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Going back to school during crisis

Youth and collegiate ministry leaders turn to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers for advice on resilience and self-care

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Nathan Wheeler, a member of the UKirk Board and coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for Cumberland Presbyterian Church, is photographed during a UKirk Zoom event. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — It’s almost time to go back to school, to campus, to a new normal. What can leaders of youth and collegiate ministries do to prepare for success in the midst of COVID-19?

The Rev. Virginia “Gini” Norris-Lane, executive director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries, and the Rev. Brian Kuhn, executive director of Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association (PYWA), reached out to national responders with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to offer practical guidance for collegiate and youth ministry leaders.

Three National Response Team (NRT) members — the Rev. Pat Ashley, the Rev. Suzanne Malloy and the Rev. John Cheek, who have all served with PDA for about a decade  — recently led a Zoom conversation on the topic of resilience and self-care.

Kathy Riley, a member of the PDA national staff and team lead for Emotional and Spiritual Care, noted that PDA moved quickly to transform its resilience programs into a variety of virtual offerings to serve faith leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been offering resilience webinars and faith leader support meetings to synods, presbyteries and other groups since the beginning of April,” Riley said. “We’re very happy to be able to offer this resource to UKirk and PYWA.”

When a natural or human-caused disaster occurs, there is an emotional response of fear, shock or despair, explained Cheek, using a disaster timeline. This initial response, he said, is short-lived and followed by a heroic/honeymoon phase, which is the hopeful, optimistic point when everyone is pulling together to get through the crisis and come out of it stronger than before.

“The difficult news is that the heroic phase or the honeymoon phase is followed by the very precipitous drop in the sense of emotional well-being,” said Cheek, a transitional pastor at a church in Tucson, Arizona. “That happens to individuals, to churches, to communities as well. That drop is quick and hard and when it happens it is vitally important that we take care of ourselves, particularly if we are in the business of providing emotional or spiritual care for other people.”

It’s not just a forever drop into hopelessness, disillusionment and despair though, Cheek said: “There is a bottom; then a gradual climb back to whatever the new normal is.” This road has its twists and turns where anniversaries occur or other kinds of events bring back the trauma, but overall there is a trajectory toward a new normal that is emotionally healthy. Relaxation exercises help, he said.

The Rev. Suzanne Malloy, a hospital chaplain from Santa Barbara, California who previously served as a university chaplain, echoed the importance of relaxation and suggested the tool of adaptation.

“I think what we need to do is to understand that the pandemic is kind of a moving target,” Malloy said. “It moves around. It changes. Things get better. Things get worse. Some communities are anticipating a second wave. Some communities recognize that they are still in a first wave, so adapting to circumstances is really key.”

Malloy said part of adaptation is being aware of resentments. Although we may not be able to control the situation causing the resentments, understanding and controlling resentments helps us be present for ourselves, our families, our students and our communities.

Being mindful, being aware, being present, being engaged, being attentive requires intentionality, said the Rev. Pat Ashley, a retired Presbyterian pastor from Miami. “Intentionality about work can be one of the tools of resilience,” Ashley said. “It takes some commitment and it takes, probably, a daily check-in.”

Malloy asked, “Is my purpose to help others, to provide spiritual care, to bring encouragement to others?” She uses mindfulness to come into the present moment. “This is the circumstance right now. There is something I need to deal with, and I need to find the best way to do that, so that I can pursue my ministry and my purpose.”

Ashley said she is also mindful of deciding not to get rid of it, whatever it is, because there it is.

“I make a choice to say, I think I’m not going to be about resentment, at least right now,” Ashley said.  “And, I might go to the trouble of choosing a time to rant … I might spew it all out on a piece of paper. I might walk around and yell, if I’m in a place where I can do that without bothering other people — naming all the things I resent. Just go for it,” she said, “then say, ‘Oh, and there are other things going on besides my resentment. I’m also grateful. I’m also hopeful. I’m also kind of wanting to feel something else. I wonder what is possible for me?’”

Perhaps the best tool is the realization that we don’t have to figure this all out by ourselves, Ashley said. “Sometimes we feel alone. And, when we haven’t been in a room with another human being for a long time, it’s easy to feel alone. But we are in this with the community of faith, with the community of people who are working with youth and young adults, with this world that is trying to sort this out.”

Pre-pandemic conference displays of collegiate and youth ministries, including PYWA and UKirk (Contributed photo)

Cheek suggested having a couple of “intentional listening partners” who will take your call, listen to you without trying to fix you, and gently help you be accountable to your goals. These listeners should not include your spouse or partner, he said.

Setting aside time not to think about work is an important boundary, especially during these days of working at home. Things that take your mind off your work like singing songs, watching humorous YouTube videos, taking on a new hobby, getting fresh air, eating healthfully and making other wise choices makes it possible to legitimately encourage others to do likewise.

Collegiate and youth workers are facing myriad questions, including who makes what decisions.

“Recognize and clarify for yourself the things that are under your control and spend your energy on the things that are in your control,” Cheek said. “And try not to invest so much energy on the things that are not.”

The final tool suggested by the PDA national disaster response team volunteers is reframing as a way to begin the unlearning process.

“Your worth does not come from what you do,” Cheek said. “Your worth comes from the fact that you are created in the image of God and that you are beloved of God.”

“As disaster responders we’ve learned that the more we try to do, sometimes the less effective we are,” Malloy said. “A good part of our ministry is simply being present. So, we are ‘being’ and we are ‘present.’ We are making ourselves available. That presence is often just plain listening. Sometimes it is just sitting with someone on a Facetime or Zoom call and hearing what comes from deep down in other people.”

PYWA and UKirk have planned a joint event to talk about how youth workers and collegiate ministers can work together to support students this fall. Join the conversation via Zoom at 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, July 22. Register here.


To support the work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, designate gifts to DR000148.

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