Parish engagement in a COVID world

April 22, 2021

By David Werning, Managing Editor

When a group of people are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and you know it’s still a long way off, what do you do? Theresa Chamblee, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, has the answer: You engage them.

Chamblee interacts with a lot of people since her office manages parish social ministry as well as relationships with other organizations like Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services. She also helps with disaster services. During the summer of 2020, Chamblee was hearing from parishioners and others the understandable desire that the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns would end soon. But she knew the end was not in sight.

We wanted to help people realize that this is the new normal,” Chamblee said. “We are living through a disaster. There’s a down and there’s an up, but it can take as long as two years to recover. We have to start thinking that – even when COVID goes away – the repercussions will be long-standing. So we want to help parishes prepare for that.

Chamblee, along with others from Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese, formed a task force to directly engage the people and staff in the parishes. The group developed a survey that asked what the parishes were already doing during COVID, what more they might be able to do, and their top three concerns.

Survey responses included typical outreaches such as drive-thru pantries and efforts at staying connected to others while public celebrations were prohibited. But what was very interesting, according to Chamblee, was the top concerns. All the responses in some way touched on five main issues: isolation, especially among senior citizens; how to help people stay connected to their faith; the sustainability of ministries; volunteers, how to keep them safe and how to recruit new ones; and how to navigate the virtual world.

Based on the responses, the task force created a special website called “Parish Engagement in a COVID World” (You can visit it here). The website includes four sections: Spiritual Engagement, Community Engagement, Volunteer Engagement, and Financial Engagement. Each section offers ways for people to connect safely during the pandemic. Some of the suggestions are from the task force, but many come from parishes that submitted their ideas to be replicated at other places.

Part of the outreach included webinars on topics such as mental health, grieving a loss during the pandemic, and reaching out to senior citizens. Participants had the opportunity to hear from Catholic Charities experts and to ask questions. “The webinar series was well received,” says Chamblee, “because people were hungry for clarity and hope and information. They just kept asking, ‘How do we handle this? We’ve never experienced it before.’”

Chamblee thinks the effort has been very successful. While she and many of the staff of Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese have a lot of experience with virtual meetings, the same is not true for many parishioners, especially those in rural areas. She saw that people really enjoyed and appreciated the virtual meetings. “We’ve had virtual prayer meetings and 60 to 80 people log in and begin chatting with each other, catching up on things. They were hungry for fellowship.”

Indeed, the website and virtual outreach have been so successful that Chamblee thinks post-COVID virtual meetings will continue.

I’ve seen that people are more comfortable now with virtual meetings. We can’t be everywhere, so this allows us to reach rural areas. We can do telehealth, for example, which is going through the roof; the waiting list is getting longer and longer. People have greater access to Catholic Charities when they didn’t before.” And about that light at the end of the tunnel? Catholic Charities shows that instead of waiting, just bring the light yourself.

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