Voices: Seeing the unexpected: Connecting congregations and social work

April 15, 2020
connecting congregations and sw

In the evolving dynamic of COVID-19, we have witnessed our world turn upside-down. The normal routines of life, work and play look completely different than they did a few weeks ago.

As followers of Christ, our way of worship and of gathering together in a sanctuary space has shifted. As businesses close down and events get cancelled left and right, congregations are doing their best to press forward. They are restructuring their way of fellowship, teaching and outreach.

While our congregations may be closing their doors physically, I am deeply moved by how they are opening their hearts, arms and minds to new ways to reach their members and their neighbors.

Connecting resources
One way is through the partnership of ministry leaders and social workers. These partnerships are placing congregational social work on full display.

Congregational social work comes alongside ministry leaders to equip congregations in their inward and outward care for the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and economic realities of their communities. It draws on the core values of the social work profession—service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence—and translates these into faith-based contexts.

This area of social work is rooted in the belief congregations are a critical sector of society and human flourishing. Moreover, this field notes congregations often are some of the most under-utilized resources in communities. These resources range from monetary support, to physical building space, to knowledge of the community, to genuine relationships, and to social capital connections.

A key congregational resource is the calling of Christ-followers to care for the world. We are commanded to care for the marginalized and the vulnerable. This mandate is not a question of ability or capacity, because it is a mandate of our created being, a being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to move, to love and to act.

Partnering in the work
In the midst of COVID-19, we are witnessing congregations live out this calling through avenues of congregational social work. We are seeing ministry leaders and social workers on the frontlines of care, partnering together to strengthen each other’s ability to respond in the midst of crisis.

They are working together to gather volunteers. For example, when local schools decided to close their doors where I live, congregations and social workers quickly organized volunteer food distribution to provide meals for students and their families at multiple church parking lots throughout the city.

They are keeping one another informed on policy and procedural updates as COVID-19 evolves. Once the shelter-in-place orders were implemented, congregational leaders and social workers adapted their communication methods with each other to offer essential services—grocery pick up, meal drop offs, calling hours—to older adults in their community.

Moreover, congregational social workers are helping congregations collaborate with other agencies and businesses. For example, they are creating databases for congregations with services that reach the needs of unique populations in their communities, whether for individuals or families experiencing financial strains or individuals experiencing the triggering pains of isolation.

What some may call an unlikely pairing is revolutionizing how we respond to one another and to the realities of our world.

What a collaborative future might look like
What could we be learning from all of this? What could the future of our congregations look like if connections like these continue after COVID-19? Could congregational social work become a renewed pathway for deep connection and service between congregations and communities like we are witnessing today?

The circumstances of COVID-19 are bringing congregations and social work together in relationship and pointing us to the heart of congregational social work—seeing communities transformed through the mutual collaboration of ministry leaders and social workers for the betterment of God’s people and God’s creation.

These connections are bringing us back to the beginnings of social work, a history that emerged out of faith-based ideals in response to the nation’s growing concerns for the well-being of others.

Even more importantly, these times are bringing us back to the nature of the early church in Acts 2. After the life-altering events at Pentecost, a community of believers joined together. They shared their possessions and belongings in gladness and generosity to meet the needs of others.

This moment, thoughtfully and ethically, is bringing ministry into social work and social work into ministry to care for our neighbors and our communities deeply in a time demanding immense service, protection and provision.

Glimpses of hope
In a season that feels hopeless, I am seeing glimpses of hope. I see hope in ministry leaders responding holistically and in social workers integrating congregations into their circles of care.

I am seeing my love for the local church grow even deeper, because with every email, news article or social media post, I am reminded daily of how our congregations desire to be places of belonging, transformation and caring for persons in vulnerable situations or places.

I believe in the local church, and I believe in social work. Seeing these unexpected connections over the past few weeks has reminded me of this truth: We need each other.

We cannot do this alone. We were not designed to do this alone. We need ministry leaders and social workers in our continued efforts to care deeply, respond boldly and to grow in truth, knowledge and love.

May we find hope in the unexpected and see the transformational care of God’s people reshaping the future of our congregations.

This article first appeared in the Baptist Standard.