On the Other Side of Isolation

Three areas of psychological struggle that will likely show up in your congregation when we join back together

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Eliza Huie

McLean Bible Church, Vienna, Virginia

“Is it almost over?”

This question is what I heard every week from my little boy after he refused to go to children’s ministry. Why he wanted to stay with mom and dad rather than eat snacks, hear stories and color robed Bible characters is beyond me. But each week he joined us in “big church,” and about halfway through the service the inevitable question was whispered: “Is it almost over?”

Today many people can relate to this question. Though the COVID-19 isolation has brought some unique enjoyments (a freer schedule, working from our couch and worshiping in our pj’s), for most it has brought challenges, and we all are beginning to ask if it is almost over.

It is actually a question the church must take seriously. When the lifting of stay-at-home regulations will happen is not yet known, and it will likely vary from state to state. The church must consider now the many steps for reopening. Logistics on how to reopen are going to be almost as tricky as it was to move everything online. There will need to be a plan, maybe multiple plans. And while transitioning back to church will require new strategies for gathering, part of your church’s plan needs to have a mindful awareness of the psychological impact this season has had on your people.

Learning from the history of SARS and other illness-related quarantines, it is clear that mental, emotional and relational health will have suffered under the period of social distancing. Many churches have begun addressing emotional health already with conversations happening online about faith and the realities of anxiety, fears and stress—even topics like depression, loneliness and suicide, which are less commonly addressed in church, are getting some airtime. But there are some issues people are struggling with that will likely not be considered.

The following three areas of struggle may be unexpected but are sure to show up in your congregation as you reengage. I share them to prepare churches and to offer suggestions on how to take an understanding approach to those who may be struggling with these and other psychological issues as we join back together.

The purpose of this article is to be informative and practical. The hope is that it will help the church to take sensitive measures in light of the potential aftershocks of COVID-19 isolation. Some of the terms will be clinical, but I hope to provide street-level understanding of these issues coupled with biblical direction for care.

Agoraphobia and OCD Tendencies

What does the church need to know?

Agoraphobia is the fear of leaving your house, and OCD is a hyper-focus anxiety or fear about something that drives a needed action (i.e., repetitive checking or ritualistic cleaning). Both of these are psychiatric diagnoses, but a person doesn’t have to have a diagnosis for symptomatic inclinations to interrupt their life.

While we may complain about being stuck at home, surveys are revealing that people in the U.S. don’t feel ready to return to normal activities, even if regulations lift. One poll suggests that just over 70% of Americans would prefer to “wait and see” once regulations begin to lift. Churches need to factor this apprehension into what they can expect from their congregants. Not everyone will be excited to leave their house. In fact, it seems many are going to be very cautious about restarting activities they once regularly participated in.

People are getting comfortable with new habits that ensure personal safety. What was once viewed as an exaggerated response (wearing masks and rubber gloves when out) is now part of the normal routine. Not only are people comfortable with them, they are starting to feel they need these items to be safe. Masks give them a little more peace of mind when they wear them and when other people wear them.

Social distancing is also a practice people have embraced and will likely not be in any hurry to let go of. It only takes a stroll along the walking path by my house to see people are concerned when out and about. When I approach a masked walker, I receive a gracious nod as they move to the edge of the path so we can pass one another at the farthest distance the path will allow. Perhaps you have seen it in the supermarket when someone pauses or takes a step back to allow you a much larger gap as you pass them in the aisle.

We cannot expect these new practices to go away just because regulations have been lifted. The concerns that drive them will still be there when the church reopens its doors.

What can the church do?

• Keep online services, activities and connection going. You will likely need to operate both live and online platforms in order to connect with congregants who may be fearful to leave their homes.
• Communicate your cleaning strategies. Let your congregation know how you have sanitized and how you plan to continue to clean your building.
• Encourage and model safety measures. Let your congregation know what they can expect. Will you be encouraging masks? Gloves? What will you implement for space between people in the sanctuary or classrooms? What will greeting look like? Prepare your staff to lead the way in these measures.
• Encourage gradual ways people can reengage. Offer smaller gatherings or encourage people to begin to meet with others for prayer, Bible study or to watch the service together at one another’s homes. When weather permits, some gatherings can happen outside the church building with comfortable spacing.
• Speak into the fear of getting sick or being vulnerable. Acknowledging the fears people have will give them a level of confidence that you are taking things seriously.

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Burnout and Trauma

What does the church need to know?

Expect to see burnout and trauma in health care workers who have served tirelessly during this crisis. They will bring their personal trauma as they begin to process all they endured. They watched firsthand as the young mother of three died only days after entering into the hospital with severe symptoms. They were there when parents were told their child had died. They held the phones of frightened patients as they sobbed and sought comfort from their loved ones on the screen. They were the only one in the room when the elderly passed away as the family was prohibited to enter the hospital rooms due to the virus. They carried the daily weight of concern for their own health and those they love because of their regular exposure. There will be trauma.

Those in ministry are also at risk for burnout, including your pastor. Gunner Gundersen, pastor at BridgePoint Bible Church in Houston, shared a pertinent caution about times of crisis: “[Crisis] will eat you up and wear you out, while your adrenaline and your noble desire to serve keep you blind to the burnout that is chasing you down.”

Pastors, ministry leaders, youth workers, care teams, tech teams, etc., are working overtime to keep ministry going and the congregation connected. The effort to create and initiate ways to continue ministry in the midst of isolation has increased the workload for most in ministry. Endless hours on video calls or in front of a screen recording sermons, lessons, workshops and conferences will take a toll. Add to that all the care and counsel that continued via Zoom or phone calls. Coronavirus didn’t stop personal and relational crises from happening. Care and counseling had to be juggled right alongside preparation for Sunday. Be prepared for your leaders to experience compassion fatigue.

What can the church do?

• Pray for health care workers, your pastors and your ministry leaders.
• Encourage or start online support groups or prayer groups for those in health care. Having a place where they can be encouraged and prayed for is a fantastic way to help carry their burdens.
• Identify those in your congregation who work in health care and personally reach out to them. Let them know you are praying for them, and remind them the church is there for them.
• Encourage or require your pastors and ministry leaders to take a Sabbath. Talk about rest in your staff meetings or from your pulpit. Beyond the one-day-a-week Sabbath rest, encourage all staff to set aside one weekend a month and one week a year as a time of rest.
• Promote a mindset of self-care. If you are the pastor or ministry lead, you’ll need to model it. Ask staff to share ways they are practicing self-care on a regular basis, and share it with your team.
• Determine what help and support your ministry leaders need. Prioritize the hiring of people who can help whenever possible. Operating an online platform along with the already existing ministry has likely doubled work in some areas, so now is a good time to add assistants to your team.

Addiction

What does the church need to know?

Addiction flourishes in secret. The self-justifying lies deteriorate resolve, and old habits gain great ground. There is no better environment for the revitalization of addictive habits or the beginning of new ones than in a time of isolation paired with increased stress. Those in your congregation who had fought long and hard for the ground of sobriety have faced incredible setbacks.

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People who have faced addiction know how valuable support systems are. They are keenly aware of their need to have someone look them in the eye and hold them accountable. COVID-19 made that nearly impossible. Support groups went online or stopped all together. This reality along with the isolation created a perfect storm of relapse.

Porn addiction has significantly increased during COVID-19. It would be safe to call it a “porndemic” as some pornography distributers offered free streaming during quarantine. My heart breaks for the many who have gotten caught up in this evil during this time. Believers will deal with significant shame and ongoing battles due to the secret patterns of sin that sparked a destructive fire of porn use during isolation.

What can the church do?

• Start groups now for those struggling with sexual sin and continue them when the church reopens. Here are some resources for both men and women that can be used as curriculum for these groups: Sexual Sanity for Men or Women are great books for groups. Each chapter offers the opportunity to engage the content at a personal level. Another resource is Sex Addicted Christian, which has online videos and resources for guys. Finally, Samson Society provides info on starting a group as well as daily devotions on the subject of sexual purity.

• Prioritize recovery groups as you reopen. For more severe addictions, intensive recovery may be needed. Consider these faith-based resources: Celebrate Recovery and Faith-based residential treatment.

Certainly other areas need to be on the church’s radar, such as relationship struggles. China saw a spike in divorce filings as they emerged from isolation. Domestic abuse is also an area that has increased due to isolation, and churches will need to be equipped to recognize it. Grief is sure to be something everyone will be bringing in various degrees of experience. There is not one of us who has not known or felt loss in some capacity during this season.

And don’t forget the marginalized. Those who suffer with chronic pain and illness, and those who were previously shut in, can easily drift out of our sight as we focus on in-person gatherings. During this crisis, we entered into their world for a brief time. We learned what it was like to be unable to leave home. We experienced the loneliness that comes from isolation. Let’s not forget about them as we begin to phase back into meeting onsite.

To mention all of the issues and give words of direction on each would strain the length of this already lengthy article. My hope is that looking at just a few key issues stirs the church to think about how to prepare even now for how to walk with people as we look forward to days of reunion. Churches across the country have stepped up to the call to love their neighbor during this crisis. As we begin to explore what it will look like on the other side of isolation, we carry the same call.

While we may be asking whether it is almost over, in many ways, things have yet to begin. As you prepare for your first post-isolation gathering and you strategize parking, seating, classrooms, restrooms, etc., keep in mind the weight of emotional and mental strain this time has had on your congregants. May the words of Philippians 2:4 and Romans 15:1–3a guide the church as we continue to consider the needs and struggles of others and bring hope in relevant ways in the days ahead.

“Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.” —Philippians 2:4

“Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weakness of those without strength and not to please ourselves. Each one of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself.” —Romans 15:1–3a

Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.

Notes and Resources