Public health from the pulpit: First steps for clergy to help create healthier communities
On Mother’s Day 2020, I was working as a contact tracer for the Florida Department of Health. Our team labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week, reaching out to people who had been exposed to COVID-19. We explained quarantine procedures and educated people about how to protect others.
That Sunday, it was my job to interrupt Mother’s Day brunches across Fort Myers and tell folks that they had been exposed to the virus — in the days before vaccines and effective treatment. People were panicking.
It was a Groundhog Day experience as we contacted hundreds of people with bad news. It was difficult. It was depressing, especially when we’d learn about folks who had died.
I also saw the effects of superspreader events — some of them from churches that had refused to close. Florida at that time was one of the nation’s COVID hot spots and the epicenter of furious debates about masking, quarantine and religious freedom.
I already was interested in public health and theology — 2020 was the summer between finishing my master’s in public health and starting divinity school. For a young public health professional and theologian, this experience highlighted the urgency for collaboration. After all, religious communities and public health agencies seek the same outcome: healthier and more vibrant communities.
In divinity school, I tried to understand why there is such a divide between religious communities and public health practitioners. Now, as I embark on a Ph.D. in population health sciences, I continue to envision ways we can integrate theology and health education in our pews.
This ideal collaboration is far from simple. Experts in public health often lack the theological understanding and context to be culturally aware of the structures and behaviors in religious communities. And religious leaders are often overstretched in their regular clerical responsibilities; to expect them also to be skilled in health education and communication is unfair.
I have spent a large part of recent years focused on this never-ending chicken-or-egg scenario of how to build a bridge between health organizations and religious communities.
Though I think that accountability on both ends of this “bridge” is important, I want to suggest a few first steps for religious leaders.
Know your congregation.
This might sound obvious. However, knowing a bit of the backstories of the people sitting in your pews on Sundays does not mean that you understand their needs and concerns.
Consider the levels of insurance in your church. Are most people on a certain type of health insurance? Are people uninsured or in professions where their insurance level fluctuates? What about the availability of dental and vision services? Can they afford these services?
The intricacies of health insurance coverage could provide a brief peek into the health of those in your community and the gaps that may be chronically unaddressed for a significant portion of your congregation.
Though these question may not be part of the normal “getting-to-know-you” info card, being upfront about your church’s intention to work for health equity and to address potential health needs of your congregants may ease the discussion of these sensitive though vital details.
Of course, even with the most honest intentions and perfectly curated questions, there are other dynamics at play as well.
Recognize the opportunities and limitations of your role as clergy.
It is no secret that clergy are often overworked, with their expected scope of care greatly exceeding their reach. In addition, few pastors have medical or public health expertise.
However, one of the great superpowers of religious leaders is their tendency to be seen as leaders and trustworthy members of the community. Recognizing opportunities to provide guidance to members of your community on health decisions while also recognizing your own limitations may be the perfect combination of your clergy superpower.
One example of this is the way that Black and Hispanic churches served a crucial role during the worst days of the pandemic by sharing health information and offering testing and vaccination sites.
Reach out to your local health experts.
This could be the health department, a health education specialist, medical providers, or other health care workers who have experience and training to offer guidance to your congregation.
Collaborating with these folks might create opportunities for your congregation to understand more about their health concerns from reputable medical sources while you also help them contextualize their health concerns within your faith tradition. Feel free to reach out to people like myself who are deeply rooted in the intersection of health and religion.
Include these topics of concern in your sermons.
If the pandemic has taught us anything about how religion and public health interact, it’s the ways that people are influenced by information from people they trust. As a religious leader, you will likely be asked for your opinions on various health behaviors and decisions.
While honoring your educational gap on the subject matter and knowing your scope, you can still find helpful, engaging ways to include health issues in preaching. One possible place to start is by inviting your congregation to explore and be curious with you as you seek out information to make the best decisions for your own health.
The task of congregational care is a daunting one, especially when pastors venture beyond the spiritual needs of those they’re in community with. However, the ability to improve health behaviors as well as faith practices is a beautiful dynamic.
It is my hope that no one else ever receives a call on Mother’s Day to tell them that they and their families are in danger from a deadly virus. Through the intentional considerations of congregational needs and local resources, clergy can and should collaborate with health partners to help make sure the Groundhog Day summer of 2020 never happens again.
I spent my summer away from the thick of all things COVID-19. I was at our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which means I was outside every day, could easily spend time with our wonderful neighbors and still maintain appropriate social distancing, and had ready access to fresh food from small local providers. No visits to crowded grocery stores, no trying to walk on busy sidewalks. As a professor, I had no work responsibilities that required me to adapt.
Pastors are at the other end of the pandemic impact spectrum with no clear relief in sight. They are trying to preach effectively with empty church pews as their audience. They are suddenly required to be technology experts — available 24/7 to handle computer problems — and still carry out their usual responsibilities.
They feel the intensity of working from home in new ways. They struggle to create appropriate space for pastoral care in the middle of a now-packed and privacy-strained home. They wrestle with the terrible reality that they cannot make hospital visits or, even more wrenching, officiate in traditional ways at funerals. Life for pastors has become immensely harder.
My colleagues and I at the Flourishing in Ministry project have developed some practices based upon our research that I think will help pastors, especially those who are bearing significant burdens from the pandemic. We call these “wise well-being practices” — in part because they are based on solid scientific evidence, and also because they can be tailored to fit into a pastor’s unique ministry and personal situation.
A basic triad of wise well-being practices can help us build solid ground from which to move forward.
First is acknowledging that anxiety is a natural response. We are hard-wired to experience anxiety in times like these, followed by fatigue, frustration and fear when challenges persist. The key goal is to be able to acknowledge that these responses are normal and not somehow evidence of personal “weakness.”
One simple but effective strategy is to explicitly name the troubling thoughts and feelings and then to recognize that they are natural and understandable — that they are OK. Certain kinds of prayer can help with this. The shift in thinking and feeling will probably not be immediate or comprehensive, but research shows that this simple practice, repeated over time, is very likely to help.
The responses may recur, and if they do, that is normal as well. Again, building solid ground starts with accepting that these times are very difficult and quite naturally will evoke anxious, worried thoughts and feelings.
Building solid ground continues by engaging in at least one joyful practice on a regular basis. Joyful practices foster positive, peaceful, hopeful thoughts and feelings. Examples include centering prayer, lectio divina, hymn singing, the reading of beautiful poems, walking meditation, listening to hopeful music and jubilant dance.
I have several joyful practices I turn to, including reading positive nonfiction like Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World” and listening to podcasts like “The Slowdown.” More recently, I have been listening to music that inspires me, like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Even five minutes of a joyful practice each day will produce meaningful benefits over time.
A final way to build solid ground is to get enough rest. Even in good times, we hear a lot about how important getting sufficient sleep is for our health and well-being. During challenging times, it is especially important to ensure that our minds and bodies are rested and restored.
Short catnaps can be very effective. Even if sleep is difficult, finding ways to physically relax can help. And yes, being a couch potato for short periods can be beneficial if that brings rest. But worrying about getting enough rest is counterproductive, so if sleep becomes an ongoing challenge, getting assistance from a physician or heath care professional may be in order.
In times like these, it is important to affirm our core life values and beliefs. Researchers consistently find that when we feel uncertain or threatened, returning to our core values is a balm.
Consider an exercise such as this: Dwell on at least one value. Think about what that value means to you, why your living out that value matters so much. Next, acknowledge the ways you are living it out — you need to be able to embrace concrete things you are doing that represent that value. Then imagine new ways you can live in consonance with that value in several aspects of your life: work, home, civic activities, etc.
Try to be vivid and specific in what you imagine. Make it real for yourself. Finally, create some reminder of the value: an icon, a quotation, an objective that represents it, a song that reflects it. When practiced over time, such affirmations can be powerful antidotes to life’s most challenging experiences.
We invite pastors and other ministry workers and leaders to visit our website to find more resources, including our WorkWell mobile app. WorkWell offers users an opportunity to build their own personal well-being profiles, as well as access to more wise well-being practices by experts including Barbara Brown Taylor, Parker Palmer and James Martin, with new practices from Robert Franklin and others coming soon.
Simple practices that require small amounts of time really do create benefits, as long as we make them rituals, activities that we engage in regularly. My colleagues and I sometimes say “five for flourishing,” which is meant to remind us that we can all find five minutes to help ourselves.