Episode 52: “Pastoral Care in the Coronavirus Crisis” featuring Michael Koppel

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 52: “Pastoral Care in the Coronavirus Crisis" featuring Michael Koppel

How can your church help congregants deal with fears, anxiety, and economic stresses in this unprecedented time? In this episode we speak with Wesley Theological Seminary Professor Michael Koppel about congregational care needs and responses in light of the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

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How can your church help congregants deal with fears, anxiety, and economic stresses in this unprecedented time? In this episode we speak with Wesley Theological Seminary Professor Michael Koppel about congregational care needs and responses in light of the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. I’m also editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I’m pleased to be the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m joined today by Dr. Michael Koppel who teaches pastoral theology and congregational care at Wesley Theological Seminary. Michael is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA. And we’ve asked Michael to be our guest today to help all of us think about how churches and church leaders can respond to the tremendous pastoral challenges we’re facing in light of the current coronavirus crisis. As we’re talking today, people in many major cities across the United States are told to shelter in place, churches across America have suspended their worship gatherings and other forms of face-to-face ministry. And yet, at the same time, our congregations and communities are dealing with unprecedented health scares and anxieties and economic stress. So, we’re not only facing unprecedented problems, but we’re having to figure out new and different ways of responding to them. So this is really an important conversation, Michael, and I’m so glad that you’re willing to talk with us and our listeners today.

Michael Koppel: Thank you very much, Ann, I appreciate it too. I share with all of our listeners and with you, the anxiety, fear, and tension that goes with this experience. We’re in uncharted territory, uncharted waters. And I would never think of myself as an expert in this kind of environment. We’re all learning together how it is we can do the best possible thing for our community, and for our families, and for ourselves.

Ann Michel: Yeah, that’s for sure. I think we’re all having to figure out new things as we’re going along. But just to begin, what’s foremost on your mind as we come into this conversation?

Michael Koppel: Foremost in my mind, I think, is that piece right there, that we’re novices trying to make our way through it. But what’s foremost is the health and well-being of congregations and pastors and my family and your family and economic well-being. And also primarily my focus is on those who are most vulnerable. In a time like this, we want to look out for ourselves but we also want to look out for those who are most vulnerable and most likely to be harmed in a situation like this. Which, in some ways, could be all of us at the health level.

Ann Michel: Right. Well one thing that’s occurred to me as we are in this unprecedented time, that even thinking beyond the scale and the magnitude of the crisis, I’m wondering what you think are some different kinds of needs that might manifest themselves in this situation that are different than some of the day-to-day pastoral challenges that people are used to dealing with in congregational ministry? What are some things that you think pastors need to be on the lookout for?

Michael Koppel: Well, I think there are different needs. But I think one of the things pastors need to be on the lookout for is — and this really goes without saying, but I’ll say it — the increased level of anxiety that we’re working with. So, one of the key pieces for pastoral leaders is how to be a non-anxious presence. How do you practice non-anxiously? Well, even in ordinary circumstances, it’s hard to be non-anxious. So I always say to students and pastors “a little less anxious.” We sometimes aren’t even the ones who are the least anxious in the environment, but we want to practice with less anxiety. It helps to lower the barometer or lower the steam, a metaphor I’m really searching for here, we want to ratchet down the temperature a bit. But that’s a very difficult thing to do when anxiety is running so high and in so many different directions. So I don’t know if there’s something different we need to do. I think we go back to the basics in a situation like this. The basic is really monitoring our own anxiety as pastoral leaders, but also as congregants, to be able to monitor our anxiety and do things that help lower it for ourselves and then when we can do that, we can probably reach out to others with a little less anxiety. But that requires some self-awareness. And anxiety sometimes means that we blowout self-awareness.

Ann Michel: Mmmhmm. So what would some of the practices be that you would recommend?

Michael Koppel: Well, one of my own practices is just to regularly be attentive to my own body. And so, I think that congregants and pastors can be regularly attentive to their own bodies. What does that mean? Like this morning, for example, I usually have my morning prayer at home. But I got up and thought, “You know what? Who knows what today’s going to bring and it seems like a good enough day to get out for a walk.” So I went out for an hour walk this morning and it helped to settle the anxiety that was already there when I woke. Because I woke up with dreams and nightmares. And I imagine that our pastoral leaders and congregation members are waking up with dreams and nightmares, too. So the anxiety really never leaves us. I think it’s really omnipresent. So a grounding practice like walking can help with the anxiety. That’s just one example. But I also want to say that, you know, one size doesn’t fit all. Some people aren’t walkers. Don’t walk. Do something that’s grounding for you. Maybe sitting by the back window or on the back porch or drinking coffee quietly can be a grounding exercise. Or reading.

Ann Michel: I was just going to say thank you for that. Because I think it is, I think when our normal patterns of life get as disrupted as they have been in this period, you know, we have to rethink some of the patterns that would otherwise be normal for us and find new ways of doing exactly what you’re saying.

Michael Koppel: And I like the way you just said it, too. “Rethink it.” And at the same time, for those of us who are thinkers — and I share that with you and a lot of our congregational leaders — also don’t overthink it. So like this example this morning, I looked out the window and I thought “I don’t usually do this.” But I stopped and said that that’s what’s needed. So, rethink, but also don’t think too hard about it. Because if we think too hard, we might not do the thing that’s needed for ourselves or our congregations.

Ann Michel: Uh-huh. So I read something that caught my attention yesterday and it was from a pastoral leader in another part of the country. And he was making some recommendations. And he said that in this situation, there are going to be people in need of pastoral care who aren’t the people you normally think need it. And so, I just wanted to throw that out to you for your reaction and then also ask how pastors and congregations can have their antennae out for people who may need help — who may not be the people you normally think of when you’re thinking about your pastoral care needs?

Michael Koppel: It’s interesting, I wonder what the pastor meant by those who ordinarily need it?

Ann Michel: Yeah, I realize there is an assumption in that question, but well, so say what you mean. We’re going to assume that everybody is needing special attention?

Michael Koppel: Well, I don’t know that everybody needs special attention. But it helps me reframe, and for us to reframe, what pastoral care’s purpose is. Of course, we want to help people who are most in need. But what if what we see as a need is our own need to respond to that person’s need? In other words, can we see people’s strengths and availability so we can start from seeing their strengths?  So people who are most in need?  I’m still wrestling with the question. Who are people who you ordinarily wouldn’t think would need it?  Yeah … I’m wrestling with the question.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I appreciate you pushing back on that. Because I’m a lay person. I’ve never been a pastor. And I think I may have a somewhat stereotyped idea of pastoral care. When I think of pastoral care in our congregation, I think about our pastors connecting with older people or shut-ins or people who are in the hospital or going through certain life transitions. People who have sort of identifiable circumstances that suggest that they may need some support. And so that’s probably a faulty premise on my part. And I apologize for that. But I think, for a lot of people, that maybe, even for congregants, that’s who they think needs the pastor’s attention.

Michael Koppel: Right. You don’t need to apologize so heavily there. I think that’s where I was landing, too. I was trying to think, well shut-ins, older people, people who are homebound, let’s use that language, hospitalized or in a life transition. But those would be all people we would ordinarily think would need pastoral care. But my mind is now saying, “Well, where are these other needs for those who we wouldn’t think would need it?” But already, even this terrain that we’ve just talked about raises really significant challenges. Because visiting homebound is now a challenge. I have a friend who’s a hospice chaplain who’s terrified to go into the home hospice situation with family members who have dying members of their family. And she’s feeling challenged with going into that environment, but also bringing home to her spouse, possibly, the illness. So how do we do visitation in a time like this? Especially when we think about people – we’re having this conversation over, using technology. But there’s big conversation now about having hospitals — excuse me, working with doctor’s visits across computer screens. But this all assumes technology. And not everybody has that kind of technology. So I think the people who most need it are the ones who don’t even have the technological capacity to be able to receive care.

Ann Michel: Or they can’t use it.

Michael Koppel: Or they can’t use it! Yeah!

Ann Michel: My father’s in assisted living and he can’t hear. He doesn’t understand when you use a computer screen that he’s not just looking at a picture. So, you know, they’re saying “Use Skype.” And I’m like “Uhhh, no. That’s not going to work as well as you think it might.”

Michael Koppel: Right, exactly. Technology is stressful for us and we’re middle-aged!

Ann Michel: Well… Speak for yourself. (laughs)

Michael Koppel: Well, I’m middle-aged! (laughs)

Ann Michel: So, listening is so important to this. We talked about having your antennae out, but listening is a key element of pastoral care. So we’re not just having to think about different ways of how we’re going to listen but also different ways of what we’re listening for. What listening practices would you recommend?

Michael Koppel: Well, that’s a great question. Part of it I alluded to earlier. This morning I was listening to myself. Or I could say I was listening also to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to peek out the window. So that kind of listening, listening to our own bodies. Also listening to the tone of our voices, so in a time of anxiety, the kind of listening we want to do is hearing what we’re saying but really paying attention to the emotional resonance of how we’re saying it. But not just for ourselves, but listening to others and how their speech is encased in very emotional language. Or they might not be using emotional words but there’s an emotional resonance to it. We want to be particularly attentive to it. Especially with what you were just saying. If we’re making pastoral contact or care contact with people across phone lines or zoom connection, or any other form of technology, we want to be really attentive to the emotional side that’s going on. But also, I wanted to say, this is a practice I’ve noticed in myself in the last week – it’s listening for our own grief. Because this experience of having the world turned upside down precipitates profound experiences of normal grieving. We may not have lost a family member. We might not have somebody ill in our family. But having our whole world turned upside down is very disorienting. And that’s what grief is  — the loss of the way things were. So being able to attend to listening to grief because it often goes unrecognized in our lives. So that’s one of the things I pay attention to in my own pastoral care in my own mind.

Ann Michel: Yeah. When you mention the word grief … As we were sharing email in preparation for this conversation, something that stood out to me is that you used the term “global nightmare” and you used the word “trauma.” And like grief, those are such strong words that they really caught my attention. And I think that what caught my attention in your use of the words “nightmare” and “trauma” is that those things linger. They reoccur. They don’t just go away when, you know, God willing, this health crisis subsides. And so, I’m wondering what you might think might be the after-effects of this grief and trauma and how congregational leaders might be attentive and prepared for what might come in the aftermath of this?

Michael Koppel: So, I think in terms of what pastors need to pay attention to related to nightmares and trauma, the kind of things we need to pay attention to, the after-effects would be people’s numbness, after an experience like this. People don’t want to talk about it. They might just block the experience off. But the challenge with that is, when you freeze an experience, you have no access to it. And what trauma needs, on some level, whether it’s on the body level or the subconscious level, is to be processed. Of course, people need to process it in their own way. So that’s another thing I would say to pastoral leaders. There’s really no one-size-fits-all for processing trauma. But be attentive to people having flashback and people having increased levels of anxiety responses to what would be ordinary life challenges. So a profound experience of trauma will exacerbate regular life activities. So those would be some of the things I pay attention to. But that’s looking ahead. I think we want to create, as pastoral leaders, as much safety as possible for people. So safety, a sense of security, a sense of groundedness helps with recovering from trauma and moving through experiences that are traumatizing. So when we keep up our regular practices, not overloading them, but regular worship practice, checking in with people, our care teams checking in with people, lay care in ways that’s manageable for people, are all good to help lay the groundwork for not having a lot of ripple effects and trauma afterward. But then to have our antennae up to notice those signs later on. So it’s a profound question.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about “what” and “how” in this conversation. Because a lot of what I have seen written, as people have been trying to catch up with changing circumstances and thinking about how churches can be in ministry in this situation, there’s been a lot of advice on “how.” Use Zoom. Use phone trees. Use social media, you know. But I’ve seen a whole lot less about the “what.” I really appreciate the fact that you have, that you’ve helped us focus on the “what” that we need to be attentive to. But I wanted to go back to the “how.” Because, again, people are having to make this up as they go along. But what would be some of the tactics, strategies, practices that you would suggest for how a pastor can stay in communication with people on? These are deep-level concerns that I think people aren’t used to dealing with other than in face-to-face kind of encounters.  Do you have any thoughts about what people need to be doing to create the relational space and intimacy in this new reality, to really create the safety that you’re talking about?

Michael Koppel: Yeah. Maybe some of it has to do with putting, I mean …  again, this makes use of technology again. And already, I’m growing weary of the level of technology, I’m growing weary of all the possibilities for connection in a time when I really need to be focused on some basic practices. Well, I think it’s good to have Zoom connections and maybe create chat rooms.  And they could be limited to, maybe like we’ve suggested, for actual support groups in churches that there can be some places where we create closed space. Where it’s not just open to everybody. So you might have space where only youth group members can go, or only re-singled older adults are going. So we have to think about how we would do that. But I think having a support group environment could be helpful because people have shared concerns and a common domain.

Ann Michel: Yeah. That’s a great suggestion.

Michael Koppel: But making it available, but not having this heavy expectation that everybody needs to participate. I’m just speaking personally now, but I have this association suggesting that I could do this webinar, and another association says “reconnect with us. We have this to offer.” So it’s, all these possibilities. It’s really a practice saying “no” to some of those things. And I think pastoral leaders could be helpful to their congregants to give people permission to say “you know, we’re here, we’re doing okay. We’re going to connect with the groups we connect with and we’ll give you some indication of that. But that we don’t all have to be checking in all the time about everything.” It might be a practice that will lower the anxiety and stress on people.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I think that is good advice because it does seem like just a barrage of new kinds of experiences. And that, in and of itself, is a little bit overwhelming, I’m finding anyways. Let me shift focus a little bit and ask about spiritual and religious resources that might be helpful to people in this type of need.

Michael Koppel: Yes. Just before our school closed because of the pandemic, I opened a class discussion with Psalm 46, which of course is a resource — a spiritual Psalm that is a beneficial resource for me. It is a “go-to” place that I read over and over and over again. And I stopped and asked the class about the Psalm. And I said “you know, the stillness that we’re invited to here is not in the midst of the peaceful environment. This stillness that we’re called to, or that God is present to, is even in the midst of the nations’ tottering and the people at war, and the world basically caving in.” So, I think the Psalms, reading the Psalms, the Psalms of Lament are a spiritual resource in times like this. Feeling like it gives us a vehicle, an avenue for expressing our grief and our pain is beneficial. Reading the Bible, of course. My parents are funny! They go to church and they say, “Well, the pastor said we should just come to Bible study and read our Bibles.” And my dad said, “We do that! What else can we do?” So it’s a resource, but how do we do it and how does it fit into our day. I want to suggest a spiritual resource — maybe just meditating on a piece of scripture or a spiritual phrase. The phrase that helped me go to sleep the other night was just saying, “Release this, O God. Let there be release.” The word, for some reason that night, the word “release” was a very beneficial, very helpful spiritual practice for me. Letting go. Letting be. Moving out of the head and having to think. So how to use the Bible and the spiritual practices would be being mindful, again, to our own bodies. What’s called for? Do we feel our heart racing? Do we feel tension in our bodies? Do we feel aching stomachs? How to let those resources be a guide for how we’re going to access and how we respond to God.

Ann Michel: One of the things I’m kind of picking up in my own congregation, as people are sharing from their own homes and as our pastors are teaching and preaching from their home settings, I think there’s been a real interest in setting up personal devotional space in some place in your home. Now some people maybe already have that. But I think that a lot of people don’t. And I think that this particular crisis has kind of created an interest in people having a dedicated space in their home that they can create their own little altar or their own significant things that they want to have as touchstones in a time of meditation or spirituality. And that’s something that I never, I don’t think I ever would have thought of doing before, and all of a sudden I think people are very interested in doing that.

Michael Koppel: Where I set up my own devotional space is facing the back window. There’s a chair and a candle and my Bible sits there with the This Day: A Wesley Way of Prayer that I make use of that Dr. Larry Stookey produced many years ago. It’s a special copy given to me. And then I have an icon, a Byzantine icon that a Roman Catholic friend of mine gave me many years ago. So that’s a grounding practice. The body feels at rest sitting in that place, my body at least. When I go there, I think…

Ann Michel: I think not everybody has that. So I think just suggesting creating a place like that in this time when people are confined to their homes I think it’s an excellent, excellent suggestion.

Michael Koppel: Oh absolutely! And you know it’s spring right now here, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. So a daffodil or two in a little vase would go a long way to adding beauty.

Ann Michel: Mmhmm. Let me shift gears a little bit. I wanted to ask about practical resources for dealing with emotional and mental health challenges. I’m imagining that with so many people confined to their homes and healthcare resources really strained right now, that a lot of people may feel like they’re cut off from their normal sources that they might turn to if they needed mental health care. And I just wondered if you have any thoughts or suggestions for people who needed professional counseling or mental health treatment or for pastors who may feel like they need to refer someone. What do you think is happening at this juncture? Or do we not know?

Michael Koppel: Well, I think a couple of resources. One significant resource is the National Institute of Health has a wonderful site. It’s called the National Institute of Mental Health  (www.nimh@nih.gov). That website basically lists the different symptoms and signs of various mental health and mental illnesses. So for example, I had a class look at, directed them to look at that site when we were studying depression. But there are other clinical diagnoses or other clinical mental health problems or mental health concerns that people can get addressed in terms of resources that are offered there. Another place that would help people link with getting and making referrals might be NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Health (www.nami.org).  And that resource can be beneficial for pastors in terms of making some linkages for referrals. The first one is more an educational resource. But there also be ways of accessing professionals through NAMI. I used to recommend the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. But that doesn’t exist anymore. There are pastors who have done Clinical Pastoral Education, so the ACPE website is a good go-to source for getting some context. They have educational pages there for certifying clinical supervisors. But there could be a way of connecting those resources there. So that’s www.acpe.edu. The other one is www.nami.org. And then the National Institute of Mental Health, nimh@nih.org are several that come to mind. Suicide hotlines need to be on the forefront of pastors’ referral guidelines, too. 1-800-273-TALK is the national suicide awareness hotline. So those are some resources.

Ann Michel: Yeah. Thank you for sharing those. I think it’s really important to have those possibilities available to people in this time. To begin to draw this conversation to the close, I think where my head has been going, with almost every facet of ministry that we’re thinking about in this very disruptive time is, “What are things going to look like on the other side of this?” Maybe we’re all so caught up in the moment that we imagine that there’s more to it than it seems. But I think almost everybody that I know thinks that we’re never going to go back to things the way they used to be. And maybe that’s presumptuous to think that. Or maybe we’re just caught up with our anxiety of the moment. But I wonder if you have given any thought to what might be on the other side of this, thinking about congregational care and pastoral care? And how things might be different and what changes may come about as a result of having gone through this period of anxiety and trauma?

Michael Koppel: I think the thing that pops into my mind when you ask the question is, and this would be a positive outcome, and it goes back to that question of who is most in need of pastoral care.  I think we’re all most in need of pastoral care and we’re all most available to be pastoral care providers. So that is to say that congregations will, are recognizing that we’re all in some level, we’re all in this place where we’re feeling need. And we’re also all in this place where we feel like, hopefully, some of us are rising and recognizing that I have this to offer. So I think if we come out realizing at the end of this process, at the end of this experience, that we have both a lot to give and a lot to receive as communities, I think that would be a positive outcome. Of course, living with an increased level of anxiety is not good, not helpful, but to have our consciousness raised, to realize how vulnerable we are as human beings, how fragile and vulnerable we are, can connect us with the least of these, whatever that means to us everywhere in the globe. I think that can be a connecting point. Unfortunately, the negative side is we begin to build walls and separations and think, “Well that’s not my problem.” Which could be the negative outcome of it. If we come out more connected as human beings and communities, that’s really positive.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that. Because I think my sense is we all have become very aware of how important our communities are to us. For those of us who are connected deeply with congregational communities, I think we’re very aware of how sustaining and important and vital those connections are, even when we’re not in the building, which I think is an epiphany for a lot of people, to realize that the church continues to be profound community even when we’re not gathering in the ways that we’re used to. And I kind of think that that might be a blessing in this that we come to realize that church is more than that place that you go for an hour on Sunday morning, that there’s something in the community of church that is so much bigger and more sustaining in terms of how it interfaces with our life.

Michael Koppel: Mmm. Beautifully said. Beautiful.

Ann Michel: Yeah, well Michael, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me and talk with our listeners today. These are uncertain times and I know I’ve been asking you questions that none of us know the answers to, so.

Michael Koppel: Like I said, I’m not an expert, we’re all experts. We’re all novices. So I’ll free myself from that burden.

Ann Michel: Well, I think what I have found is that one of the qualities of people who are truly expert is that they know what they don’t know. So I appreciate both your humility in that but also the great expertise that you bring. So thank you so much for talking with us today. And I just pray that people are encouraged by your very practical and thoughtful words in this difficult time. Thank you, Michael.

Michael Koppel: Thank you, Ann.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talkswe speak with Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The bishop offers his insights on leadership development.

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About Author

Michael Koppel

Michael Koppel is Howard Chandler Robbins Professor of Pastoral Theology and Congregational Care and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA. He is the author of Body Connections: Body-based Spiritual (Abingdon Press, 2021), available on Abingdon Press and https://www.amazon.com/Body-Connections-Body-Based-Spiritual-Care/dp/1791013414/?tag=lewicentforch-20" target="_blank" style="color: #006838">Amazon.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.