Faith communities are no stranger to difficult times. They know how to help people through death, despair, lack of food and other material resources, and many other dire straits. But usually there are only a few people in a church or temple at any one time who are dealing with major difficulties. These days many, many people are suffering a variety of troubles. Many have experienced the loss of their jobs, health insurance, or homes, and many others have incomes that are so tight that the ends no longer meet. Added to that are despair, depression, shame, loss of hope, and a questioning of the meaning of life.
As the larger community faces these challenges, leaders and members of faith communities are wondering how to deal with them: What spiritual resources do faith communities have that can address these difficulties? What are the resources that are most needed? How are other faith communities providing spiritual resources for people in need in these tough economic times? And what do leaders especially need to do and be aware of in this environment?
What We Have
When I think about available resources that faith communities can use to address huge losses, shame, and despair, I am reminded of the story of Jeremiah. When his city, Jerusalem, was besieged by Babylonian forces, he was offered the opportunity to purchase a field that had been in his family. He bought it as a sign of promise that the Jews would one day again have homes and fields where they had once lived. Jeremiah was the carrier of hope, affirming God both as the One Who Destroys and the One Who Constructs.
Like Jeremiah, faith communities must be carriers of hope. Hope is one of the most important resources we have to offer. Though faith communities might not want to buy property these days, it is more important than ever that they be and provide symbols of hope and live in hope.
For example, a number of churches in my denomination (United Methodist) are offering Bible studies that focus on the hope we have in God or our worth in God’s sight, and some are providing their members with devotional booklets or other materials that help people focus on hope and encouragement. Romans 8:35–39 tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and the psalms are full of verses that speak of hope even in the midst of despair. All major faith communities have such words of hope and comfort, and these words are especially useful in times like these; they encourage and sustain individuals and communities.
Another resource faith communities have to offer is patterns of practice, the rites and rituals that we follow. For instance, when there is a loss, the faith community provides rituals that help recognize the reality of what has happened. There are prayer practices, sacraments, offices, and other patterns that help to place a wide variety of difficulties in the context of the spiritual beliefs of the community, which comfort and encourage people and send them out into the world with new courage and understanding.
I recently surveyed some United Methodist churches across the country to find out how they are supporting people in these difficult times.1 They are praying for those experiencing hardships, and some said they are focusing on the teaching of spiritual disciplines so that people can work on their connection to God in the midst of their crises. Although different people find different disciplines helpful, some that were mentioned were Bible study, prayer, and keeping a journal.
A third resource is the belief system of the community as contained in its holy writings. These beliefs help locate the individual life in the larger life of faith. The loss or difficulty is thus put into some more meaningful whole. There can be a re-rooting in the deeper understandings of one’s faith. Beliefs also provide guidance for how to act and how people should be treated. Our beliefs encourage us to keep on living even in the midst of difficulties and to reach out beyond ourselves to others.
A fourth resource is the community itself, which provides a safe, friendly, and healing space for those facing challenges, reminding them that every person has talents and skills and is a beloved child of God. The faith community attends to the whole person and his or her needs. We have all been a part of such caring in large and small ways in our faith communities when we have listened to a grieving spouse, comforted someone who was ill, provided suggestions and advice when it was sought, or visited the homebound—or been the recipient of such caring expressions.
Faith communities are also communities of practical support. Among the congregations in my denomination, some are offering courses about dealing with financial matters. Others have organized networking groups for those out of work, along with classes on resume writing and interviewing. And still others have formed support groups for people who are losing their homes. Some have even found knowledgeable professionals, such as realtors, to help those who are facing foreclosure or mortgage problems.
Another resource of critical importance is prayer. In prayer we are connected to God for guidance, courage, and strength. We can praise, express gratitude for what we do have, pour out our hearts, and even lament and complain as we seek to become more aligned with God. Among the results of prayer is the invitation to reorient our lives and our thoughts through this connection. Thus, encouraging those experiencing loss or hardship to continue to pray is a form of support we can give them.
Faith communities have another resource in their ability to see beyond the immediate moment or at least to see possible positive effects that might occur because of the difficulty members of the community are experiencing. People in difficult circumstances are often unable to see beyond their current situation. Faith communities can help them see additional options, different ways of doing things, different ways of being, and the good that can come from difficult situations. An example might be that a deeper compassion could arise out of one’s own troubles. This does not mean ignoring or minimizing the situation but looking for seeds of hope in the midst of it.
For instance, several churches in my denomination have created support groups for folks who have lost their jobs and need to find new employment. But one group goes beyond that. “Members gather for prayer, encouragement, and to challenge one another to engage in mission while they have the time—which helps them maintain perspective and stay busy and productive rather than sinking into despair,” says Carol Goehring, director of connectional ministry for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Another spiritual resource of faith communities is their willingness to make concrete acts of resistance to evil. Often this takes the form of acts of mercy to people on the edge of society, treating them with dignity and respect in the face of a society that shuns them or tries to hide them, or raising awareness of the evil that exists. It may also take the form of demonstrations, marches, or letters to lawmakers. Such support of people on the edge helps those facing difficulties know that they are not alone.
Finally, faith communities can often provide material support of various sorts, such as providing food, clothing, or transportation. While some might not see food or a job as “spiritual,” to a parent with hungry children, food might be seen as an incredible gift of God, as would a job to someone who has been out of work for a while. Many of the United Methodist churches I surveyed are starting food pantries or emphasizing the collection of food for existing pantries. One is making computers available at the church for people to use in searching for jobs.
Members of the faith community who are not suffering so much loss
will want to step up their own giving of time, money, energy, and prayer. They will want to be more alert to how they can serve and more aware that more is needed from them in these days. It is to be hoped that folks will dig a little deeper into their hearts and pockets and give a little more of their time to support those who are struggling. Doing so is the equivalent of all people joining together to make and place sand bags when a flood is threatening a community. Such people may even want to reassess their own priorities about how they use their time, talents, and financial resources.
Hitchcock United Methodist Church in Hitchcock, South Dakota has taken this notion to heart. “Our Missions Team has started a program called Neighbors Helping Neighbors, in which anyone needing help around the community will contact me or one of my Missions Team members to let us know what kind of help they are in need of,” says the church’s pastor, Mark Britton. “We also have sign-up sheets around the community for people to ask us to contact them. One of the projects that came out of this program was helping a local man who does not have a job and whom we discovered had no heat in his house . . . . [Because of this program] this winter he had heat in his house, and he has been able to eat at least one hot meal every day. That is just one of many projects we have worked on. Some have been rather simple, like helping people paint their home and taking the elderly to hospital appointments, but in these tough economic times anything we can do to help people is important.”
The Role of Leaders
What do leaders especially need to do and be aware of in these difficult times? First, leaders will have the important responsibility of marshalling the resources of the community to reach out and to help in ways that the community has the gifts to resource. This will involve keeping the efforts focused and disciplined and, in some cases, being perhaps even more disciplined in their own work. It will also involve cultivating creativity in doing more with less.
Another thing that leaders will want to do is to facilitate human contact. Most people who face the tremendous losses of job and/or home in our culture feel shame and guilt. They may tend to withdraw because of despair or depression. Anything leaders can do personally or on behalf of the community to encourage people who are struggling to be with others in healthy situations will help. Often members of one’s faith community who have lost a job or home may stop participating because of these feelings of shame and guilt. Leaders need to be especially alert to members whose participation level changes—encouraging them, inviting them back, and offering the support of the community.
Leaders will also want to continue to model and invite generous and sacrificial giving of time, talent, and resources. If people see this in their leaders they will be more likely to step up to their own responsibilities and opportunities as members of their faith communities.
However, it’s important to recognize that there is more pressure and stress on the leaders of faith communities—both clergy and lay—in these days when losses are great and many people are struggling. It is therefore absolutely crucial that, even in the midst of all that needs to be done, leaders take care of their own souls and health so that they will continue to have the strength to hear compassionately the pain of the people they serve and the energy necessary to provide the help that is needed. This will not be easy. Leaders must be aware of their own level of fatigue and find times and ways to rest and to get out from under the strain. For some this might be a day apart to rest and pray or read a good book. It might be taking a walk in a park or having a meal with good friends and lots of laughter. For others such renewal might come from extra sleep or time to study the scriptures of their faith. And leaders in a particular faith community may need to be extra supportive of one another.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders need to continue to lead in a faithful, grace-filled way—preaching, teaching, countering fear, and living out the hope that their faith offers.
These are difficult times indeed. Yet the hard edges of our collective difficulties can be softened as congregations continue to practice the faith to which they hold and to reach out in service to those in need. I celebrate with a grateful heart the opportunity that we are all being given to practice and offer our faith in the midst of these times.
1. My thanks to all the United Methodist district superintendents and directors of connectional ministry who responded to my survey. Their responses are posted athttp://www.gbod.org/leadership/articles.asp?item_id=47504.
Questions for Reflection
1. What structures do you have in place to support your own well-being during these difficult times?
2. How are you modeling generous giving of your own time, talent, and resources? How are you encouraging others to also give generously in these times of need?
3. What are you doing to counter fear and cultivate hope in your faith community? What else is needed to support people in living in hope?
4. Are there other faith communities or secular organizations you might join forces with to provide more or different services? Are there people in your congregation who might be in a position to facilitate such connections?
5. What is being done to support people who are feeling shame about their losses to continue their participation in the congregation? What additional measures might be taken?