Shepherding the Grieving in a Pandemic

Rhyne Putman

Shepherding during a global pandemic has taught me a lot of new skills as a pastor that seminary could not have prepared me for. I had to learn how to preach to a screen, operate my own camera, and edit my own videos. I became the I.T. guy for senior adult Sunday school classes meeting over webcams. I have presided over a Monday afternoon business meeting in the church parking lot with a quorum of six, all sitting comfortably in their cars. And our greeters are now equipped with masks and no-touch thermometers. 

But the hardest thing I have had to do in the age of the coronavirus is minister to the dying and grieving who lack the ordinary channels of saying goodbye.

Earlier in the spring, I officiated in an outdoor funeral for a member of my church who passed away with COVID-19. I stood there, Bible open in the shadow of a south Louisiana mausoleum, preaching to a small group of family members whose faces I could not see. The bandana-covered bereaved looked more like a gang about to rob a stagecoach than mourners at a funeral. Even by normal funeral standards, it was an unusual and uncomfortable affair.

Like everyone else in America, I am tired of the coronavirus. I am bored with television, anxious to travel and see family, and nervous about what the future holds for the people of God. I have also seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand. Our parish (or county, for people who live outside of Louisiana) has been the most affected parish in the state of Louisiana, a state which, as of late May, had over 34,000 confirmed cases. Eight of my church members have tested positive for the virus, and two have died from complications with it.

Ministry to the grieving has always been one of the hardest parts of pastoring. But ministry to the grieving in a pandemic requires extra sensitivity and care for the new and unique burdens they face.

Sensitivity to the situation

In this politically charged medical crisis, people have often been reduced to statistics or partisan talking points. I have heard well-meaning Christians say things like, “The virus only affects the elderly,” or, “The only ones who die are those with underlying medical conditions.” True, the data says the people who are most affected by the virus fall into these categories. Both people who have died from the virus in my church were in their 90s and had preexisting medical conditions. But neither of these congregants died because they were ignoring the quarantine or violating stay-at-home orders. The virus was transmitted by someone coming in and out of the assisted living facilities where they lived. They became victims of the virus along with many others living in these facilities.

While there is a temptation to reduce such individuals to CDC statistics supporting one political narrative or another, I learned very quickly to restrain any such language or thought when I was talking to their grieving children. No one would dare say, “Well, they were just old,” or, “I’m sorry for your loss, but they had preexisting conditions.” Regardless of their age or medical history, they left behind hurting children and grandchildren who loved their moms and grandmothers. One of these women, a beloved Sunday school teacher, left behind a class of grieving women she had been ministering to for more than four decades.

Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end of our lives.

Each of these individuals was made in the image of God and worthy of the basic human dignity we can bestow on them. So, for example, if me wearing a mask when I go grocery shopping reduces the risk of someone else’s grandmother going through this, it would be worth the small sacrifice on my part. More importantly, I can be careful about the words I use when venting my frustrations or concerns about the present cultural and political climate. I never want to reduce these sweet saints to political talking points.

Embracing at a distance

The practical realities surrounding funerals have changed for the time being. During the initial phase of the stay-at-home orders, many funerals were restricted to groups of 10 or smaller. By the end of May, funerals had been increased to a 25% capacity service as long as strict social distancing practices were maintained. While many of these restrictions feel like necessary evils, they have changed the grieving process for friends and family members, as well as those who are ministering to them.

A few of my church members with larger families have opted to have graveside goodbyes strictly restricted to family members. Consequently, I was left out of a few services I normally would have conducted. Many of our families have planned future memorial services at the church—whenever we have the freedom to conduct them the way the family would like to have them. We have had to be extremely flexible and provide alternate means for those grieving to celebrate the lives of these individuals.

For those services I have participated in, a lot of my normal pastoral routines have been disrupted. I have not made in-home visits or looked through the Bibles of the deceased to take a look at their favorite verses. Worst of all, for the first time in my life as a pastor, I could not put my arms around those who were suffering. The preacher in Ecclesiastes speaks of “a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing” (3:5b). In one of those latter times to avoid embracing, I have had to learn ways in which I could embrace at a distance. At funerals, I have stood at a distance and attempted to communicate my empathy as much as I could with my words and body language. None of it has felt natural or comfortable to me. I have had to be quite intentional about communicating with the grieving, routinely checking in with them, and offering whatever assistance we as a church were capable of providing.

Letting go without touching

Over the last four years, my in-laws have lost all four of their elderly parents. I have learned a lot about the importance of touch from my mother-in-law, who was clasping each of her parents’ hands in the moments they took their final breaths. Physical touch is as important for the person dying as it is for the person they leave behind. Reassuring touches help people who are dying to go peacefully into the arms of Jesus. Even in their unconscious states, they feel the presence of love as they leave this world and enter the next. But because of state and local regulations restricting or reducing the number of guests from hospital rooms and hospices, many sick and elderly people are dying without anyone they know at their side.

The greatest pain many family members have had to face during this time is separation from their loved ones in their final days. I have been told by some that they had to say goodbye to their loved ones through a window or an iPad screen. They have had to deal with additional feelings of guilt or inadequacy. They have worried about their loved ones dying alone in cold, sterile hospital rooms without someone there to hold their hands. They have had to let go of their moms and dads without ever touching them.

The only encouraging words I can muster for family members who feel this come from Scripture: “Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psa. 23:4). Even in life’s valleys where death casts its big, ugly shadow, those who know the Lord continue to live in his presence. God has repeatedly promised never to leave or forsake us (Deut. 31:6, 8; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5). Though we may feel alone, we can rest assured that the God who created us will continue to sustain us in every situation until the end our lives.

Even if no one else saw this crisis coming, God did, and he knows exactly how to walk his people through it. Peter reassured a church in crisis with this message: “Even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials,” and, “though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:6, 8–9). In the same way, may we model trust in and faithful speech about the one who we do not presently see, for he is still at work in our midst. He is present with the dead, the dying, and those who are left behind.

Rhyne Putman is associate vice president for Academic Affairs, director of Worldview Formation, and professor of Christian Ministries at Williams Baptist University.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24