GOD, the Lord, is my strength: he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19 (NRSV)
Many years ago, I served as a missionary in Thailand. My first assignment involved working with a parish within a leper community. No matter how many years pass, I will never forget the examples of courage and hope that I found among those whose lives had been forever changed by that terrible disease. One of my most indelible memories was hearing a sermon delivered by an elderly Baptist pastor who had suffered with leprosy since his teen years. Acharn’s (1) message was based on the closing words of one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength: he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:17–19 (NRSV)
In his brief sermon, Acharn reminded all of us present that no matter how grim the forecast or how discouraging life appeared, God was present! And He was lifting our spirits up above the current troubles, showing us the high ground above the difficult circumstances of life. As an elder member of the community, this message was not one of vain hope or empty wishes; Acharn’s life was a testimony to these words and an example to others that God could and would raise each of us up and bring us to the high ground of a fulfilled life—even if we were a leper.
As I look at the current COVID-19 situation and think about the response we can bring to the world, I am constantly reminded of this formative experience in my own life. As I write these words, our local community has just finished the second week of a “stay at home” order. My own work with parishes and schools has been severely crippled. And I must admit, I am concerned about how we will all fare as our government officials call for four more weeks of “social distancing.” For the first time in my life, I will experience an Easter without being surrounded by a congregation of the faithful. And I remain concerned about how long it will be before we can recover.
But when I begin to feel discouraged, I remember Acharn’s example, and I ask God to show me His High Ground. When I raise my own sight to “things above,” I see the amazing response of God’s people to the crisis at hand. And I am amazed. Let me share with you a few thoughts and some examples of “High Ground” thinking that we have seen:
Take Advantage of Social Media This is rather obvious: Parishes and schools are using all their social media channels to stay in touch with parishioners and other members of their communities. But let’s go beyond our normal posting to Facebook and Twitter. Here are some excellent examples of ways parishes and schools can move to High Ground:
Create a sense of community by starting or maintaining a community blog and posting comments from others within the community.
Encourage staff and leadership to check in personally with those they lead. In my parish, our choir director sends out group emails with updates and invites dialogue. He works hard to keep the various choirs and musicians informed and encouraged with news from the community. And he encourages other ministry leaders to respond as well.
Encourage your students to post their own artwork and thoughts on a blog or Facebook site. The energy and hopefulness of our children can encourage all of us.
Elderly members often live alone and have limited access to others during the current “stay at home” orders throughout the country. Organize and enable parish youth and adults to reach out to elderly parishioners via phone, text, or messaging. Such outreach would provide simple but safe opportunities to see how others are doing, providing meaningful ministry and keeping the parish together in spite of social distancing.
Livestream the Mass – there’s certainly no replacement to attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in person; however livestreaming the Mass can ensure all of our parishioners can experience the liturgy.
Establish Prayer Chains and Virtual Bible Study Across the Parish or School Community If you have not done this already, now is an excellent time to create a web of prayer across your community. Utilize existing prayer chains, and expand those chains to make certain that all members are included.
In his classic book, Caught in the Web, Korean pastor David Cho described the development of this type of ministry in his own church. In the early 1990s I visited that church and saw this ministry in action. Though this was before the advent of Google mapping, the parish had a room dedicated to locating each parish family on the Seoul map. This map was divided into sections, and each section was assigned to a parish leader who was responsible to maintain contact with those families in his or her section. The success of this simple method encouraged the growth of neighborhood prayer and Bible study groups that transformed the community.
Though neighborhood prayer and Bible study home groups are currently discouraged, Internet technology exists that can provide a semblance of face-to-face contact. Explore opportunities to create these types of neighborhood groups then connect your groups using applications like Skype, Zoom, or Ring Central. In response to the current crisis, several services are offering free or heavily discounted service to schools, educators, and nonprofits. Check them out.
Highlight the Ministries and Their Impact In the midst of this crisis, many of our social ministries are being taxed to their limits. Be certain to keep all donors and supporters actively informed. Here are some suggestions:
Let people know what services are open currently and what resources are needed to keep those services functioning. Do not assume that everyone knows what is happening within the parish. With the cessation of public Mass, parishioners are ill-informed at best and uninformed in worst-case scenarios. It is important to communicate your own needs clearly and succinctly. Engage your parish, and inform them about the ministry that is going on.
In addition to the ministries that exist within the parish, keep supporters and parishioners informed about the ministries outside of the parish. This might involve local community efforts, such as homeless shelters and food pantries, or larger regional ministries, such as Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul.
Here are some ideas for highlighting and engaging supporters:
If you are able to keep certain ministries running, highlight one ministry every week on social media. Highlight those professionals and volunteers who are serving on the front lines, working with those most in need.
Call the community organizations you support, and ask about their needs. The most uplifting words that any community director can hear are “How can we help?”
Think of ways that your site can become a hub for providing social services. When you cannot do the typical food drives and bake sales, consider phone-a-thons or GoFundMe.
Remind Your Supporters That You Have Financial Needs as Well Americans have proven to be among the most generous and resilient of any people ever. Do not hesitate to remind your own parishioners and supporters that you are still there. Consider FaceTime to check in with your donors. To encourage them appropriately, find a balance between focusing solely on the needs and showing gratitude for the support and ongoing ministry of volunteers. Here are three things to keep in mind:
Be honest about your needs. I have known of pastors who would not share the financial strains that their parish is under. All too often, they are concerned that their own parishioners are suffering as well. However well-meaning this position may appear, parishioners want to know what is happening in their own parish and what the needs are. While they may not be able to support at former levels, they want to make sure that the church is present when they can return to worship there.
Focus on the blessings. Encourage parishioners and supporters by showing abundant gratitude. In my career, I have witnessed the truth that gratitude begets gratitude. Over and over again, I have seen the testimony of one person’s sacrificial giving spur others to follow with their own gifts. If someone makes a gift, thank them. And then share that good news with the community.
Highlight the ministry. Do your best to couch each need with the importance of the ministry behind that need. For example, if your parish is putting financial resources behind social media and teleconferencing as a way to maintain contact and provide spiritual resources, share that news alongside the need to provide financially for the ongoing facility needs of the church and staff.
In the weeks ahead, we want to do our part to keep this conversation going. Please join us as we share other ideas and practices that we are seeing in the parishes and schools around us. We also encourage you to share the examples of High Ground Living that you are seeing in your community.
— Howard Craig Kucia Consulting
(1) “Acharn” is the Thai title for “Pastor” or “Teacher.”