in the principles of spiritual care.

See also: