Ministry and Grief During the Pandemic
By Aaron Earls
It all started at a funeral. Instead of simply marking the end of a life, the late February 2020 funeral of a 64-year-old man became the start of a deadly coronavirus spike in Albany, Ga.
By late March, close to 500 people in the area had contracted COVID-19, and at least 29 people died, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. One of those was a beloved member of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, according to John Spencer, who oversees pastoral care and senior adult ministries at the church.
“She was one of three sisters who came in a few years ago and immediately plugged in and began to serve,” Spencer said. “She helped set up in her Sunday School class and made sure everyone was greeted.”
Unfortunately, she caught COVID-19 and was hospitalized on a ventilator. “Her older sister had it and recovered,” said Spencer. “We thought she was getting better, and then she died.”
Similar to Albany, New Orleans faced the wrath of the coronavirus early. Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, said they also lost their first member to COVID-19 in March 2020.
“We started getting calls about people going into the hospital with COVID and noticing the numbers,” said Luter. “After we quickly had a fourth person die from it, we realized this was serious and would change how we minister.” The church has lost 15 members to the pandemic.
As the United States begins the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, Spencer and Luter shared how COVID-19 impacted their congregations and communities, as well as what other church leaders can learn from their tragic experiences.
Facing death behind a mask
The experiences of Sherwood and Franklin Avenue were rare among churches. In early April 2020, only 5% of U.S. Protestant pastors told Lifeway Research one of their church attendees had even been diagnosed with COVID-19. By June last year, 28% of pastors said someone in their church had COVID-19 and 5% had lost someone to the virus.
Now, however, many more churches have dealt with COVID diagnoses and deaths. In February 2021, 88% of Protestant pastors said someone in their church had been diagnosed with the virus, and 28% said a churchgoer had died from COVID. Among churchgoers, Lifeway Research found 42% say a fellow member has had COVID-19, and 18% say someone in their congregation died from it.In April 2020, 5% of pastors said a churchgoer had been diagnosed with COVID-19. By February 2021, 88% of Protestant pastors said someone in their church had been diagnosed, and 28% said a churchgoer had died from it. Click To Tweet
These tragic experiences have stretched over a year for Spencer, Luter, and other congregations.
Luter recalled the first people to die of COVID-19 at Franklin Avenue. “A husband and wife, who had been married for 56 years and had a large family … two weeks after she died, he died,” Luter said. “Both were beloved in our church. For them to die back to back really affected our church.”
Part of the impact is not being able to grieve together and support one another as they have in the past, said Luter. “Normally, when someone dies, we are greeting and hugging family members, but because of COVID we can’t do that. Funerals that would normally be jam packed with people are limited to 15 to 20 according to city guidelines,” he said. “That was the tough part—not being able to be there for people in the same way.”
Spencer said he recently did a funeral service for a member who died last April. “His wife died a few weeks ago, so the family just asked to do a service for both at the same time,” he said. “They were one of our stalwart families. He taught second grade Sunday School for 50 years.”
Even in the times they’ve been able to speak with and spend time with grieving families has been different. “We had to learn how to grieve without the same personal connections,” Luter said, “elbow and fist bumps instead of hugs.”“We have to approach everyone with the ability to reach differently based on where they are and being more aware of each individual’s perspective.” — John Spencer Click To Tweet
“I’ve had to be more careful about the words I use and the tone of my voice,” Spencer said, “because they can’t see a smile on my face when I’m wearing a mask.” Previously, he said he would place a hand on someone and pray for them. Now, he asks permission before doing that. “We have to approach everyone with the ability to reach differently based on where they are and being more aware of each individual’s perspective.”
Spencer and Luter say their churches are still working to do what they can to minister to members, especially during moments of loss. Early on, both say they did a lot of pastoral care over the phone. Spencer said they asked, “How do you minister when you can’t see someone?” Part of their answer was calling through the entire church roll several times throughout the pandemic and doing so even more often with members who were 65 and older.
Another solution for Sherwood Baptist was finding ways to tangibly serve the community. “We provided meals and items like hand sanitizer for the hospital, first responders, and the local college,” Spencer said. “We’ve been able to connect with the community in ways we were not able to before.”“We’ve been able to connect with the community in ways we were not able to before.” — John Spencer Click To Tweet
To serve people who were discharged from the hospital with COVID-19, they also started providing free care package that contained a blood/oxygen monitor, Gatorade, other necessities, and a prayer card from the church. “A local man recovered from COVID himself and saw what we were doing. He called and asked what he could do to help, so we partnered with him for the blood/oxygen monitors,” Spencer said. “He doesn’t even go to our church.”
Through the pandemic and beyond
Even with vaccines becoming more widely available, Luter said people are remaining cautious about going back to “normal.” “People don’t want to let their guard down,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow transition, but one we are looking forward to. We are excited to be able to look back on this and say, ‘We never want to go through that again.’”“You have to be there for your members—COVID or not.” — @PastorFredLuter Click To Tweet
Still, as the pandemic-related deaths continue to climb, Luter said churches must continue to minister. “You have to be there for your members—COVID or not,” he said. “You may not be able to minister as you did before, but you have to contact them to let them know you are there for them as much as possible. Let them know you are praying for them.”
He said God promised to “never leave us, nor forsake us,” so pastors must continue to put their faith, confidence, and trust in God as they continue to serve their congregations.“Isolation is never good for anybody. One connection is important. Help people understand they aren’t forgotten.” — John Spencer Click To Tweet
Even once the pandemic is over, Spencer said the ministry will continue. “Honestly, I don’t know if we have finished grieving,” Spencer said. “It’s going to take longer for people to get through this. The process has been slowed down because of the isolation.”
It’s that isolation that both Luter and Spencer said their churches are trying to overcome. “Isolation is never good for anybody,” Spencer said. “One connection is important. Help people understand they aren’t forgotten.”
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.