It’s not over yet. Even with all the changes Alabama Baptist churches have made recently in response to COVID-19, more challenges and opportunities are on the horizon.
In mid-March, as churches learned their doors would be closed, even temporarily, to their congregants, response was swift. Churches quickly adapted — livestreaming church services, providing online giving options and communicating with members virtually.
‘How do we … ?’
Now, a month later, with some restrictions still in place and others possibly to be eased soon, churches are grappling with other basic issues, including:
- How can a church minister to ill church members?
Ministering to those who are ill has been a priority for churches throughout history. With current restrictions related to COVID-19, church leaders are finding new ways to prioritize this ministry.
When church members are ill, possibly with COVID-19, “it will be important that the church see these members as people who are suffering and not as some kind of statistic,” said Gary Fenton, a leadership consultant, longtime minister and development officer for Samford University in Birmingham.
Church leaders can maintain contact with ill individuals and their families through simple telephone calls, handwritten notes, emails or text messages and even gift boxes.
Deb Lowery, a member of Bethel Baptist Church, Dora, and TAB financial assistant, said when her grandson, who lives with Lowery and her husband, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, Bethel Baptist leaders prayed for the Lowery family and regularly communicated by text messaging during the quarantine period.
One of Lowery’s TAB colleagues, Debbie Campbell, along with her husband Don, delivered masks, food items and paper towels to her during the 14-day quarantine period. The personal delivery “meant so much to me during our lock-up time,” Lowery said. “That is what the body of Christ is supposed to do.”
Sharing in suffering
Personal delivery of essential items is at the heart of the Boxes of Hope ministry, launched recently by a church in New Jersey. The pastor there learned of a church family affected by COVID-19 and gathered a box of groceries and other items for the family. He wanted the family to know they were not alone in their suffering, he said. Since that first box was delivered to one family, the ministry has expanded to multiple states, where it partners with local churches to deliver Boxes of Hope throughout the communities.
“Boxes of Hope is a tangible way for us to stretch out a hand to those that are affected either through illness, quarantine or just the uncertainty of this time. The world all around us may change, but God’s love remains the same, and this is the hope that we have to share,” the ministry’s website, getboxesofhope.com, states.
Beyond prayer, electronic communication and delivery of essential items to minister to the ill, Lowery suggests church members send notes of encouragement through the postal system or “if they feel comfortable and are not afraid, some church members could go stand outside the house and pray for the member who is sick or even hold up a sign for the sick person to see through the window, letting them know they are loved.”
- How can a church minister to elderly church members?
Churches are also finding creative ways to minister to the elderly, a high-risk group, during the pandemic. Some congregations have set up telephone call lists, in which church members regularly call elderly church members to ask about their well-being, determine if the elderly person has any needs and to pray.
Bethel Baptist’s pastor John Foles and his wife have been visiting elderly church members, “standing outside in their yards and talking and praying with them. That speaks volumes to me, especially since the elderly need to feel connected with their pastor and church family,” Lowery said.
Honor 6:2 is one approach in which book boxes are sent to senior care facilities, hospice centers, hospitals and people who are sheltering in place.
Sending hope in a box
The idea is tied directly to Ephesians 6:2, which calls on Christians to honor their fathers and mothers. Iron Stream Media, based in Birmingham, and Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) are partnering in this ministry.
“Honoring the elderly is an act of obedience to our heavenly Father,” said WMU Executive Director Sandy Wisdom-Martin on the ministry’s website, honor62.com.
John Herring, CEO of Iron Stream Media, added, “Our elderly family members and friends were there for us. Now, out of love and respect, we have an opportunity to honor them.”
- How can a church conduct a meaningful funeral service and be present for the grief-stricken?
Restrictions limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer people have changed the ways churches and funeral homes minister to grieving families.
Smaller services, often held at the graveside, have become the new norm, said Chad Holder, a manager at Morrison Funeral Home in Tuscumbia and interim pastor of York Bluff Baptist Church, Sheffield. So have livestreamed funerals.
Retired pastor Travis Coleman has officiated two graveside services recently. With permission from local officials, friends and family lined up in their cars to show their support for the family. After one service, people honked their horns and the family members turned to wave at everyone.
Holder said most funeral arrangements are now made virtually, and his funeral home allows only two funerals each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with thorough cleaning between services.
Some families are opting for a private service now and planning for a more public celebration of life at a later date, he said.
Holder said he views funerals as a “ministry, not as a task to be performed. Funerals serve the needs of the immediate family and public. … I want to be with our people when they’re grieving.”
Not being able to hug or even shake hands has been difficult for Holder and other ministers.
But those who cannot attend a funeral in person can still minister to the grieving family, Holder said.
He encourages people to send flowers, cards and letters to the funeral home, which will then deliver these expressions of love to the family. He said people also can arrange for restaurants to send meals to a grieving family. Tangible gestures such as mowing grass or doing other yardwork also are appreciated.
- How can a church maintain its ministry and witness to its community?
“Right now, the things that you do today, will impact how ultimately you will recover tomorrow,” Christian missiologist Ed Stetzer, recently said in a Baptist Press interview.
The hope, he said, is that when the crisis is over and the nation reemerges from it, Christians will be remembered for their love and courage. COVID-19 brings a crucial moment for churches, he believes.
“This is the time to show and share the love of Jesus.”