December 2021- February 2022
We Need Each Other
COVID-19 and the Mental Health of the Church
By Sarah Bracey
On March 23, 2021, I stood before my social psychology class, ready to begin my morning lecture. After glancing at the calendar, though, I realized exactly one year had passed since Welch College announced we would not return to campus for the remainder of the academic year. We converted our courses to an online platform. Graduates did not get a graduation. We endured lockdown. It became a year filled with fear, confusion, loss, and grief.
I decided my lecture could wait another day. Instead, we used the time to reflect back on the year and what it meant to each of my students. What has it meant for your congregation? Leadership? Sunday School teachers? Nursery workers? What has it meant for you?
If we polled the readers of this article, I imagine we would receive a wide array of reactions. While we know everyone’s physical experience with COVID can be different, we also must consider everyone’s emotional and behavioral experience through the pandemic may also vary.
As Christians, we should be sensitive to and patient with the unique experiences of others; one opinion of COVID may differ from another, or even yours. You may have experienced this within your own family. The social fallout and aftermath of COVID stirred much discord and hurt feelings between Christian brothers and sisters.
So, I propose a question: How do we, the Church, move forward? How can we (in Paul’s words to the Corinthian church) “Be perfect [mature], be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11a)
To foster unity within our churches, we must understand our congregants’ experience. At this moment, depending on the current caseload in your region, many people have gone back to work, restaurants have reopened, and sports events have resumed. In many ways, we are back to “normal.” But not everyone is coming back, not everyone is opening, and not everyone has returned to church.
New beginnings can be unpredictable and scary. What about those who suffer from fear, loneliness, or depression? Getting up, getting out, starting again—it all sounds exhausting. Those vulnerable to isolation and depression see everyone else going out, having a good time, returning to normal, despite the lingering dangers of the virus. What if normal was not good to begin with? What if, emotionally, we are lonelier than ever? We think, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just get out there like everyone else?”
In the past year, we all have been through something significant. For some, it will take time to adjust. We all have stories of what COVID took from us: good health, a job, an opportunity, or perhaps the life of a friend or family member. Personally, I additionally feel a sense of loss—somewhere I lost a year of my life. My husband reminds me of all the things we accomplished in 2020, a trip to the beach with the nieces and nephews and buying a new home. Good, important memories, yet I still feel the heaviness of loss.
For most, COVID forced us to endure a crisis for too long. Those who exist in an extended crisis state find a way to cope, one way or another, and usually in a manner that is not positive or helpful. Many are still coping or grieving, and some have become addicted to their coping mechanisms. Many adults turned to drinking, medications, or technology to cope. What was once a distraction from the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic has turned into a crutch they cannot live without.
When humans are in a crisis state for too long, or when we are unsure of a new normal, we unfortunately revert to what we have always done. We lean on our own understanding or look to one another for answers. The bad news is the person next to you may be no better informed than you. In fact, they may have poor decision-making skills.
Consider the children of Israel when Moses went up to Mount Sinai. “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him” (Exodus 32:1).
Without their leader, the people went to the next best thing, Aaron, brother to Moses. We know how that turned out.
Our churches need godly leadership. Of course, we need Jesus, but we also could benefit from someone on the ground, so to speak—someone worthy of leading us, of showing the way, of tending us in our state of crisis. Earlier, I posed this question: How does the Church move forward? We will find unity and peace in our churches when our leaders put in the hard work of tending the flock.
Of course, spiritual shepherding is not the responsibility of one person. We need a team of leaders within our churches who know and understand suffering and are willing to exercise patience with the vulnerable and weak. We need ministers willing to give us godly counsel when we are tempted to go elsewhere for answers.
What is the mental health of the church today? We shouldn’t allow this crisis state to endure, but we shouldn’t dismiss it altogether. As congregations, let’s be sensitive, but let’s also “Be perfect [mature], be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11a).
About the Author: Sarah Bracey is the psychology program coordinator and campus counselor at Welch College. She earned her Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from University of the Cumberlands and is a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. She and her husband, Matthew, live on a small farm near Gallatin, Tennessee.