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What you need for Spiritual First Aid during COVID

Biblical and research-based guidance to help churches respond to needs in a disaster-filled world

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November 17, 2020

Here’s the truth about the church and COVID-19: the church never closed. The church has been there each step of the way, being the church: staffing the food drives, studying the Word together over Zoom, sewing the masks, praying for the sick, and worshiping across summer bonfires. The church never stopped this year. Whatever legal battles continue to unfold, no pandemic and no executive order could ever stop the body of Christ from functioning.

But herein lies the paradox: coming together physically in community is one of the most helpful acts a church can do to help the hurting. Unfortunately, in the age of COVID-19, it is this precise behavior that puts people at physical risk. Now we have wildfires, police brutality, separation of child migrants, and a host of other natural and humanitarian disasters to contend with, as well. What is the church to do?

Together, we (Jamie Aten and Kent Annan) have studied disaster psychology and worked in disaster ministry around the globe for the last 15 years. We’ve responded to public health emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak; Hurricanes Katrina, Michael, and Harvey; mass shootings; post-conflict zones in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and refugee crises. 

What makes a difference 

Of this combined three decades of experience, we have found that two key postures make more difference than any other when a church is trying to help disaster survivors. Grounding help in humility and practical presence, even when done remotely, increases a helper’s ability to hear, understand, and meet the needs of the person they are assisting. People tend to feel the most comfort when they feel their needs are perceived accurately and when they feel others care about them. Especially during COVID-19, when we cannot always provide physical presence, it becomes more crucial that we show others we care about what is going on in their lives with a mindset and spirit of humility and practical presence.

People tend to feel the most comfort when they feel their needs are perceived accurately and when they feel others care about them.

With this in mind, we spent the last four years field testing and refining a method for evidence-informed, lay intervention for spiritual and emotional care intervention after a personal, regional, or global disaster. We call it Spiritual First Aid, and at the core of Spiritual First Aid is the BLESS method. The BLESS Method takes the “guesswork” out of disaster spiritual and emotional care and makes humble helping and practical presence more “concrete.” It responds to the five core needs:

Our research suggests that it is important to recognize that these are interconnected. Although only one of these needs is listed as spiritual, all of these needs have a spiritual component.

As each core need is assessed, we encourage churches and leaders to carefully observe (attend) the situation and environment, and explore and prioritize needs through questioning (ask). At a basic level, this is about being quick to listen, and slow to speak. When the primary core unmet needs have been identified, helpers can move into intervention: acting on the unmet needs and repeating the action if warranted or possible.

Resources to help meet needs

Our team at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute has created a library of resources to help churches navigate the challenges of this season at reopeningthechurch.com. We have also created a virtual shelf full of resources for your church at SpiritualFirstAidHub.com. These include the COVID-19 Mental Health Handbook and the Spiritual First Aid Manual, which has step-by-step instructions for identifying and addressing unmet needs from the core categories listed above. 

We also partnered with the ERLC on a special edition of our Preparing Your Church for Coronavirus manual, a step-by-step, research-informed and faith-based planning guide to help churches navigate the challenges of COVID-19.

The good news is that our team’s studies show that taking small steps to practically help others amidst a crisis like COVID-19 can make a big difference. Time and time again our research demonstrates that one way churches help others during difficult times is through spiritual and social support. Moreover, spiritual support and social support helps people find meaning, hope, and comfort in times of crisis. 

Over the past 6 months, HDI has reached over 603 million people and trained 29,620 people around the globe. HDI recently released its 6-month impact report describing how it has helped during the pandemic. 

Jamie Aten

Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton. Visit jamieaten.com. Read More by this Author

Kent Annan

Kent Annan is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. Visit kentannan.com. Read More by this Author