Church with no walls - Chaplaincy during the pandemic

4 May 2020 by Rev. Jean Shannon in: Features

Uniting Chaplains and pastoral practitioners have reinvented spiritual support in Uniting Services over the last two months. This exercise has had many positive experiences and calls us to question some basic assumptions.

Like the whole church, challenged with hanging onto old ways and forced to rethink everything. The pandemic has unleashed a creative storm and compelled us to embrace new and different technologies. Many of these avenues have been available for a long time but the impetus/incentive or even in some cases, permission, just wasn’t there.

It was not long ago that I was begging congregations to broadcast their services into Uniting residential services. These are, after all, Uniting Church owned facilities but sadly… many saw their congregation as those there within their walls on Sunday. This was not the view of all Ministers. Two months later, Chaplains can arrange for residents to tune into their local churches as a normal part of weekly routines. As a result, some practitioners are making sure residents get copies of the church bulletins and newsletters. It makes us question how churches defined ‘community’ before the virus?

After social distancing became a big thing – but before residential services were banned altogether, chaplains found alternative ways to ‘be’ church. One chaplain had ‘hallway church’ where he put the CD player on the floor in the hall, residents came to the doors of their rooms and there they joined in a service without ever leaving the safety of their rooms. It calls us to question, ‘what is sacred space?’

How the crisis has shifted thinking


Aside from using iPads and computers to tune into church services, many chaplains and pastoral practitioners have gained access to internal broadcasting channels in Uniting facilities. Some of these are web TV and some are simply PA systems. In some places, internal church services are broadcast into resident’s rooms and in others, a daily reading, prayer or reflections are offered just for a moment of stillness. There’s an obvious question here, ‘why not before?’ it’s amazing how a crisis can shift our thinking

A blessing from this experience is that the public are definitely aware of anxiety and isolation in the community. Yesterday, my colleague said, ‘it’s amazing that most conversations start with ‘how are you going?’ and people seem to mean it. They wait for an answer!’. Chaplains are spending many more hours in 1:1 with staff working in highly anxious circumstances. Every carer is committed to keeping their people safe and each time the PM makes a statement or families put more pressure on them, they worry. Spiritual Support staff are there to listen. The virus has forged good feedback loops from the frontline to the top and communications directly from the top to the frontline.

Some residences have prayer boxes where residents can leave prayers and blessings for frontline staff. This has been another opportunity to be part of a bigger church – one reaching out. Encouraged by the support team, some residents have been writing pastoral letters to staff by email.

Spiritual support teams have a frontline role in liaising with families and reducing their concerns. For some, just knowing the chaplain is with their love one helps relieve fear. The Teams are facilitating video calls and other more creative contact including window visits, signs, singing and more contact with distant family than ever before. They are bringing in photographs of children and grandchildren and taking photos to send to families outside. They are also spending more 1:1 time with residents and creating church-in-the-home. These are shorter services for 1-3 people or a household repeated throughout the day. Teams find themselves being more intentional about spending 1:1 time listening, reading the Bible together and discussing issues especially, ‘where is God in this?’ ‘What are the blessings?’ ‘Who needs our love?’. I can’t help but think this is a more intimate and personal way to pray – not a replacement for corporal church but a closer engagement. It makes me wonder ‘why can’t we have both?’

Spiritual support teams have been downloading video messages, producing discussion videos, liturgy, hymns and activity sheets throughout the week. Now ‘church’ or ‘pastoral care’ is an everyday thing. It has the potential to develop spiritual practice and better routines than church once a week. Why are we not encouraging spiritual development equally to feeding the habit of church-going?

Old fashioned, but unbelievably important


There are pastoral staff and volunteers devoting themselves to picking up the phone and making pastoral calls. Practitioners and volunteers are teaming up with Independent Living Managers and making sure everyone is connected. This is so old fashioned and yet, unbelievably important. How I wish our ‘busy’ lives hadn’t obliterated the comfortable, regular contact of someone who will listen.  I want to know how we will ‘budget’ in our post virus world for something so simple and meaningful?

On the old-fashioned theme, Spiritual Support Teams and volunteers are reverting to post cards, letters and greeting cards. I have to ask myself when was the last time I got something in the mail that wasn’t a bill? How delightful.

Last but not least, Convenors and their teams and frontline staff have never been closer. Surprisingly, being separated has made them more intentional about communicating more often. One team leader has invented a weekly 30-minute “Tears. Tantrums and Talking” video conference for practitioners to let it out. I’m wondering why all our working teams don’t have a no-agenda, let-it out-mechanism to clear out the brush that is slowing us down?

The virus has highlighted to wider general staff that the Uniting church is the backbone of our Uniting residences and it has brought the residences into a more connected community. It has broken the walls of our churches.  It has slowed things down – given us time for pause. It has made us more mindful of each other and most of all, it is teaching us what is important and what we can let go. It has highlighted the important role everyone plays in spiritual support in our communities.

Rev. Jean Shannon, Uniting Head of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Practice, Mission, Community and Social Impact