Hero photograph
Photo by Photo by Cristian Dina from Pexels

Pastoral Considerations for a Pandemic

Tanya Wittwer —

“Providing pastoral leadership in a pandemic” doesn’t appear in the handbooks of our seminaries and colleges.

The collective trauma of COVID-19 means we are faced with a pastoral challenge for which few of us have rehearsed. However, the foundations for responding appropriately were present as we learned that all pastoral leadership takes place in a multi-layered context which evolves and changes over time. Building on this foundation, I wish to explore the addressing of collective trauma.

First, I describe a potential pathway of healing for faith communities, through and beyond the pandemic. I then explore five principles of care named by a panel of experts in addressing trauma, for their applicability within the church setting during the active phase of the pandemic. Finally, I briefly touch on some key points regarding two further phases of the healing pathway.

Healing from Collective Trauma

Among the unexpected blessings of COVID-19 has been the speed with which many congregations were able to implement on-line worship and pastoral care. In my own congregation, people who were previously relatively uninvolved have volunteered for technological roles, others have re-engaged, and people who had moved away geographically are enjoying reconnecting with “their congregation” through online worship. The immediate issues of providing spiritual nourishment are being addressed in creative and thoughtful ways.

But we know that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faith communities will continue far beyond the timelines in the briefings of the infection control specialists. As an Australian, I am writing from within a privileged context. The combination of a strong public health system, informed leadership, and our watery border has meant that most of our communities are not suffering the helplessness and overwhelming loss that many other nations are experiencing. However, even for us, the current situation includes three of the key criteria identified by Norris and associates as predicting disasters with the greatest impact: the loss of, and threat to life, the breadth of effect, and serious and ongoing financial implications.[1] I would add “duration” as a fourth key component; we will be living with uncertainty regarding many aspects of our lives and with the threat of serious illness to self or those we love for an extended period.

Collective trauma refers to the complicated interplay of individual and communal responses to a tragedy that has an impact on an entire community or society. Erikson, who first conceptualised the notion, described collective trauma as causing

a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality.[2]

We Christians know the concept well—through the Hebrew Scriptures’ record of Israel’s exiles, the New Testament’s story of the trauma experienced by Jesus’ followers at his death, and in the struggles of the nascent church. The church will be changed by this time, and how we respond will determine whether this is a change towards vitality or decline.

Charts of healing from collective trauma can provide an aid to thinking and conversing about community response, or can assist in the articulation of one’s own personal experience. Figure 1 below illustrates a potential pathway for community healing, based on research on previous disasters.It is not intended to be predictive.[3]

Figure 1. Trajectory of Healing from Collective Trauma

At this point, there is so much unknown about the virus. We cannot know how long it will be before there exists sufficient testing, clear treatment regimens, or a vaccine, so that COVID-19 can be considered controlled. And while the time-scale for a community process of healing is variously estimated as being between one and five years,[4] the traumatic events on which these are based have tended to be shorter in their duration. It is possible that national economies will recover within a year or two,[5] but the economic impact on certain individuals, families, and businesses will last much longer, and the emotional impact may be felt for more than a generation.

I have more questions than answers about pastoral care during and after a pandemic. The following sections extrapolate from previous disasters and from the research completed within the arenas of mental, emotional, and social health. I hope that my comments will help you to more clearly articulate and apply to this unfolding situation the things you already know about pastoral practice.

Initial Response to Collective Trauma: The “Intervention” Phase

Some years ago, an international group of experts in disaster recovery gathered the evidence for the measures that predicted well-being in communities following a disaster. There are five key principles to enhancing individual and community mental health that guide appropriate short- to medium-term intervention:

1. Promoting a sense of safety.
2. Promoting calming.
3. Promoting a sense of self-efficacy and collective-efficacy.
4. Promoting connectedness.
5. Promoting hope.[6]

It does not take a lot of imagination to see how these five principles also apply to spiritual health and well-being, nor to identify relevant action for our communities.

1. Promoting a Sense of Safety

Our sacred texts provide a grounding and resource for those who are feeling unsafe. The confusion and helplessness of Judah in exile gave rise to many of the scriptural references to Yahweh as shepherd, who would gather the scattered flock into safety.[7] The One who provides care and security to the vulnerable is celebrated in the Psalms and imaged in Jesus who also yearned to bring safety to God’s people as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings.[8] The liturgical inclusion of these metaphors and others in our sacred writings will continue to speak to us of safety.

In the pandemic context, public health officials have the greatest role in promoting a sense of safety through clear factual information regarding the unfolding situation, and the steps individuals and groups can take to enhance their safety. We reinforce this work by overtly following risk mitigation strategies and ensuring any communication regarding the disaster—even a contextual comment within a sermon—is based on reliable sources.

The metaphors of the body of Christ and the church family intimate the closeness of relationship that can occur in our communities; risk mitigation strategies during a pandemic can easily disrupt these links. Increased anxiety comes when we don’t know what is happening for others, particularly in a context of threat to life and livelihood. In the absence of our being able to gather, where congregation-wide communication includes information about the wellbeing or otherwise of its members (with appropriate concern for privacy and permission), the sense of safety can be enhanced.

Enhancing a sense of safety also includes limiting exposure to things that increase feelings of being under threat: bad news, graphic reporting from hot spots, and rumours. If a faith community has already earned trust regarding parental education, it can encourage parents to limit the exposure of children to these things.

Leaders could also consider whether offering on-line seminars on building resilience might be useful, utilising the skills of members or others who have expertise in this area.

2. Promoting Calming

Closely related to enhancing a sense of safety is the promotion of a sense of calm. Two paradoxical emotional responses are often found in the early stages of traumatic events. For some, the reaction is increased anxiety and hypervigilance. Others experience a certain numbness, with the body “shutting down” some emotions to give psychological “insulation.”[9] The development of anxiety disorders, PTSD, and depression is more likely if either of these states is protracted.

When the threat of COVID-19 meant individuals began self-isolating, ministers, congregations, and denominations quickly responded so that when gathering was no longer permitted, people were resourced with options for worship. With sensitivity to the demographic features of congregations and their resource and skill limitations, a wide variety of frameworks for worship are being delivered. These include well-produced recordings, creative on-line meetings, and paper-based resources delivered each week to members.

It seems many people intuitively know elements that are helpful at this time, even without articulating them in terms of promoting calm. Simple and spacious expressions of faith, love, and hope, including the reclamation of some of the older traditions of church worship and spirituality have been evident. My own congregation started using the lighting of candles and times of silence for quiet reflection in its weekly Zoom worship. An additional recorded service is filmed in the church with the familiar liturgical pattern, leadership, organ, and visual elements. My assumption is that the familiarity is reassuring and calming for many who prefer a traditional setting for worship.

Many clergy are recording additional devotional times during the week, to be accessed by their congregational members. Silence has often been included in these, and elements of mindfulness such as attention to breathing and remaining in the present. Reassurance and hope have been central in the selection of scriptural readings and any exploration of the readings.

3. Promoting a Sense of Self-Efficacy and Collective-Efficacy

Alongside our need to feel safe and calm is the desire to have agency in our lives. This is true not only of ourselves as individuals, but of the various groups to which we belong. It is at this collective level that leadership can have a particular effect. With the rapid decision-making needed as the pandemic unfolded, democratic and collaborative processes are likely to have been replaced by decision making by the paid personnel of our churches. Where this has occurred, even though it was for good reasons, hopefully, early steps will be taken to reverse this. The metaphor of the Christian community as the body of Christ helps us to know the inter-dependent nature of our community.[10] The body of Christ needs all its members, each playing the role that arises from their gifts, to function well. Community initiative and participation are crucial to the healing of a community.[11]

Even while isolation in its various forms continues, those in leadership will need to be thoughtful about forward planning. “Carpark conversations” are not continuing so informal decision-making processes may need replacing—for a limited time—by intentional “meetings.” While worship and bible studies and even coffee mornings can have online substitutes, some of the activities of a faith community will not be possible. A sense of loss regarding the contributions that one can make to the vitality of a congregation would only accentuate the other losses that COVID-19 brings. Many members will appreciate not being as busy as usual, but I wonder what creative ways will be found for those who cannot be involved as they have been, to find meaning in their activity.

4. Promoting Connectedness

Further reflection on the images for community life of the body of Christ or the perichoretic dance of the Trinity helps us understand why social linkages are a fourth key predictor of resilience, and essential to recovery following trauma.[12] We have been created for and given the gift of interconnected community.

People need opportunities to interact virtually so that the community remains connected and trust intact. Conversations can provide practical problem solving, emotional understanding, and the normalisation of reactions and experiences. Particularly needing strategic attention are those individuals who are usually socially isolated and who exhibit behaviours that makes their inclusion in conversations difficult, as well as those whose disability prevents their participation even in phone calls.

Sound pastoral care will be a wide, mutual responsibility within the group with any new structures or interventions avoiding the disrupting of intact social linkages.[13] We know that as one suffers, all suffer, and so also with celebration. Already existing activities can be the vehicle to reinforce social support networks, e.g., “Phone a friend and share with them three things for which you give thanks!”[14]

Families are a key source of social capital within any community. When care is taken to provide opportunities in worship and other activities that enhance these connections, particularly where there are children, the supported family can better sustain its members.

5. Promoting Hope

The final key principle for enhancing wellbeing is the promotion of hope. The church has vast experience in the promotion of hope. It is our core business. The resources of faith that we have in common provide a supportive context for moving through and beyond collective trauma. We are confident that God’s desire and ability to generate new possibilities cannot be overcome by a virus, nor even human mismanagement. Hope that is centred in an agency outside of the self creates the conditions for envisioning a positive future and being able to take action towards it.[15] For those who understand they are known by God, hope resides outside of our helplessness, in Godself, but also through God’s Spirit as potential within the community that God has created and in which we participate.


In addition to the five principles that inform our relationships and work as leaders during and after a pandemic, we need to be conscious of the principle of self-care. The impact of the pandemic will be long lasting, and leaders, in whatever capacity they are serving, will need to find ways to nurture themselves so they can continue to care for others. Followers of Jesus are invited to “come away … and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 NRSV) and emulate Jesus who “went … by himself to pray” (Matt 14:23 NRSV). Alongside regularising the practices that you may have found helpful in the past, the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth (ICTG) lists some very practical details to promote wellness: drinking water throughout the day, taking a walking/moving break every hour, stretching the body, having non-disaster related conversations with family or friends, smiling, practicing breathing slowly, and eating foods that give you healthy energy.[16]

The five key intervention principles (promoting safety, calm, self- and group-efficacy, connectedness, and hope), under the umbrella of good self-care, can guide our strategic pastoral practice during the active phase of a disaster.

Preparing to Accompany Grief: the “Grief and Disillusionment” phase

The active phase will give way to something that begins to look “normal”, but it may be far from normal even at a superficial level.

Following sudden traumatic events, communities often go through a busy period generally referred to as the “heroic” phase. Adrenaline is pumping and individuals and services are providing meals, housing, counselling, investigations, or whatever is the immediate need. A pandemic is different in that it is very unlikely that there will be a clear ending to the crisis: we may transition to COVID-19 circulating as one more troubling seasonal virus to which the community builds some resistance. Or, should a vaccine be developed, there will be a latency period of manufacturing and distribution. But we are already recognising the “heroes” in intensive-care units and supermarkets, and hearing stories of great generosity and kindness to neighbours and strangers.

In each community, there will be a time of “regrouping” that builds on this, with a focus on the many tasks that mounted up during shut-down: memorial services to be held, church plants to be prepared for use, and visits to family members following the separation. Accompanying this may be a sense of euphoria. We will be hoping to put the difficulties of the pandemic behind us.

Being ready to celebrate as a community as soon as it is deemed safe for its more vulnerable members will aid continued social support for the long haul. However, such celebration will need to be understood as a way point, not an end point. Attempts to restore community at this time are likely to be unsustainable.[17] It is probable that a measure of exhaustion and disillusionment will set in.

We can anticipate many losses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. In Australia and New Zealand we are fortunate that the measures taken mean it is unlikely that we will experience the huge loss of life that is occurring in other parts of the world.[18] In some ways, the age demographic of many churches will be somewhat protective of the economic losses associated with quarantine/isolation practices. But even for those faith communities sheltered from closure of businesses, bankruptcy, and mortgage foreclosure, there is much about their lives and community that will have changed. In addition, for many of our communities the pandemic came on top of existing collective trauma from drought, earthquakes, and bushfires, and disrupted developing systems of caring and rebuilding following those.

As support systems established for the duration of the pandemic disintegrate, new structures for delivering spiritual and emotional care may need to be developed. Key leaders are likely to already be emotionally exhausted and even more than usual, the task will need to be shared. In preparation for the protracted journey of grief likely to exhibit itself in big and little unhelpful ways, relevant organisational groups (congregations, presbyteries, diocese, and Colleges) could consider arranging training in spiritual and emotional care, ready for roll-out once distancing provisions allow. That such training acknowledges and builds on the skills of participants will be even more important than prior to the pandemic. The loss of agency during the pandemic makes building self- and communal-efficacy a long term need.

Alongside the community concerns, complex individual pastoral situations may emerge at this time. Likely scenarios include PTSD in health professionals who had to deal with too much, moral injury in those that had to make too many difficult decisions, increased severity of domestic violence during self/family-isolation, or the impact on relationships of increased use of pornography. In our own heightened awareness of the need to refer to experts, we need not forget the healing gifts of our faith, tradition and rituals.

This may be the time to begin deliberate, communal-meaning-making activities. We are people of The Story. We continue the story in the telling. The sharing of personal stories validates individual experiences and the skilled drawing together of a multifaceted community narrative of survival and support may provide a foundation on which to rejuvenate and revive the congregation.

Reconstruction and Creating the New: the “Integration” Phase

“Unprecedented” is the key word for 2020. Thoughtful discussions and consultations may help overcome our lack of experience as we prepare to plan for a new normal. ICTG’s comment about the rebuilding phase is that it:

involves business again, but this time it tends to be collaborative, patient, steady, and focused on the best interests of the range of people who have been impacted by what has happened. It also tends to be creative and inspired by mutual efforts representing a range of voices from the community.[19]

Prior leadership and power patterns may have been disrupted, and room made for others. Careful negotiation may be needed so that bad patterns of power don’t resurface. In some faith groups, there will be generational change, due to illness, or where long-time servants are now willing or wanting to pass the baton after the enforced period of fewer responsibilities. It may be that a congregation can now let go of a particular activity for which they had lost energy, or where it is no longer relevant to their mission. Crisis brings opportunity, and in this case, a chance to dream with the church community and decide who and how we were going to be. With the old having been interrupted, we are more open to the new thing that God may be ready to have spring forth.

Ritual action to mark and celebrate transitions and the creation of new traditions may be part of the continued healing and strengthening journey. I hope such celebrations may include continuing to tell the story of a faith community that, when faced with a stressful time, initiated hope-building interventions and sought to find a renewed faith-filled vision.

Tanya Wittwer is a lecturer in pastoral theology and practice at the Adelaide College of Divinity/Uniting College of Leadership and Theology, and Flinders University, in Adelaide, South Australia.

[1] Fran H. Norris, Matthew J. Friedman & Patricia J. Watson, “60,000 Disaster Victims Speak: Part II. Summary and Implications of the Disaster Mental Health Research” Psychiatry, 65:3 (2002), 240–60, DOI: 10.1521/psyc.

[2] Kai T Erikson, Everything in its path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 154.

[3] This chart is based on reflection on a number of illustrations, modified for the circumstances of a pandemic. The two major influences are “Phases of disaster” first published in Disaster Mental Health services (Myers and Wee, 2005) and J. Kirk, L. Kraus, R. Turner, K. Wiebe, and B. Wismer, “The four phases of human-caused disaster response” (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team, 2011), both sourced from https://www.ictg.org/phases-of-disaster-response.html

[4] The range indicated in the two illustrations whose sources are noted above.

[5] Predictions regarding economic impact vary widely. Preston Caldwell and Karen Andersen, for example, forecast little impact in the US beyond 2020; “Coronavirus Update: Long-Term Economic Impact Forecast to be Less than 2008 Recession” Stock Strategist Industry Reports April 1, 2020. https://www.morningstar.com/articles/976107/coronavirus-update-long-term-economic-impact-forecast-to-be-less-than-2008-recession. The modelling of wine industry outcomes by Glyn Wittwer suggests that by the end of 2021 key indicators will return to “business-as-usual.” “The 2019–20 Australian Economic Crisis Induced by Bushfires and COVID-19 from the Perspective of the Grape and wine Sectors,” CoPS Working Paper No. G-299 (Centre of Policy Studies, Victoria University, 2020).

[6] These were derived from the available empirical evidence by an International panel of experts in mental health following disasters, originating from a meeting held in 2007. Stevan E. Hobfoll et al., “Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence,” Psychiatry 70, no. 4 (2007): 283–315.

[7] Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; and the dual image of Ezek 34, where justice is meted out to those who have exploited the flock.

[8] Ps 23; 95:7; 100:3; John 10:3; Mark 6:34.

[9] Elaine Miller-Karas and Michael Sapp, “The Nervous System, Memory and Trauma” in Building Resilience to Trauma: The Trauma and Community Resiliency Models (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2015), 13.

[10] 1 Cor 12; Rom 12:4–8; 1 Cor 10.

[11] Elaine Miller-Karas, “Integration of CRM/TRM Wellness Skills into Group Settings,” in Collective Trauma, Collective Healing, 182.

[12] Hobfoll et al., “Five Essential Elements,” 296.

[13] Alastair Ager and Melina Iacovou, “The Co-construction of Medical Humanitarianism: Analysis of Personal, Organizationally Condoned Narratives from an Agency Website,” Social Science & Medicine 120 (2014): 431.

[14] Cheryl Wilson, ‘Worship at Home’ Sunday April 5th 2020, Uniting Church in Australia, South Australia, 2020, https://sa.uca.org.au/documents/resources-board/Non-Digital-Worship-Document.pdf.

[15] Aaron Antonovsky, Health, Stress, and Coping (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1979).

[16] Kate Wiebe, “How Long Term Recovery is Very Different from Other Stressors in Your Life,” Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth, 2020, https://www.ictg.org/community-blog/how-long-term-recovery-is-very-different-from-other-stressors-in-your-life.

[17]Phases of Disaster Response Phases of Disaster Response,” Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth, , 2018, https://www.ictg.org/phases-of-disaster-response.html.

[18] In saying this I do not wish to minimise the pain and grief associated with the loss of each individual, or the loss of livelihood, nor the trauma that may be experienced by health care professionals, but only to acknowledge that the balance of concerns may well be different in other parts of the world.

[19] ICGT, “Phases of Disaster Response.”