Disconnected Times Don’t Have to Stop Relational Ministry
In the midst of a year that, for a time, witnessed the highest U.S. unemployment levels since the great depression and over 25% of Americans (with the materially poor disproportionately represented) reporting symptoms of depression, the need for churches and ministries to engage in effective, relational, and sustainable approaches to poverty alleviation is as great as ever. But the cause of the economic crisis, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, makes it very difficult to move forward with the ways we’ve become accustomed to walking alongside people—how do you do participatory, face-to-face ministry when gathering people together could be a threat to their health?
While the standard set of tools for in-person ministry are limited right now, that hasn’t stopped the call of the church to remember the materially poor (Gal. 2:10) and associate with those who are outside of places of influence (Rom. 12:16). During this season, some of the Chalmers Center’s network of ministry practitioners have been getting creative with solutions that allow them to continue serving well.
COVID-Safe Jobs Preparedness Training
Through I Care Outreach in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Pastor Robert Turner and his wife Jessie have been using the Chalmers Center’s Work Life curriculum to equip returning citizens and others navigate a healthy return to the work force. Work Life is a rigorous curriculum covering issues from learning to tell your own story and developing your gifts to conflict resolution and workplace communication skills. Even more important than the curriculum itself is the way it is shared—in the context of relationship, often over a meal, with middle-income, employed allies walking through the training alongside un- or under-employed participants.
When the pandemic stopped nearly all social activity in its tracks in March, you would think that something as up-close and personal as Work Life would be among the last things to restart. But that didn’t stop the Turners from getting creative. Several of their previous classes had been offered at the I Care Training Center and, due to COVID, they immediately shifted classes via Zoom through the summer of 2020. The 19 Work Life participants and their allies spread out through multiple different classrooms in the reentry shelter to allow for physical distancing and connected the rooms to each other via Zoom broadcast to TV screens.
“It went very well. We did 2-hour classes and we were able do small groups, skits, and the whole thing. It just took being creative,” Pastor Turner said. Their class had 11 participants graduate, and has inspired them to try using Zoom or other online options so that they can extend their outreach even to currently incarcerated men and women prior to their release.
They also intend to offer another Work Life class this fall through I Care Outreach, Inc., that will be open to the whole community. “We’re getting out in the community throughout the summer, networking and getting ready to make it happen, working around the COVID-19 risks. We’re planning so individuals can do it through their phone, through a computer, whatever. We just have to move with the technology.”
Shifting Live Gatherings to Digital
Bob Leafblad and Les Dlabay volunteer with Love INC of Lake County (Waukegan, IL). In March, they were in the midst of facilitating a class using the Chalmers Center’s Work Life curriculum when Covid-19 forced them to move the class from in-person to digital meetings. Leafblad said that the number of churches shifting their worship services to Zoom prepared a lot of their participants to try other things over the videoconferencing platform, too.
The shift wasn’t without its struggles—such as needing digital versions of course materials and trying to figure out how to do small group discussions and the role-play exercises that are part of the class—but they quickly figured out how to make things work. Dlabay (who also teaches Chalmers’ Faith & Finances course through Love INC) said they settled on weekly Zoom sessions lasting 50-60 minutes, and then texting or e-mailing out follow-up questions for separate Zoom or phone calls between participants and allies later in the week. He added that they carried one rule from the in-person class over to the video chat: “Make sure everyone talks every week. It creates an environment nearly automatically better for learning. People learn more, even if you cover less material, if everyone participates.”
Keeping Relationships Central
Dlabay’s rule highlights the value of continuing ministry in spite of obstacles. The relational connections that these classes represent are the real work of community transformation. Though in-person connections are preferred, the digital workarounds that our partners have been using can keep people from falling out of their circles of contact, and even create opportunities for those less likely to speak up in a larger group to share what they are struggling with.
“There will be people coming through these classes whose voices have been taken. You need to encourage them that what they have to say is valuable, and that you want to hear them. Because of the trauma of poverty they’ve experienced, their voices have been taken, and being in an environment where people will give them the opportunity to speak and affirm their voices can change their life’s narrative,” said Shay Bethea, Chalmers’ director of U.S. jobs ministry.
Flexibility is key in this environment. In addition to these creative solutions, other ministry partners told us that they’ve moved classes to outdoor meeting spaces when possible, doing whatever it takes to stay in touch with those they’re walking with over the long haul. Pastor Turner sums up the attitude well: “We’re not going to let COVID stop us, and we’re going to continue because there’s a need. In fact, there’s a greater need now…if there is any time that’s appropriate, it’s right now.”
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