COVID-19 changed the landscape of ministry.
In the midst of this global upheaval, pastors were left scrambling to figure out how to minister in this world turned upside down.
As local mandates were handed down, many churches shifted online. Seeking to be good citizens, pastors and church leaders made the difficult call to shut their doors in the name of public health and safety.
I know; I was one of them.
While pastors remain concerned for the health and well-being of their congregations, we are beginning to learn that measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 came at a price.
Social distancing has been essential to slow the spread of this potentially dangerous virus, but we need to be aware of the psychological impacts of keeping our distance.
In what seemed like an instant, ministry models flipped from declaring “everyone is welcome” as they entered our worship spaces to urging members to watch our production online. Services went from interpersonal, collective worship, to Netflix-style, on-demand consumption at home.
Our faith communities were strained to hold on to our connection with our people during a turbulent time.
Technology has seemingly offered us a means of staying connected from a distance in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Yet, watching from home provides a sense of isolation that is hard to overcome no matter how well a virtual church service might be put together.
Distractions, lack of attention span and the absence of a shared environment limit our ability to connect via technology.
Even with the return to in-person worship in many areas of the country, social distancing guidelines have altered how we act around each other.
Gone are the days of hearty handshakes, caring hugs and gentle pats on the back. In their place is a spacious six-foot line of demarcation we dare not cross.
Psychologically, we have cut ourselves off from those around us. Afraid to get too close, we have lost, for now, part of what makes us human.
As congregations return to pre-pandemic interactions, it will take time to navigate the psychological impacts of the last 12 months.
Modern scientific research has studied the effects of physical touch and found incredible results.
Scientists at institutions such as UC Berkeley and elsewhere have found that physical touch has shown to increase weight gain in premature babies. It’s been shown to reduce depression in Alzheimer patients.
When teachers give a pat on the back, it doubles the likelihood of children speaking in class. And research is beginning to show simple eye contact and a pat on the back from doctors can lead to greater survival rates in complex diseases.
Physical touch has a broad range of positive effects on both our health and psychological well-being. Our proximity to each other and our willingness to reach out and touch one another are key components in expressing compassion, love and care.
The Bible also speaks to the importance of community and being together. In Genesis 2, we learn that it is not good for us to be alone.
From the very beginning, we were designed for community. We were created for interaction with others around us. We all have an innate desire for relationships.
The author of Hebrews reminds us again to not neglect meeting with one another. In our gathering together, we are able to encourage, strengthen and spur each other on to do what God has called us to do.
When the grieving church member calls after the loss of a loved one, nothing can replace the in-person conversation – sitting in their living room listening as they tell their story.
Words of encouragement are certainly valuable, but a pastor’s simple presence is of far more worth. Just being there can bring a comfort and a peace that a phone call cannot.
Zoom and other online platforms have allowed us to stay connected when we were not gathering in person, but they can never replace face-to-face interaction.
These digital outlets have value, and in limited circumstances can be access points for the marginalized, but they will never be the same as in-person gatherings.
Online alternatives should be viewed as last resorts rather than equal partners.
Communications director for First Baptist Church Bryan, Texas, and am a Master of Divinity Candidate at George W. Truett Theological Seminary.