As the reality of this Covid-19 pandemic settles in more and more, with no clear end in sight, the stress and strains on relationships and within our own minds will likely increase. Those of us who have been asked to shelter in place will be encountering a new wave of challenges. And we as church leaders need to do our best to be ready to face these challenges and find ways to help our churches deal with them. Two challenges in particular that we need to prepare our churches for are mental health issues and marriage and family conflicts.
Mental Health Resources
The awareness of and acceptance of mental health issues within the church is finally getting some traction. Millions are affected by mental illness in the US each year. In fact, over 47.6 million American adults (19.1% of the US adult population) experienced some form of mental illness in 2018. And 7.7 million youth (16.5%) aged 6-17 experienced mental illness in the US in 2016. This is a huge issue for our generation and chances are, with all the stress and worry that comes from the Covid-19 virus spreading each day, along with the stay-at-home orders, these numbers for mental illness will only increase. We don’t want to minimize the care that they need, especially when professional intervention is needed, but as pastors, I do want to put this issue on our radar so that we can begin thinking about how we can minister to them more effectively. Chances are high that many will be experiencing degrees of mental illness in the days to come. Here's an excellent article by my colleague at Talbot, Kevin Van Lant, on What Every Pastor Needs to Know About Mental Health and the Church. We may not be experts on this issue, but as pastors, we can provide some basic steps to alleviate some of the mental strain.
- Prayer. God promises us that peace will be released in the hurried place of prayer. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be make known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7) Continually encourage your flock to deepen their prayer lives and practice pouring out their hearts to Him in the secret place during this season.
- Meditation. Meditation is not only biblical, but studies show the positive impact it can have on the mind and the emotions. But when the believer meditates, she doesn’t try to make her mind “blank”, but rather, we fill it with the Word of God, the promises of God, and the presence of God in our lives. Joshua 1:8-9 reminds us to meditate on God’s Word day and night. It is God and His truth that brings us peace. There are also meditation apps that can help guide us to reflect on God’s truth and pause as we listen to scripture. The Abide app is something I’ve found to be very soothing to listen to as I listen to the devotional and allow the background music to still my soul. I let that lead me to reflect on God’s Word and begin a time of pausing in His presence as I pray. “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things” (Philippians 4:8-9) Let’s encourage our flock to meditate on the goodness of God instead of the worries of this world.
- Exercise. Encourage your congregation members to stay active physically. Studies have shown that people who regularly exercise see an increase in positivity in moods and a decrease in depression. Exercise releases endorphins into our body that will help decrease stress and increase joy. You don’t have to go outside or even have exercise equipment at home to get a good cardio workout. I’ve been doing over a hundred burpees each day for that past several years and that has definitely gotten my heart pumping. Here’s a website from CrossFit that offers exercises you can do from home.
- Community Connection. Have your leadership team check in on your members personally (call or video) to see how they are doing and to discuss what challenges they are facing. Just knowing that someone is thinking about them will go a long way of not feeling so alone in this difficult time. If they are in a small group, have the small group become an online community to talk with, pray with, and connect with regularly. If they are not in a small group yet, create opportunities for them to join one soon. And consider starting “Book Clubs” in your church community (even with kids, youth, teens, as well as adults) that will allow them to find an opportunity to find purpose, encouragement through the books, and an appointment to look forward to each week (online).
- Partner with Counselors and Coaches. Don’t be afraid to reach out to counselors in your congregation and community who can help guide you in understanding and caring for those with mental health issues. Keep a list of professional counselors available as a reference when needed. Biola University’s Counseling Center has a website that can be a good starting point to find tools for your leadership. And here is a list of Top 10 Mental Health Ministry Resources by Christianity Today. Though it is difficult to think about for our members that we love, there may also be a rise in dark thoughts, even of suicide. One resource to have on hand is the national suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
Marriage and Family Conflict Resources
We are being forced to deal with issues in ourselves and our relationships that we have normally ignored or buried under our work. But as time at home increases, tensions will also increase. So we need to be ready to help our congregation deal with increased relational stress as these weeks turn into months. You can consider doing a sermon (or series) on Jesus’ model for handling conflict and sin through Matthew 18:15-19.
I was able to talk with my friend Chuck Starens recently, who is a gifted relationship coach. He and others have noted a rise in relational stress and even requests for divorce in the US and other countries that have been under lock down these past few weeks. He offers some excellent tools that can strengthen your marriage during this time instead of seeing it grow tense. Here are some great suggestions he offers:
- Hug Each Other. For husbands and wives, have a full 1 minute hug in the morning, at each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and before you go to sleep (so a total 5 minutes each day). Physical touch is a powerful way to bring healing to our bodies - both physically and emotionally. Starnes notes that, “human touch triggers the release of oxytocin into our bloodstream. This increases feelings of trust, generosity, and compassion. And it also decreases feelings of fear and anxiety that block our communication.”
- Appreciate Each Other. Starnes encourages couples to say an encouraging word of appreciation to your partner. Try saying during meal times to each other (and children can be included too), “One thing I appreciate about you is …” It will cultivate an environment of thanksgiving in your home and it will strengthen the emotional bond between family members. Starnes notes the science behind this exercise by saying, “New positive brain pathways are created in both of you every time you share an appreciation with your partner. And old negative pathways start to dissolve” That benefit alone is worth the time invested into this exercise.
- Listen to Each Other. Practice a “mirroring” dialogue exercise with each other to develop better listening habits to one another. It’s a tool that helps mirror (listen to every word), validate (affirm your partner’s perspective), and empathize (be fully present with your partner’s emotions). Starnes says, “when you listen to your partner, it says ‘I love you’ in a very tangible way’”. Starnes also encourages couples to surprise each other with things that delight them. We have the time now, so let’s use it to learn to listen and learn to love better than we have before.
For both of these upcoming (or current) challenges that will most certainly grow in our congregations, it’s important not to carry all these burdens alone. Like Jethro teaching Moses about the wisdom of delegation in Exodus 18, be wise enough to equip others to do the work of the ministry with you. One important and strategic piece of advice I’d offer is to partner with your small group leaders to shepherd your flock.
- Small Group Leaders as Shepherds. Train and encourage your small group leaders to make themselves available for pastoral care online. There are solid online training courses available through Peacemaker Ministry and Ken Sande of Relational Wisdom 360 if you or your leadership need training in conflict resolution and mediation. These are excellent organizations that will give solid biblical guidelines to help people experience peace in relationships.
One More (for Later): An Increased Importance of Counseling for Ministry
Things will never be the same after this. But one thing to prepare for when we go back to our regular lives is the increased role of counseling in our ministries. The whole world is going through trauma right now. It will have great implications in the months and years to come, and it will effect people differently. Some won't feel the effects of this unique season until many weeks or even months later. So begin asking the Lord what it will look like to provide counseling and care to process the trauma for this season. Will it mean hiring a counselor on your staff? Will it mean further training for yourself, your leadership, your small group leaders in counseling or trauma care? Will it mean a closer partnership with counselors in your congregation and your community? These will be important things to think through. You and I will probably need to see a counselor too, and that'll be part of the healing process.
We are in uncharted territory and living in unprecedented times. And if you feel like you don’t know what to do, that’s totally okay. We begin by doing what we know to do - and that is to come before God humbly in prayer and before His Word. Come before God and ask for wisdom. Come before God and ask for mercy. Come before God and ask for strength. But the one thing we know to do each day … is to come before God.