Voices: Congregations and social work into the unexpected

May 14, 2020

When someone like me—a community practice social worker—begins work with a new group, organization or community, I ask questions like: “What is the lived experience for this group or community? What systems are impacting them? What systems are they impacting? What are the strengths of this group or community? Who do we need to listen to? What resources already are available to serve this group or community best?”

As states re-open and congregations create their plans in response to COVID-19 for returning to corporate gatherings, the questions at hand may look very similar for church leaders: “How do we move forward? What do we need to consider or listen to? Who needs our care? How will our worship, fellowship and service look different going forward? What resources already exist in our community?”

These questions draw us into the reality that our churches may not look the same after COVID-19 as they did prior to it.

Our way of being and doing as children of God is shifting into a redefined understanding of the imago Dei (the image of God), of fellowship and of serving the community. It is requiring us to think, act and love in different ways.

There is no denying this may bring fear, uncertainty and grief over the loss of what was known and what was comfortable for our congregations. Yet, in the anxiety we may be experiencing, we are called to cling to hope. This hope is brought to reality in and through our responses as faithful witnesses to how God is at work in the world.

Our hope in God’s work in the world
We have seen this hope on display through the mutual collaboration of churches and communities. Congregational leaders have considered how to serve well, lead well and partner well.

Rather than relying on their own strengths, churches have looked to their communities to identify relationships, determine ways to maximize resources and offer care to their neighbors that does more good than harm.

From a policy perspective, congregational leaders have looked toward local and federal government to assess how to incorporate COVID-19 safety guidelines into their gathering spaces.

This is important work for congregations to recognize and consider when moving forward into a new normal. As hope radiates from these responses, it is transforming how we look at the systems impacting all our neighbors.

These practices connect us to the heart and values of the social work profession and to our acts of caring. Service and social justice are on display through the care responses of neighbors to meet physical, social and emotional needs.

Dignity and worth of the person and the importance of human relationships are on display through the spaces created for genuine connection and support. Competence and integrity are on display through the critical awareness of communities and the humility to rely on the expertise of others.

Hope helps us lead from our strengths
Rather than looking at the problems within the community, churches have looked for the assets within their communities—the people, spaces, resources and services.

Embracing a strengths perspective is a critical framework for social workers and congregational leaders. It challenges our “fix it” mentality by shifting away from the “us versus them” language to a posture of coming alongside our brothers and sisters.

Moreover, social work’s foundational helping process is being utilized weekly. Churches are engaging individuals and communities in a planned change process by assessing circumstances, implementing strategies, evaluating progress and determining next steps.

This draws us into deep self-awareness and understanding of how our experiences, actions and responses can impact others as individuals and as congregations. This is the practice of tuning in to self and to others.

Ways we can work together
Here are a few of the many examples and questions that can guide us as we establish a renewed identity as the body of Christ and as those who walk alongside our communities in a new normal.

Community partnerships. Churches are partnering with local school districts to determine what resources are needed for students and families. Social workers are serving as bridge builders to connect these spaces and communicate effectively.

Where are other places you can connect in your community? Asset mapping is a key social work model that offers ways to identify these places.

Circles of care. Churches are connecting staff members with specific members for weekly touch points and with geographical areas of the community for critical services. Social workers are serving as advocates and assessors to determine areas of care for spiritual, social, emotional and physical needs.

How are you, your staff, your members and your community caring for one another’s mind, body and soul?

Food collection and distributions. This has been one of the most dynamic areas of care in response to COVID-19. Churches are partnering with local organizations to gather donations, transport resources or volunteer as a food pickup site. Social workers are serving as organizers to coordinate services between multiple campuses and organizations.

What essential needs can your church continue to provide or partner with other groups to provide for the community?

Connecting with church member expertise. Churches are looking towards experts in their churches to determine best practices. This includes doctors, nurses, mental health practitioners, teachers, first responders and social workers. Without a congregational asset map, we often are unaware of the assets available in our congregations.

How can this collaboration continue in future preparation, responses or planning for your ministry?

Radiating and transformative hope

Hope is radiating from our local churches. This hope is transforming the ways church leaders are looking at the systems impacting communities on both individual and corporate levels.

As we move into a new normal, these practices can continue through the mutual respect and collaboration of congregational leaders and social workers. This is a critical reality for the future of our churches after COVID-19.

May we step into this new normal with grace, humility and openness to what God is doing through our communities and our responses as the body of Christ.

This article previously appeared in The Baptist Standard.