Exploring Ways Chaplains Can Connect to Their People Despite Social Distancing
I grew up in a nice, mid-sized town out in Oregon where all I had to worry about was my job mowing lawns and making it to swim team practice on time. My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere without a care in the world. Boy, have things changed.
Where decisions then were made over hours and days, the current demands on us mean they must be made now (or sooner). Back then, if I wanted to know something, I would check out a book the next time I was in the school library. Now I just pick up my iPhone and look it up. Then, if I needed to talk with someone, I could try to catch them on the phone, leave a message with whomever answered the phone, or just wait to see them face to face. That’s changed, too.
As one who has always embraced technology, I've kind of liked the changes. But I have always appreciated that chaplaincy was in-person and personal. Now, due to COVID-19 it seems I have had to embrace a more digital ministry… what I’m calling telechaplaincy or e-chaplaincy.
I've seen telechaplaincy done in the hospital system for a while now. To me it seemed more of a way to reduce costs instead of provide access. But now, with access limited due to the virus, telechaplaincy has taken off. I find myself now in front of my computer and on the phone where I would have just gotten up and gone and talked with someone face to face. And because of how long this event will last, I'm sure that telechaplaincy will be here to stay.
Let me first say, that I still believe that in-person chaplaincy will always be preferable. That simple touch, sitting beside someone in silence in their grief, and basic care cannot be done over a phone line. But here are a number of good things that I'm seeing with all of this shift.
Benefits of Telechaplaincy
1. Chaplaincy goes on. Where chaplains could have easily been furloughed (and some have), many are reaching out in this creative way. With the public health agencies recommending limited contact with those who have the virus, or who may have been infected, this is still a viable way to reach out.
2. It’s reaching digital natives. While some of our older chaplains may find this a little daunting, our younger generations have been communicating like this for quite some time. This feels natural for them and this is a great way to reach out to them.
3. It meets people where they are. Because the office staff where I work have been sent home, this is the most logical way to reach them. And since a lot of the staff work throughout the state, this is an option to reach out and connect when I cannot travel. Even though we are in our own homes we have the option of bringing them together.
Once a week I host lunches for some of my State Fire co-workers and our chaplain association board via Zoom. No agenda. Just hang out, eat our lunch, and shoot the breeze.
Tips for Telechaplaincy
Here are 10 things to think about when doing telechaplaincy/e-chaplaincy.
1. Start a conversation. Ask open-ended questions to develop dialog and invite a relationship.
2. Be available to people by email, text, video, and phone. Use the channel that feels the most comfortable to the other person, even if it feels weird to you.
3. Have an exit plan. Some people will want to talk way too long. Figure out how to end the conversation when you need to. Social norms are different for online conversations than in-person ones.
4. Confirm availability. If you are calling, start by asking if this is a good time to talk. They may be doing something else. Don’t assume that they can drop everything to talk with you.
5. Consider whether to use you own phone or a company phone. When doing callbacks to the public off your private cell phone, you might use *67 to protect your number.
6. Know your technology. I suggest practicing with your medium of choice, so you don't spend the first 15 minutes figuring how to turn on the microphone.
7. Make sure you have good internet access. Most of us are no longer on dialup, which is good. But make sure your bandwidth and computer can handle video conferencing.
8. Don’t rely on bulk/mass email and other broadcast strategies. Send emails one-on-one and make them personal. The shallowness of a bulk email will usually bring a shallow reply, if any. They might even wind up in someone’s junk mail folder.
9. Be careful what you say. Digital communication is less secure than a personal conversation. Remember that everything said/typed may be saved or recorded. You may also be uncertain who else is in the room on the other end, so protect people’s privacy when you ask questions.
10. Join other team meetings when invited. I do this with my state fire teams. It gives me a feel for how they are doing and what they are working on.
During this time, we are not the only discipline using this medium. Doctors and therapists have been using telemedicine for quite some time. And now we are seeing churches do not only their services, but meetings and small groups too.
As I said before, I believe that in-person and face-to-face interactions can never be replaced when it comes to chaplaincy, but I believe that this pandemic has shown us that telechaplaincy/e-chaplaincy can be a viable tool for our chaplaincy toolbox.
South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association