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Considerations for the Chaplain in the Pandemic

As a crisis chaplain I have been on scene for hangings, shootings, stabbings, major accidents, major fires, assaults, cardiac arrest, domestic violence, and now a pandemic. As crisis chaplains, typically we are not on scene long. That’s the nature of emergency service. We are there to help people through the initial part of the crisis, gently handing them off to others who can be with them longer.

Now, with COVID-19, we are in an ongoing humanitarian crisis and called upon to minister to the community and to our first responders over the long haul. We are being asked to reach out in new and creative ways to people who isolated or at least socially distanced due to the disease.

Some of our strategies for reaching out to people must change. Changes may include connecting electronically, limiting physical contact, using appropriate protective barriers, and being deliberate about our contact. But the same objectives we pursue in a short-term crisis apply to this long-term event.

In the article “Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-Term Mass Trauma Intervention” in Psychiatry magazine, author Stevan E. Hobfoll and others remind us of five interventions we use in short-term crisis intervention. All are relevant for our current situation. While not all of the people we deal with approach life from a faith perspective, a good chaplain will address each of these points in a context-specific way that serves the people involved.

1. Promoting a Sense of Safety

When people’s lives are threatened, getting them to safety and reinforcing that sense of safety is paramount. Once in a safe place we reinforce that sense of safety. Don’t minimize the pandemic (or other danger) but keep reminding people of the precautions they are taking and how that increases their safety. For those who are Christians, we can gently remind them of God’s protection (See Psalm 46:1, Nahum 1:7.)

2. Promoting Calming

All too often people don’t realize that they are out of danger. I have discovered that gently showing people the reality of their situation is helpful. If you can be patient and calm, others will often mirror your response. This may not be easy when emotions, adrenaline and hormones are racing.

Facing a pandemic, it’s easy for all of us to get worked up by all the things we see on social media and the news. Some of the worrying things they see may be true, but you can help people put them into perspective. You might encourage people, once they have found that place of safety, to limit their exposure to media, social or otherwise. (See 2 Timothy 1:7, Psalm 23.)

3. Promoting a Sense of Self- and Collective Efficacy

One of the biggest issues for people in crisis mode is that they feel out of control. So, we as chaplains look for ways to help groups and individuals feel more in control of the facts and circumstances. Provide the facts and allow them, sometimes with guidance, to make decisions about the concerning the events that have transpired.

For COVID-19, people are making decisions daily on how to restore normalcy. While there has been some confusion about the facts of the situation and how to respond to them, we as chaplains should continue to actively promote the best and most current science through the CDC and our state health authority.

For the believers we minister to, we are encouraged by the fact that we are not alone in our decision making. We have both the Spirit of God and the Body of Christ to lean on in these situations. (See Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 22:20.)

4. Promoting Connectedness

It is all too easy for people in crisis to think they have to handle the crisis on their own. Many times, I have asked people in crisis who they can lean on at this time, only to have them tell me “nobody.” The vast majority of the time I have found this is not true. Neighbors, family, friends and co-workers tend to rally around people who are hurting and in crisis. I have found that a gentle conversation will usually help discover many people to connect with.

Now, with COVID-19, we are experiencing trauma in slow motion, but many still have a tough time figuring out who they can connect with. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” comes into play here. If they are not around people, they have no idea who to connect to. But, again, through those gentle conversations, we are usually able to find points of connection and appropriate pathways for making them happen.

For those who are believers, we again promote the Spirit of God and the Body of Christ. Finding out what community of believers a person worships with can help reintegrate them back into connected relationship. (See Romans 12:4-5, Acts 2:42-47.)

5. Promoting Hope

One of the most important jobs of the chaplain on scene is the promotion of hope. We exude it because we look beyond the current situation to see the possibilities that lay before us all while not ignoring the current situation. Working with non-believers can be difficult because they usually only see the temporal life around them without the possibilities of what is before them. But it is the hope that is within us that gives us, and other believers, encouragement. Hope not in the situation but hope in a God who loves us and will never leave us. (Romans 15:13, Psalm 71:5, Deuteronomy 31:6)

In Him,

Chaplain Chris M. Wade


South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

“Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence,” Stevan E. Hobfoll, et al) Psychiatry 70(4), Winter 2007 pg. 283

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