Who among you are lonely?

During pandemic, the need for fellowship deepens

By Erin Dunigan | Presbyterians Today

The pandemic has heightened the loneliness epidemic in America, raising awareness among congregations that the lonely among them might not be so obvious. On some level, someone in the church is feeling the pain of feeling disconnected. What will pastoral care look like in the coming months? Here, a worshiper sits a safe distance away from others in Putnam United Presbyterian Church in New York. Donna Frischknecht Jackson

Loneliness as a phenomenon is nothing new — nor is loneliness unheard of within the life of a congregation, especially among single adults and those who are housebound or in nursing homes. But with the new norms of social distancing, loneliness has taken on a new level of intensity for many Americans. In the United States some 35.7 million people live alone, or approximately one-third of households. This number has nearly doubled in the past 50 years.

Living alone and loneliness are, of course, not the same thing. However, since COVID-19, those who were already isolated are finding themselves even more so, which is disconcerting especially since a lack of human connection can leave individuals more susceptible to a variety of health concerns. Loneliness has been linked to more vulnerability to viruses, as well as increased stress.

Churches that have been unable to meet together physically in all of the traditional ways that marked fellowship time (coffee hours, potluck dinners, prayer groups, Bible studies) are facing a great ministry conundrum: How do churches connect with people without physically connecting? At a time when a hug, hand holding or a visit are most needed, those are the very things that are off-limits. It is a challenging time as the church not only seeks ways to provide pastoral care to those in its family who are most vulnerable to loneliness, but also remembers those in its midst who might be too easily overlooked.

Getting better at checking in

The Rev. Thom Shuman is the transitional pastor at Galloway Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. He is also the father of an adult son, Teddy, who lives in a facility for people with mental and developmental disabilities. Shuman’s adopted son, who had fetal alcohol syndrome as a child, has lived the past 25 of his 34 years in and out of different psychiatric placements that provide the safety, security and structure that are essential for him. He has also depended on regular visits.

The Rev. Thom Shuman, who regularly writes prayers and liturgy, created a “Don’t give up …” collection of writings that he posted on his church’s Facebook page. Thom Shuman

In early March, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the facility shut down to all visitors. “When you talk about high-risk and most vulnerable populations, you are definitely talking about our son, who is also a cancer survivor,” said Shuman.

Shuman understood the shutdown, but he says it was hard because though his son is 34, emotionally he is about 6 years old and he needs his family. In addition to losing visits, Shuman’s son also lost being able to go to his job at a workshop, which provided him with socialization on a regular basis.

While the staff at the facility did an “incredible job” and were “caring and compassionate,” Shuman said the shutdown was a good reminder for the church. “How do we reach out and minister to everyone?” he asked. “When this is all over, whenever that is, we need to do a better job of checking in with people.”

Shuman serves a small congregation that he describes as mostly in the high-risk category for COVID-19 due to age and health conditions. “The congregation wisely decided not to gather for in-person worship until it is safe to come back together,” said Shuman. Any emergency business that the congregation has needed to deal with has been addressed via email.

The congregation has not tried using Zoom for worship as many of the members don’t know how to use the technology. “Most of our congregation was already settled into their lifestyle and pretty comfortable,” Shuman said, noting that the one thing they miss is not being able to see their children and grandchildren on a regular basis.

Shuman has recorded sermons on his phone, which he posts on YouTube, and the church sends out the liturgy by mail. He also continues writing prayers and liturgy that he posts with pictures on Galloway Presbyterian’s Facebook page to inspire others with ways they can be there for one another.

One such series of prayers was the “don’t give up …” collection, an especially important message calling for people not to give up on humanity’s goodness.

“It is such an unusual situation for us all. I know that from the people in the congregation where I serve, there have been a lot of prayers going up,” said Shuman. “We will see when we are finally able to come back together, if people will return.” In either case, being mindful of checking in with one another will be at the forefront of Shuman’s ministry.

Singleness as an anomaly

As Jodi Craiglow sees it, she is someone who tends to “fall through the cracks” in a church. A 41-year-old seminary-trained, ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, Illinois, Craiglow, who is single, straddles multiple worlds within the church. Though an active member of her local congregation, she also participates in leadership at the national level, most recently working on the first-ever online gathering of the General Assembly.

“My age cohort is not known for going to church that much, and usually if they do come back to the church, it is because they have kids and want to bring them to the children’s ministry,” said Craiglow. “Because single adults of my age are so few and far between in the church, it often happens that when you are dealing with situations of limited [church] finances, you have to put your resources where you are going to get the biggest bang for your buck,” she said, noting that her observation is not meant to be a criticism — just a reality of congregational life that has traditionally courted families.

Craiglow knows that there are others who fall between the cracks within typical church programming as well. “I think the challenge for the church is to minister to the people God has given you and don’t assume that your existing programming will meet the needs of the people you have just because it worked for some other congregation,” she said.

Craiglow, though, has found her niche in church leadership. “It is a way that I can engage, contribute and feel useful,” she said. She is active on the session, presbytery council and at the denominational level. It is work that she loves and that has brought her friends across the country. Still people often don’t know “what to do with her,” she admits, since she doesn’t fit into neatly defined categories. “It is great because I have friends across the denomination; but also at the end of the day, I don’t feel like I have a base camp to go home to,” she said.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional layer to this sense of not really having a base camp for Craiglow, who lives alone.

During the stay-at-home restrictions, Craiglow actually had to move in June. So her mother, who lives in another state, came to help her. “It was the first physical touch I had had since mid-March, and since she left I haven’t touched a human being,” said Craiglow. She has co-workers, and now that they are back to work, she has some interaction with them, but it is all at a distance.

Her home church records a weekly service and has a Zoom call after the service for anyone interested in sharing the highs and lows from their week, discussing the sermon or making prayer requests. Craiglow also has weekly Zoom calls with friends. But it is not the same nor a substitute for being physically together.

“I think the challenge for the church, especially in this time, is to minister to and with the people that God brings through your door, and to see them as blessings, opportunities to love God and your neighbor even more,” said Craiglow.

Singleness is not brokenness

The Rev. Lois Wolff is a retired pastor in upstate New York, calling the hamlet of Lake Luzerne in the Adirondacks home. Prior to her calling as a pastor, Wolff was a teacher for many years. She has always been single, living alone — with her cat. She has ministered in a variety of settings, serving two small congregations for a number of years, then moving into interim ministry. In one of the congregations she served, the session wanted to start a couples club and name it “Pairs and Spares.” Wolff’s response was quick: “Don’t expect me to be part of that. I am not a spare anything, I am a human being.”

“I don’t think the people on session really understood why it was such an insult,” said Wolff, noting that while she was the only single in the church, there were many widows who would likely also not enjoy being considered a “spare.”

When she moved into interim ministry, it felt as though she was exactly where God had called her. She served congregations that had been deeply troubled and needed to find healing. “I didn’t necessarily feel alone as a single, but I did feel alone as a pastor,” shared Wolff. “In a large city there are other Presbyterian pastors, in addition to pastors from other denominations,” she said. “But when you serve in a small town or a village, you are often not just the only Presbyterian pastor, but you are also the only single pastor among all the denominations.”

“The thing is, I normally enjoy living alone,” said Wolff. As an introvert, living alone allows her to give her energy to the congregation and then go home and recharge, to be within herself, and to talk to God herself, not in front of the congregation. “I talk to God differently when I’m by myself,” she explained. “I really enjoy being alone, and I do have friends that I do things with,” said Wolff, who plays the mountain dulcimer and enjoys folk music. And now that Wolff is retired, she has become involved in the church choir at Rockwell Falls Presbyterian Church in Lake Luzerne. But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, choir practice is no longer occurring. Wolff has had most of her interaction with her church family on Zoom — a technology she admits that she is “sick of.”

“It is like we are on a screen of Hollywood Squares,” said Wolff, who realized what she is missing the most is the touch of another person. “I’m a hugger and that is the thing I miss the most.” The last time she received hugs was the first weekend in March while attending a mountain dulcimer festival.

And while congregations are getting creative with visiting people in ways that do not require the human touch — be it drive-by birthday parades or nursing home visits with residents standing by the windows waving to loved ones safely outside — nothing can or will replace the healing power of touch.

For now, Wolff waits patiently for the day when a hug will not be deadly and does her best to ward off loneliness. “I am realizing that there has been too much alone time, and there was a time in my life when I really didn’t think that was possible,” said Wolff. “Tomorrow, if the weather is OK, a friend and I are going out to dinner — outside.”

The dinner will be Wolff’s first time out since the pandemic began. “I hope the weather holds,” she said.

Erin Dunigan is a PC(USA)-ordained evangelist living in Baja California, Mexico, where she founded Not Church, a gathering of atheists, agnostics and believers who wish to deepen their spiritual journey.

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