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The newly vulnerable

We’ve mastered a lot of ‘new’ in recent months. Whether that’s new ways of providing services, new ways of engaging in mission, or making the most of new opportunities to train furloughed workers for gospel service, it’s been a steep learning curve for many in the local church.

Pastoral care Helen Thorne-Allenson
Figure Image
photo: iStock

Quite a few of us might be hoping that there’s not too much more ‘new’ ahead. A return to something more familiar is the longing in many a heart. But let me pose four pastorally-orientated questions and suggest there might still need to be a little more ‘new’.

1. Who are the new vulnerable in your church?

These have been difficult months. Some, who were struggling before the lockdown, have crumbled under the stresses of isolation or fear, but others, who were strong at Easter, are now also utterly broken inside. There will be more than a few key workers across the land wrestling with post-traumatic symptoms. Some bereaved, who have not been able to say the usual goodbyes. Children who have lost confidence in leaving the house. More than a handful of pastors with burnout looming. Can we identify them and listen to them? We’ll need to be intentional because they need us to know their pain.

2. What new things need to be put in place to care for those who hurt?

I’m sure it wasn’t a priority at the start but, now, while we are still doing much pastoral care online, do we have our policies in place to ensure we are doing it well? Online conversations can easily be heard by others in our home (so many of us talk loudly on Zoom!), and connections can be hacked. Do we know what good practice looks like? Or how to keep our connections secure? How about those who have no access to (or facility with) the internet? Are we mastering the art of the socially-distanced home visit (it’s going to be so easy for people to drift)? Are the new vulnerable (not just those who were vulnerable before lockdown) on your rota for regular calls? How about the hand-written note? It can lighten the heaviest heart!

3. What new types of care will be needed to help people reinte-grate into physical church?

Some can’t wait to come together again, but others are far more reticent to meet. There seems to have been a steep rise in people struggling with health anxiety (no surprise) – outside is now synonymous with danger and germs. Social anxiety may be rearing its head with increasing intensity too: large, or even medium-sized, groups where the social norms are going to be different to before can feel a threatening place to be. Are we going to rush back to physical meetings as quickly as legislation allows, or walk people slowly towards physical meetings – encouraging congregation members to take manageable baby steps each week? Of course it’s important not to forget those people who have engaged with church purely because it is now online. I’m not just talking about the casual observers, but the committed believers who through work, caring responsibilities, overwhelming disability or illness will never walk through our doors at 10.30am on a Sunday morning. How are we going to continue to serve them week by week?

4. What kind of training do our small group leaders need?

Many group leaders will now be having conversations for which they feel profoundly ill-equipped. With such people rarely well trained in pastoral matters, a pastoral structure that relies heavily on small group leaders to care is always very vulnerable to strain, but now, with conversations turning to agoraphobia, PTSD, obsessions, children refusing to engage with school, financial crises, homelessness, and more – there is increasing need for upskilling and showing people how to signpost well.

The answers to those questions? No one size fits all. But listening is always the place to start. Asking those who are struggling what would help, and meshing that with the skills and capacity available in the wider congregation can lead to creative ways to point people to the Rock and Refuge they so desperately need.

More about Biblical Counselling UK is available at www.biblicalcounselling.org.uk or you can contact them at info@biblicalcounselling.org.uk or c/o Christ Church, Christchurch Street, Cambridge CB1 1HT