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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Who among you are lonely?


During pandemic, the need for fellowship deepens

March 2, 2021

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.

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.

In early March, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the facility shut down to all visitors.

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.

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

Today’s Focus:  Need for Fellowship

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Tricia Dykers Koenig, Office of the General Assembly
Cindy Ealy, Office of the General Assembly

Let us pray:

We thank you, O God, that nothing can separate us from your great love. We thank you for knitting us together not on the basis of bricks and mortar but through the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus Christ. Keep us faithful and let us not grow weary in doing good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.