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Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes
Mar 22 · 8 min read

Digital Pastoral Care in the Era of COVID-19

Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

As I pen this article, I’m writing in the midst of an unprecedented ten days. I, like many pastors, have embraced a new reality: pastoring in the era of social distancing. We are all figuring out new ways of being. Not only pastors, but parents are figuring out how to support their children without school, educators are learning new technology and looking for ways to teach their students through screens. Restauranteurs, waitresses & waiters, bartenders, gyms, physical trainers, small business owners, musicians, actors, actresses and more are all dealing with the implications of being deemed “non-essential” in today’s workforce. On the other side, Nurses, medical doctors, social workers, janitors, chefs and other fields are on the front lines exposing themselves to illness in order to serve those they’ve pledged to serve. The world has changed. We are all looking for ways to adapt. We are all looking for ways to cope while still holding onto our hope.

Hope is what the church specializes in. In times past when calamity took place, the church was the place people could always turn to. When folks were laid off of their jobs or their loved ones got sick, many people would turn to the church. Many people would attend a worship service or ask their minister to visit them in the hospital. The church was always an edifice that we all assumed would be there. Folks assumed they didn’t have to go every week but when they wanted to, the church would be there. They rightfully assumed that when they went their minister would be preaching, their choir would be singing, the warm hugs of the people who’ve known them their whole lives would be waiting for them and they could get what they needed when they needed it. That is what I and many of my pastoral colleagues lament the most. We desire to physically hug our folks and to remind them that everything is going to be alright. But we are now required to do that from afar…

Manhattan skyline. Getty Images

Our congregational rhythms have significantly changed. While the sermons are going forth and the songs are being sung, the people can no longer enter the sanctuary for worship. In cities like mine, New York’s governor has issued a “stay in place” order where people must stay indoors. While I was preaching last Sunday (to an empty congregation because we suspended physical service), a push alert hit my phone just as I was moving through my sermon manuscript alerting me that The New York City school district had closed. The next day I got word that one of my leaders had given birth to her first child yet the hospital restricted visitors. One day after that I learned of the untimely passing of the loved one of one of our members. I immediately thought about how that family would be supported through their bereavement and funeral service planning. On Wednesday I woke up to a message from a couple that we were supposed to marry this summer who had opted to go to the courthouse instead. I quickly rushed downtown to be there with them. Hours later another couple my husband and I were supposed to marry in April sent a text saying that they were pushing their Florida wedding to November. Later in the week I learned that a member of mine with mental health needs was unable to see their therapist because their therapist had fallen ill.

Daily my phone rang with panicked and despondent people wondering what this all means. People called me frightened because they knew someone who had tested positive and they didn’t know if they should self-quarantine or not. My single members were beginning to feel the weight of social distancing as isolation. My gig economy members were feeling the uncertainty of a looming economic recession. My families who lived with their parents and grandparents became frightened that their children would infect their parents. The baby boomers in my life knew the precautions they needed to take but still felt it pertinent to run their usual errands because they craved community and independence. In the span of 10 days, everything had changed.

As I stilled myself to respond to the needs of my congregants, I had an epiphany. My epiphany was that much of the pastoral care I can offer these days will be mediated through my phone. Whether it be via text message or phone call; Zoom call or FaceTime; Social Media or email — my phone had become my tool to offer pastoral care whether I liked it or not.

Photo by Brianna Rohlehr via Double Love Experience Church

Now I should pause to give context to my church. While I’ve been a New York City pastor for seven years, my current church is brand new. I served on the pastoral staff of another church in NYC for five years but the current church that I lead is one that I founded with my spouse in October 2018. We have only been in weekly services since November 2019. You read that right. We have only been a weekly worshipping congregation for four months. Yet, the blessing for us is that we have always been a church that relied heavily on digital media tools. My background is in brand strategy and communications so from the beginning we have utilized tools such as social media, streaming of our worship services, streaming of our bible studies, weekly e-blasts, and more. Our gap, however, has been with obtaining phone numbers.

In my attempt to do wellness checks for our members and friends I realized that while we have active followers on our socials, we don’t have phone numbers for most of our folks. In an era of COVID-19, streaming service is great, but we need to know critical things such as when our folks get sick, who is running out of food, who is sacred, who has mental health needs, who got laid off, who needs childcare…these are all things that we would know if we were meeting physically but since we are not, we’ve had to imagine what digital pastoral care looks like. You can’t find that out in the stream of a worship service.

All week, these are the questions I’ve been asking:

  • How do people feel seen?
  • How do people feel heard?
  • How much is too much communication?
  • If you can’t go visit someone, how can you let them know you’re actively thinking of them and praying for them?
  • How do you honor the lives of those we will lose when you cannot give them a traditional funeral service?
  • How do you honor the milestones in people’s lives that bring the necessary joy that we all need to make it: birthdays, anniversaries, new births, graduations, and more.
  • How do you honor people’s very real concerns about this pandemic while still offering them hope?

As I have sat with these questions over the past 10 days, I would like to offer some “ah-ha” moments that I’ve had as a pastor.

  • People don’t expect pastors to be superhuman but they expect us to be human. Talk to your people.

If all you have is someone’s IG handle or FB page, send them a direct message. Just knowing you’re thinking of them goes a long way. It is better than no communication at all. They don’t have to be members. If they actively follow you on your socials engage them because they feel connected to you and your church. They deserve your care.

  • Gather as many phone numbers as you can and create a GroupMe or WhatsApp group to give people a real time way to communicate with you.
  • At present: deliveries are still an option. While you can, send flowers to that new mom, send groceries to that elderly person who is running low on supplies, mail an encouraging letter to a member who may be battling loneliness, send a care package to the college students in your congregations who had to go back home.

You don’t have to be the expert! Amplify the voices of experts in your congregation. At my church we are blessed to have a medical doctor and two individuals who work for city and state government on our team. As a pastor, I amplify their voices. I cite them when I speak or I ask them to speak directly. You don’t have to become an overnight expert to serve your congregation well. Resist the urge to have all the answers.

Find the members with expertise that you already have and give them the platform to share best practices. A great way to do this is to have them record a video from their home to your congregation and then share it across your communication portals. You can also go live on Zoom or another video platform and allow them to give real time messages so that people can ask follow up questions.

  • Guard against making false promises in your sermons. This is a time to preach what we know and to leave room for the answers we don’t have. Try not to be Superwoman or Superman in this moment. The best we can do as clergy is to introduce our congregants to the kind of hope we still have. Remind your congregation of what keeps you going from Sunday to Sunday. Remind them that we are in this together.
  • Engage your audience when you go live. People want to be seen and heard when they tune in. Have someone in the comment thread commenting and engaging people as you go live. This is meant to be interactive. The more interactive you are, the more connected people feel.
  • If you don’t already have one, please launch an egiving digital option. Givelify is a popular platform for churches. CashApp and PayPal work well too. Yes you will lose a processing fee but you will gain an opportunity to have people continue to give regularly to the work of the church.

Crowdsource the resources of your congregants. Create a survey monkey survey to find out if your members have access to food relief options, shelter, technology or any other resources that your community may need. Again I repeat, you as a pastor do not have to have all the answers. The answers are sometimes within our congregations but we don’t recognize that because we’ve never asked. Now is a great time to find out what resources exist.

Above all, take heart that this situation is a marathon not a sprint. Streaming our worship services is great but it’s not the same thing as digital pastor care. We are required to still serve our people. Our phones and laptops might be the only way that we can reach our congregation right now if I believe we can still access ways to be the church even while we are being required to shelter in place and to practice social distancing. Let your phone be your tool during this season.

Lastly: I recognize that a time may soon come when people can not afford to pay their phone bills or their WiFi / internet connections because of the effect that social distancing is having on our economy. I am thinking even now about how to prepare for that. I don’t have the answers but I know that that is soon coming. Let’s keep thinking together so that we can meet the needs of our parishioners. I am praying for each and every one of you and I know you’re praying for me. We will get through this. I believe that completely.

Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

Written by

New Yorker. Pastor. Former Publicist. Doctoral Student. Lover of live music & good travel. Head over heels for my husband. Hamptonian. NYUer. Yalie. Womanist.

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