I came across an interesting list a few months ago. It was a list of the richest animals in the world. Did you know that the richest animal in the world is a dog named Gunther IV. Gunther is worth about $373 million dollars give or take. He received his wealth from his father Gunther III who received his wealth from his owner Karlotta Leibenstein. Apparently Gunther IV is something of a mover and shaker because he recently bought a villa in Miami that was previously owned by Madonna. So who does that?Who leaves millions of dollars to a dog? In most every case, the animals on the list were given their money, because their owners didn’t have a person in their lives to give it to. It must be sad, don’t you think, to have so much to share, and no one you love enough to share it with; no one you trust enough to give it to. And no one to trust when life became difficult, as it inevitably does.
Loneliness is a problem. A 2018 survey revealed that nearly one in four Americans felt like they had no close friends…none! And that was in the carefree days when no one had ever heard of Covid 19. What do you think such a survey would reveal now about the loneliness that so many people are feeling?
And it’s not just an emotional problem. A few years ago, a physician named Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad did a study on the health benefits of human interaction. Her team reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social interactions and health of 308,849 people over an average of 7.5 years. From these studies they worked out how death rates varied depending on how inter-connected a person was to others. Guess what they found out. Being lonely and isolated was as bad for a person’s health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It was as harmful as not exercising and twice as bad for your health as being obese.
That’s the bad news, but here’s the good news. If you’re reading this you’re likely part of an organization that is almost perfectly suited to solve this problem. We call it “the Church.”
From the moment, the First Church of Jerusalem decided to ask seven people to start making certain that everyone in their congregation had enough to eat, the Church has been focused on being a family in word and deed. They had a problem and they needed a solution so they adapted their structures to make certain that they weren’t just talking about loving their neighbors as themselves, but actually doing it.
What about your church? How are you adapting to make certain that people feel seen and heard in this long grind of isolation and social distancing? Here are just a few things I’m hearing about what churches are doing:
1) Refocus lay leadership structures such as Deacon ministry or Stephen’s Ministry to “spread love not Covid.” There’s a good chance that your church already has a formal system for showing care that doesn’t depend solely on your staff team to execute. Add a little bit of focus and information and you can unleash them to do what they’re fully capable of doing.
2) Get playful – I’ve heard from a handful of churches who are using zoom to pull small groups together to play games and have a good time. One median adult small group hosted a Family Feud competition on Zoom. Another one played Pictionary. A quick google search will reveal to you the number of websites that have rushed social games onto online platforms to make it possible for groups to play and interact at the same time.
3) Go old school by writing cards or using the telephone. I called a friend of mine who is a pastor in a rural area a few weeks ago. “How are you and your church doing,” I asked, expecting to hear a tired sigh. “We’re doing pretty good,” he said, surprising me. “Our folks were on the phone with each other all the time before the pandemic hit, that’s still true. I think folks here still feel connected.” Maybe there’s a clue for the rest of us in that. Cards and phone calls might feel like a 20th Century solution to a 21st century crisis but then I read that they’re also testing a few old vaccines at the moment to see what they might do to Covid. It certainly won’t hurt and there’s a good chance it will help.
4) Get outside the box…literally. A handful of churches have started finding ways to use the relative safety of the outdoors to worship and socialize. Parking lots, playgrounds, ball-fields and green spaces can be repurposed into places where people can social distance but still be together because the airflow keeps people safe. No, it’s not as easy or as comfortable as being inside but it will be an antidote to loneliness. Just make sure and be intentional with the rules for masking and social distancing.
5) Create Care Circles – I received this recommendation from a colleague in our organization who works in mental health at a major teaching hospital. Unlike the family ministry plans which have one caregiver check on a number of families in your congregation, this shares the responsibility and opportunity for providing care with everyone in the circle. The focus is on transparency, lament, and sharing. If you’d like to know a little more about how to make these circles work contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Loneliness is a problem. The good news is that, with a little bit of creativity and intentionality, we can do something about it. We might not be able to cure the virus yet, but this is one symptom that we’re more than capable of treating.