5 Real-Life Lessons in ‘Virtual Shepherding’ through Crises

Scott Ventrella – Author, Speaker

As an adjunct professor with 25 years teaching experience in a “live” classroom setting, I’ve had to very quickly shift to virtual teaching; of course, I’m not alone in this.

It was anything but a smooth transition. In addition to having to repurpose curriculum, I had to learn technology such as Zoom and WebX. This was not something that came easily to a Baby Boomer.

Finally, it was important to figure out how to best connect with and engage my students. The fact that we were in the middle of the semester made it all the more challenging. It was like trying to change the fan belt while the car is running!

Fortunately, there were many resources available that assisted in climbing the steep learning curve. In the spirit of continuously enhancing the learning experience of my students, I looked at “best practices” for virtually staying connected with my students throughout the semester.

I’ve learned new ways to thrive, especially from the world of academia, business, and church organizations—including my local parish.

Similarly, Christian leaders have had to scramble to make the same type of shift. Only, the stakes are much higher. Given lockdowns, social distancing, and related restrictions, most (if not all) religious activity has either been suspended or transitioned to a virtual venue.

This carries the potential of spiritual drift, leaving the faithful vulnerable to the wiles of the Evil One. Remember, Satan’s #1 job is to steal souls. And he may just see this as his “hour.” This brings me back to the Christian leader and the importance of keeping the flock vigilant and faithful. The following are 5 real-life lessons in “virtual shepherding.”

1. High-tech vs. Low-tech

Technology can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how and when it’s used. As a general rule of thumb, in place of Sunday worship services, either stream live and record, or pre-record and post on the church website and/or Facebook page. In terms of a more intimate connection with the congregation, live streaming is very effective. Best practices for live streaming include:

Assign an AV operator. Assign an individual to operate the video equipment. No need for a professional videographer.

Join with a few others. Following social distancing protocols, seek several volunteers to fill various roles. The goal is to simulate an actual service making it as real to the viewers as possible. For instance, some can serve as congregants, others as readers. An to keep your group to 10 or under, you can include an organist, pianist, or small worship band.

Imagine a packed congregation. Pastors are often at their best when preaching to a full house. An empty or sparse gathering may lead to low energy and a less than enthusiastic sermon.

Mentally visualize your congregants sitting in their respective seats. Some pastors have gone as far as having congregants send individual and family photos, taping them to where they usually sit.

In addition to weekly services, offer regularly scheduled touchpoints. At least 2-3 times per week, post video clips and/or messages offering inspiration and encouragement. Videos should be kept between 3-5 minutes and written messages no more than 1-2 pages.

Messaging should also include updates on events, activities and special announcements regarding members of the congregation.

Connect in ‘low-tech’ ways as well. As important as technology has become, traditional methods for connecting should not be overlooked. As human beings, we crave the personal touch and close contact with others that technology will never replace. Though circumstances vary, Christian leaders should make it a point to connect with congregants using traditional methods. This includes:

Writing note cards with a simple, encouraging message.

Making a phone call, especially to those without a computer or internet access.

“Drive-by greeting.” In my community, when someone is celebrating a birthday, it’s become common practice for friends and family to drive by, honk their horns and offer a birthday wish (from a social distance). Depending on the community in which they serve, Christian leaders can make the rounds offering words of encouragement or simply to say “hello.”

2. Passive vs. Active

It’s become all too common for church activities to become so routine that congregants slip into “passive” mode. This makes for more work for the pastor and in a sense, lets the congregant off the hook for their own faith formation/spiritual development.

As a college professor, I’ve experienced this firsthand. In this case, students expect the professor to “teach” them, and in an entertaining manner (less they become distracted). A passive group can be quite a burden. As a result, I changed my teaching philosophy from passive to active learning. It’s as simple as shifting some of the burden to the students allowing them to take ownership of the learning process.

The same principle holds true for the Christian leader. Here are a few tips to connect with, and involve congregants especially while self-isolating:

Scripture reflection. Circulate a Bible passage and ask congregants to provide a brief reflection that can be shared with others. Post it on the church website or Facebook page, encourage comments and/or dialogue.

Video message. Ask for volunteers to videotape a brief message on how they’re putting their faith to work to cope with the crisis. Aim for 3 per week offering perspectives from a broad demographic spectrum. Post to the church website or Facebook page.

Enlist volunteers to check-in with the more isolated, vulnerable, and lonely members of the congregation and community. This can include making a phone call, writing a note, or offering to deliver groceries, prescriptions, etc.

3. Group vs. Individual

Christian leaders are accustomed to serving their congregation in group settings (Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, etc.), as well as on an individual basis (providing comfort, spiritual direction, etc.).

In these turbulent, unprecedented times, pastors need to tailor their outreach to meet specific group and individual needs. With respect to the pandemic, it’s been said, “we’re all in the same boat.”  Although it is true that we’re all in this together, in fact, some may be in a yacht, others in a rowboat, and still others in a kayak or canoe. While we’re riding the same choppy waters, our experience, anxiety, and stress levels vary depending on our particular circumstances.

It’s incumbent upon Christian leaders to understand how their flock is experiencing and handling the current crisis—much involves loss, uncertainty, pain, and suffering. Here are common examples:

The parent who is an “essential service” provider who must show up for work, risking their own health as well as their loved one. Many of which choose to find other living accommodations to minimize the danger.

The family with a special needs child no longer able to receive appropriate care.

The young couple forced to postpone their wedding.

The working parent(s) with a houseful of children requiring homeschooling.

The elderly at home or in nursing homes, scared and lonely.

The families unable to properly grieve over the loss of a loved one.

The high school or college student unable to experience graduation.

The young children, who don’t understand why they can’t go to school, play with their friends or hug their grandparents.

The adult children “forced” to move back in with their families (and their parents after finally adjusting to the “empty nest”).

Each example serves as a unique situation requiring careful, nuanced “pastoring” on both group and individual levels.

4. Spiritual vs. Emotional

The primary responsibility of the Christian leader is to provide spiritual guidance, leading their congregants to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ—and ultimately eternal salvation.

Though the pandemic hasn’t changed this, stress and anxiety are leading to heightened emotional levels in many people. Hence, the needs of those operating on the raw edge need to be addressed. Tending to spiritual needs come quite naturally for the Christian leader. On the other hand, addressing high levels of emotion can be quite challenging.

The default position is to offer prayer, scripture, and words of comfort to calm the nerves. This is a sound approach that should be continued. Additionally, there are times when the Christian leader needs to serve as therapist or counselor to address psychological needs.

Given the intensity of emotion, not all pastors are equipped to provide such a service.

In such case, it’s important to involve an expert either directly or indirectly.

5. Physical vs. Financial

In addition to ministering to spiritual and emotional needs, Christian leaders are challenged with also tending to the physical and financial needs of the congregation.

Once again, in these unprecedented times, there are millions of people experiencing extreme physical and financial hardship. Given the current social distancing restraints, pastors are not able to provide a healing touch for those experiencing physical pain. However, many families are lacking in food and proper nourishment. Clearly, pastors have always assisted in this area. What’s different is the magnitude of the number of people and the shortage of food and other necessary supplies.

Regarding the financial aspect, indeed, as Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you…” However, at no time in modern history have so many people lost their sole source of income so quickly. In spite of federal assistance, many are unable to make ends meet.

What’s the Christian leader to do? Especially when they themselves have seen a significant drop in weekly contributions. In fact, many are teetering on the edge of insolvency.

While there are no easy solutions, here are a few tips:

Ask for “inside” help. Send out a general plea to the entire congregation but also a private request for those of means. Seek out expertise to assist others in filing for unemployment, applying for the “Paycheck Protection Plan” (PPP), or accessing local social services. It’s amazing how many people are not aware of what’s already available to them in terms of support.

Ask for “outside” help. Enlist volunteers to contact local restaurants, retailers, etc. for contributions. Though many small businesses are also hurting, there are many willing to help others in need.

Virtual fundraisers. This can include raffles, silent auctions, food, and clothes drives, etc.

Yes, we’re all in this together. Christian leaders don’t have to carry the burden; even Jesus had help carrying His Cross.

When the two courses I teach switched to virtual, the message to my students was, “This is new to all of us. Please be patient with me as we go along. Even though I’m the professor, I need your help. Let me know what’s working, what’s not working and what I can do to improve.”

Likewise, Christian leaders, aka, “The Good Shepherds,” can humbly ask the same of their flock.

Read the original article here: https://www.crosswalk.com/special-coverage/coronavirus/real-life-lessons-in-virtual-shepherding-through-crises.html