In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jane Waln waited at home as her husband declined in hospice, restricted from visitors by lockdown.
She’d lovingly nursed Dennis through the years as dementia stole him from her, but new health protocols were undermining her hopes for the end she thought they would be able to face together.
When Jane returned to church after Dennis’s death in the summer of 2020, she found no hands reaching out to hold her in her time of sorrow.
Overwhelmed by a maelstrom of pandemic, social, and political struggles, the congregation that had supported her through her many years of caregiving seemed bewildered about what to do next. She was disappointed by how her journey of grief differed from what she had expected due to her church’s pandemic-oriented hesitation.
Yet while isolated grief and impersonal responses may have been the norm two years ago, many local churches are responding with increased skill to the challenges of pandemic loss.
Many pastors, concerned that experiences like Jane’s would replicate, have mobilized congregational care support—enlisting a growing number of parachurch ministries to come alongside their churches and guide hurting parishioners toward life beyond their struggles.
And so while in-person attendance may have dropped 6 percent over the last two years, local churches are arguably providing better care for their congregations than ever before.
In 2019 when COVID-19 was quietly developing in Asia, I became a widow myself. The sum of my most intimate experience with grief has occurred under the cloud of pandemic concern. Like Jane, I struggled to discern where my grief could fit in a congregation already burdened by so many other sorrows.
And, like many other hurting Christians, I’ve charted a path forward with the assistance of care from the very parachurch ministries that are reinvigorating churches worldwide today.
For decades, congregations offered grief and care ministries as niche programming. But today, many are turning to more holistic care guided by ministries outside their walls—by tapping into the rich resources of parachurch ministries who have trained for years for such a time as this.
As church services pivoted to online worship, Joel Bretscher, program director of Stephen Ministries in St. Louis, and his team got to work. “We told churches, ‘Be on the lookout,’” Bretscher said. “We encouraged their Stephen Ministry to do telecare ministry.”
Founded in 1975 by Christian psychologist Dr. Kenneth C. Haugk, Stephen Ministries operates in more than 13,000 congregations worldwide, offering one-to-one caregiving partnerships to people in need.
It might seem like a big ship to turn around, but Bretscher says Stephen Ministries’ passion for being the “after people”—the caregivers who show up after others have left—drove them to expand their ministry offerings quickly. The organization transitioned their traditional leadership training to Zoom, a move that has allowed them to equip churches more quickly and efficiently.
In addition, the ministry developed new resources to assist pastors and lay leaders with identifying and supporting those in their congregations and communities with needs. “People don’t step forward and ask for care themselves,” Bretscher said.
So Stephen Ministries stressed proactive care, including practical guidance for dividing up a congregation’s phone list to make personal calls to every member. Because of their established ministries within local churches, anywhere from 10 to 40 well-trained members per congregation could be available to receive updated training and make those calls.
I bear personal testimony of the blessing this intentional care brings. After a year in connection with Stephen Ministries resources, I entered training to become a caregiver too.
Associate pastor Jason Davison says his church, Grace Church Seattle, has viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to extend their care even further beyond their congregation’s walls.
While the church’s diaconate addresses congregational needs, Davison sees himself as a “chaplain of the city,” tending to hurting neighbors who may never enter Grace Church’s sanctuary.
As lockdowns extended across the city, Davison saw relationships, marriages in particular, suffer strain. To address this need, his congregation expanded their budget to offer more funding for those in their community seeking counseling services.
A sister church, Trinity Church Seattle, responded by establishing Bell Tower Counseling—a faith-based, nonprofit counseling center—which Davison’s congregation is also supporting.
When Davison saw children struggling relationally in remote schooling, he galvanized their congregation to rally with other churches and organizations to raise $50,000 to tutor area children and those learning on computers.
“We have a long-term farming mentality,” says Davison. This posture will be helpful for congregations seeking to navigate a post-pandemic world, recent statistics indicate.
As Christians, we know we will always have the hurting with us—and today there are more of them than we ever imagined.
Clarissa Moll is an award-winning writer and the author of Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide for Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss. She cohosts Christianity Today’s Surprised by Grief podcast.