Written by Kristin Schultz
Editor’s Note: This article begins a three-part series exploring ways your care-ministry program can minister to your congregation and your community through your care teams.
It’s time to take another look at care ministry. When the pandemic hit last spring, it upended our lives and our work. Lockdowns and social distancing completely changed our day-to-day routines along with the ways we interact with people and the community.
For all that is different now, our call to care for people has not changed. If anything, people’s needs are greater now than they’ve ever been. If care ministry has taken a back seat in your ministry recently, it’s time to recognize the need and reengage.
Care ministry is, of course, highly personal, and for the last year we’ve been told to avoid highly personal contact. Funerals that used to provide friends and family the opportunity to come together and grieve and laugh and hope have often been cut down to a 10-minute graveside service for immediate family only. There is no hugging or holding hands to pray.
When people would return home from the hospital, whether after having a baby or for a serious medical issue, we used to be able to take a meal to the home and hold the baby or pray with the family. Again, this kind of physical care may have changed or gone away completely in your ministry.
But statistics show that the need for human and spiritual care has only increased over the last 12 months.
Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing 40 percent of American adults reported struggling with mental health and substance use. Of that 40 percent, 31 percent reported anxiety and depression, 26 percent reported trauma or stress-related symptoms, 13 percent started using or increased their substance use, and 11 percent reported considering suicide.
These numbers, while maybe alarming, are not surprising. Isolation and loneliness, especially among the elderly, has been a growing concern. With the onset of the pandemic and most facilities limiting or eliminating visitors and community programs altogether, the risk of isolation and other health problems like depression and memory loss only increases.
It’s not just the people living in long-term care or assisted living centers that are suffering. Many seniors who still live at home relied on community programs or volunteer opportunities to keep busy and stay engaged and active. Retirees who used to spend time serving meals at homeless shelters or playing pickle ball at the senior center have seen these types of socialization simply vanish as programs are shut down to prevent the spread of disease. Or consider your senior volunteers at church who may have spent entire afternoons or weekends puttering around the grounds planting flowers or helping out here and there. If you are or were conducting virtual services, there was less need for such volunteer work. For many seniors, the human interaction and personal connections they had worked to build into their retired lives all but dried up overnight.
Just as abruptly, stress and trauma affected working-aged people and families. Many lost jobs and many of those have not yet found work. Parents suddenly became full-time teachers and full-time employees. Many couples and families adjusted well to the new paradigm. Others struggled with the upheaval. Studies show that many women left the workforce in order to meet the demands of homeschooling and child care. The loss of income, as well as the shift in the shared roles and responsibilities in the household causes stress and potentially resentment. Divorce rates seem to be down, but some experts think the decline is due to the expense of getting divorced. It’s not that marriages are stronger or healthier now compared to before the pandemic; it’s that couples want to get divorced but can’t afford it.
It is no wonder that many of our parishioners, friends, and relatives are looking for any kind of stress relief. According to the CDC study, many are turning to alcohol or substance use to escape. A study from the RAND Corporation showed that alcohol consumption increased during the pandemic mainly among women and those between 30 and 59. This should not come as a surprise. Self-medication is an easy (and sometimes culturally enabled) way to deal with increasing isolation, loneliness, and tremendous amounts of stress.
Perhaps the most troubling is the number of people who have thought about suicide since the pandemic began. While many studies have looked at how the pandemic has affected adults and seniors, it is clear that children are not immune to the stress and trauma of their new daily reality. Clark County schools in Nevada, the 5th-largest school district in the country, returned to in-person classes due to a rise in student suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please stop reading and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The need for compassionate, Christian care is greater now than maybe any time in recent memory. If you’ve scaled back or halted care ministry, consider bringing it back. Reassemble the care team or identify people who have the heart for the hurting.
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