As a pastor who is trained in both social work and ministry, I have been thinking about how to offer collective pastoral care to my congregation as we process the pandemic together. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult season of life. It has been traumatic for some, painful for many, stressful for all.
In December, I lost my father to COVID-19 and for several months after his death I had nightmares. The FaceTime calls I had with him while he was in the hospital left the image of him struggling to breath seared in my brain and haunting my dreams.
Because of my training in social work, I knew the nightmares were a trauma response. Trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event,” and it can lead to intrusive thoughts and dreams about the event as well as physical symptoms in our bodies.
For some people, like me, the COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic. Those who experienced the sudden death or lengthy hospitalization of a loved one, along with those who worked in the medical field caring for people with COVID-19, may feel the lingering impact of trauma.
For others, the pandemic may not have been traumatic but has nonetheless been incredibly stressful. I recently spoke with a church member who has been fully vaccinated for months, yet still rarely leaves her house. For her and many others, the fear of illness that was a constant companion for more than a year has yet to dissipate. In addition, the isolation, economic uncertainty and psychological toll of caring for children attending online school at home has left many people emotionally and physically worn down.
The pandemic has impacted all of us more deeply than we are aware, and pain that is not processed can turn into what social worker and therapist Resma Menakem calls “dirty pain.” When we avoid or deny the pain in our lives, it turns dirty, and we can become people who respond to the world from our wounded parts.
“When we avoid or deny the pain in our lives, it turns dirty, and we can become people who respond to the world from our wounded parts.”
The alternative is what Menakem calls “clean pain.” Clean pain means we face what has happened to us and move through this discomfort of naming, feeling and processing the pain. Through my pastoral lens, clean pain sounds a lot like the spiritual practice of lament. As Menakem puts it, “Clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth.”
Viewing all this through my social work training and pastoral lens leads me to think about how to offer collective pastoral care and healing to my congregation, a way to process the pain.
For most congregations, gathering for worship is the center of communal life. Worship also is a familiar and comforting ritual and thus, one potential path to process the pain. As such, I began to think about creating a multi-sensory, interactive worship service to be used by my congregation, and others, as an avenue for pastoral care and healing.
I reached out to colleagues at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., and they agreed to partner with my church, First Baptist Church of Columbia, Mo., to craft a service. We wanted to give our congregations the chance to reflect on their experiences of the pandemic and to share in an opportunity for lament, healing and resilience. The worship service our churches crafted together seeks to turn the pain of the pandemic into clean pain.
“The worship service our churches crafted together seeks to turn the pain of the pandemic into clean pain.”
Through an interactive reflection, we give congregants the chance to practice lament and name what was lost and where they felt God’s absence. Through a centering prayer experience, we give worshippers the chance to reconnect with their bodies and God, acknowledging that the stress and trauma of the last year is held in our bodies, whether we know it or not.
In our planning, we also recognized that not everything that happened in 2020 and beyond was bad. For some, working from home or having more time with their children was a gift, so we give congregants the chance to name what was gained and where we felt God’s presence in the midst of it all. We did all this in the context of words of hope from our sacred Scriptures.
Finally, we turn toward resilience with a multisensory ritual of remembering our baptism and seeking to be cleansed from the pain of the last year and turn toward new life.
Through worship, pastors can give their congregants the opportunity to name the trauma, stress and pain of the pandemic before God and begin to heal. As congregations begin to regather for in person worship, I want to encourage my fellow pastors to consider offering a service of healing and hope after a year of collective trauma, pain and stress.
You are welcome to take and adapt the worship service created by our two churches, which is linked here. We invite you to use all or part of the worship service or to simply use it as a springboard for offering any opportunity in your own congregation to begin to heal.
Carol McEntyre serves as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo. She earned master of divinity and master of social work degrees from Baylor University’s Truett Seminary and the Diana Garland School of Social Work.