(RNS) — The nation’s top doctor urged faith leaders to follow federal guidelines and partner with local health officials as they learn new ways to lead congregants coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
“What can you do as faith and community leaders?” asked U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams in a videotaped address for the COVID-19 Church Online Summit that opened Thursday (March 26). “Well, first, follow the guidance from your local health department and find ways to partner with them. Second, develop your plan to protect your employees and the people you serve.”
Evangelical and humanitarian assistance leaders offered pointers and encouragement to church leaders in the first day of a two-day summit by releasing videos on topics ranging from advocacy for the vulnerable to crisis communications.
“We are certainly in a crisis,” said the Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, speaking through a headset. “This pandemic has gripped the world. And we’re all groping for opportunities to have some perspective.”
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The evangelical association partnered with Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute to present the summit. It was sponsored by more than a dozen other groups and is offering free information to registrants through Easter.
In an interview with Marcus Coleman, a former official of the Department of Homeland Security’s center that worked with faith-based groups, Jamie Aten, a psychologist and founder of the institute, asked what local churches should know about available assistance in the midst of the pandemic.
“I think the best resource that’s available that churches should be seeking is accurate and validated information, at this point,” Coleman said, pointing to elected officials, and local and state governments. “They are providing some of the immediate sources of information on different relief packages, not just for people within your congregation but for the communities that you serve.”
The summit pointed registrants — close to 4,000, with 3,600 video views as of 1 p.m. Central on Thursday — to other resources for use after watching the videos.
Adams noted online suggestions for religious and community leaders from the Health and Human Services Partnership Center. He said it is offering advice such as using phone trees to reach congregants, keeping well-stocked pantries and “engaging with stigmatized groups and speaking out against the negative behaviors to help counter stigma and discrimination.”
The Humanitarian Disaster Institute has produced church preparedness manuals for English-, Spanish- and French-speaking congregations, as well as churches in Canada.
Other topics covered in separate videos released on Thursday included tips from an infectious disease expert, insights from global church leaders and advice on addressing needs of the elderly, refugees and immigrants.
Theon Hill, a professor of communication at Wheaton College, cautioned that faith leaders need to speak about the crisis in ways that inform all, and not just a subset, of people affected by the crisis.
“Make sure you’re communicating about the virus, and what your church’s response to the virus will be, in ways that aren’t limiting — many things we’re asking people to do assume middle-class sensibilities,” reads a featured quote from Hill on the summit’s website.
Topics expected to be covered in additional videos that are scheduled to be released on Friday include pastoring fledgling churches, caring for students and addressing giving and financial health during the pandemic.
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Despite its socially distant manner of convening, the summit featured traditional aspects of a religious conference such as worship music and devotional time to focus on scriptural lessons.
Michael Tait, formerly of the Christian group dcTalk and now lead vocalist with Newsboys, spoke from a couch after his March tour dates with the Newboys had been postponed. Accompanied by guitarist Adam Agee, he sang the Newsboys’ song, “We Believe.” It started with the words: “In this time of desperation/When all we know is doubt and fear/There is only one foundation/We believe, we believe.”
Philip Yancey, author of the 1977 book “Where Is God When It Hurts” and others about suffering, spoke from his Colorado basement office for Thursday’s “opening devotional” video.
After noting that he could look outside his window at a foot of new springtime snow, Yancey read from a chapter of the New Testament book 2 Corinthians that described God as “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.”
Yancey urged faith leaders not to forget to be compassionate during the pandemic, even as it presents dilemmas for how they seek to care for others.
“This particular pestilence is tricky because, on the one hand, we want to be cautious,” Yancey said. “We have the rightful fear of not going out, not banding together socially and, on the other hand, we don’t want to feed any kind of hysteria and fear and anxiety. People are going to be looking to you as leaders in knowing how to find that balance.”