Two new ministries were borne to First Congregational Church of Rowley, MA, (FCOR) in response to the COVID-19 crisis: the Compassionate Care Network and a virtual support group for women during the pandemic.
Angie F. Estévez, the church administrator, is also a 3rd unit Clinical Pastoral Education student pursuing professional chaplaincy. When she was unable to complete her clinical hours at Holy Family Hospital because of the COVID-19 outbreak, she was forced to find an alternative placement. That’s when the pastor, Rev. Tom Bentley, agreed to serve as her chaplaincy preceptor (supervisor) and encouraged her to explore ways in which she might be able to satisfy her program's pastoral care requirements at the Rowley church.
"Angie recently came to our congregation full of energy and committed to helping a church like our own that is not big in membership but is very open to creative ways that can deepen personal relationships. Angie’s skills are broad and well developed in new technologies and online communication methods. Moreover, her deep personal faith and training in chaplaincy presented an amazing opportunity when we decided to hire her for her administrative talents and then also support her in this new ministry of compassion. The crisis of the current pandemic has motivated all of us to reach out more to those in need. We are excited to see the positive results that are making a difference."
The decision to start the women’s group as part of her requirements was prompted by input that Estévez received through conversations and observations with people in the church, in her extended network, and through interactions with some local Facebook community groups. Because of her background, which includes training in counseling and behavioral sciences, she felt she could offer social and emotional techniques to help people better cope with the pandemic.
"What I sensed was that people were experiencing a great deal of grief, despair, stress and anxiety – and this was apparent in mothers who had the additional task of homeschooling their children and dealing with overwhelming responsibilities that the outbreak introduced into their lives," explained Estévez. "This was especially true for many single parent families run by mothers."
"I also found that many of the older folks – again, primarily women – were feeling lonely and afraid. They expressed vulnerability due to their increased risk factors," she said. "A very independent (still working) 85-year old woman told me that she hadn't seen herself as elderly until this pandemic happened."
The group, which was promoted to church members and the community, launched with eight participants via Zoom, and is meeting twice a week through mid-May. The meeting was closed off to new participants after the second session reached 13 people. Estévez felt that capping it at that number was necessary to make sure the group was manageable and that individuals felt they were listened to and supported – which helped them build trust in one another. Now, the women have taken ownership of the group and each woman takes a turn, doing a 15-minute reflection either on how the outbreak has impacted them or on a topic that is personal to them.
"These women have a lot to say. There’s a lot that they’re carrying and not all would be able to participate and share if the group was larger," she said.
The women who ended up joining the group are mostly mid-career professionals who are feeling burdened and need an outlet for what they are experiencing. Some are in the medical field; others are community activists and women who work with at risk populations in a number of roles. Some have been affected by the virus directly (their health or the health of their loved ones) and others are experiencing it in their professional life. The women, who all have professed to have some type of Christian faith foundation, expressed feeling grief, being overwhelmed and lacking support.
One of the participants texted Estévez to say she was glad she joined: “By the end [of the session] I was feeling so much better. I was a bit hesitant and feeling unsociable, but I really think this group is going to be very helpful for me. Thank you for doing this and I thank all those encouraging women in it."
"Folks want to do something right now, and this new support group offers a unique opportunity to connect in a time when our social fabric is torn and tattered," said Estévez. "A faith community grounded in the open-minded tradition of the UCC is the best place to encourage needed sharing and the building of emotional supports.”
Compassionate Care Network
The support group is separate from the Compassionate Care Network, but still has the same goal: to meet the needs of the church and community during the pandemic. Through this new network ministry, volunteers have been making phone calls and diligently reaching out to community members and congregants, including ensuring the elderly get their prescriptions, groceries, and in one case large print books. The group has also sent out flowers to members of the congregation, donated fabric to groups making and supplying face masks to medical personnel, and even encouraged their church sewers who had previously participated in making dresses for girls in Africa to start making face masks for the community.
There are seven members on the steering committee who meet every Wednesday and a handful of others who help reach out. As the steering committee started calling, the list of people needing phone calls started growing. As congregants heard about the committee and the needs, many stepped up and wanted to be part of the calling team so the list of volunteers has grown.
"People are tired, they're growing despondent, they're feeling lonely, abandoned, they're questioning where God is, some are losing hope," said Estévez. "It's part of the Church's mandate to be a conduit of God's love, hope, mercy, benevolence, compassion, and grace, wherever we go – and this shouldn't only occur within the confines of a church building or only within certain structured ministry programs."
"If we really want to meet the needs of the people, we have to be willing to explore non-traditional ministry opportunities," she said. "The Coronavirus outbreak has forced us to do just that."
Reverend Tom Bentley and Angie Estévez can reached at the church office at 978-948-3993 or email email@example.com.