As the world welcomed in the new year no one had heard of Novel Coronavirus, but, six months later, life as we knew it has changed and, in some cases, irrecoverably. Here is how the church was affected, how it reacted and how it intends to emerge from the pandemic.
By Barry Gittins
It started back in January as a bizarre overseas news story, initially dismissed by many of us as a health bogeyman far from our shores. Another MERS (Middle East Respiratory Sydrome), perhaps, or a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Miles and miles away from hurting us.
We saw that it wreaked an unholy havoc in sufferers’ bodies, and was believed to be connected to the food chain, like Mad Cow Disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), swine flu, or bird flu. But for the vast majority of Australians, still staggered by the 2019-2020 bushfires, it was not our problem.
If we thought of Novel Coronavirus at all, it was with concern for the Chinese people. We blithely dismissed it as akin to influenza, which results in up to 3000 deaths in our nation every year, and 18,000 hospitalisations.
A more accurate, if eerier, comparison emerged when we saw the disease spread devastatingly from China to European states such as Italy, the UK, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Germany and, most of all, the US.
But on March 22 the Federal Government closed airports and state borders; we’d finally recognised that COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019) was, like the Spanish Flu of 1919, a pandemic.
Australia lost an estimated 12,000- 15,000 lives to Spanish Flu, with estimated international mortality rates reaching 100 million. We did not want to go there again. Physical distancing, perhaps unhelpfully labelled “social distancing”, ensued.
Industries were shut down by federal action, and schools were shut. Our population was sent to its room to stem the infection rate, and senior citizens in particular were mothballed. The economy was put into a coma, and millions of jobs were put on life support through the Job Keeper concept (albeit with dodgy arithmetic).
While we Down Under are grateful to have “only” lost 100-plus lives so far (early modelling suggested we could have faced tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of hospitalisations), we are still learning about this disease, and still seeking a vaccine. We wince at its impact on the aged, on pregnant women, and its far-reaching grasp beyond our lungs and hearts, impacting livers, kidneys, the immune and the gastro-intestinal systems.
The Uniting Church has been a bulwark of support for its members and the many communities of Victoria and Tasmania.
Here we canvass the impact on our operations, the spiritual and psychological impact of isolation, the health of our churches, our help to those in crisis, and our hopes post lockdown as we gradually emerge from COVID-19’s shadow.
Bronwyn Pike is the CEO of UnitingVic. Tas – the Uniting Church’s community services arm – providing emergency relief, aged and carer services, treatment for alcohol and other drugs, child, youth and family services, disability and early learning services, employment and mental health services, and homelessness and housing services.
Bronwyn says that while Uniting seeks to inspire people, enliven communities and confront injustice, it also sees advocacy as “a really important role, and it’s an activity that we must engage in, especially at this time”. Her weekly ABC Radio segment with Virginia Trioli is one way she helps “to set our conversation about justice in a broader social context”.
“When we work with vulnerable people, we recognise there are unjust systems and structures,” Bronwyn explains, “and we feel compelled to try to influence public thinking and government policy. COVID-19 presents real opportunities to re-litigate some issues that have been challenging, because governments can move and adapt very quickly in crises – for example, consider the doubling of the Newstart allowance.
“This pandemic has actually given the country an opportunity … it’s like the pressing of a pause button. We can ask, ‘what is really important to us?’ Everyone is understandably pre-occupied, but the recovery phase is our chance to pose important questions about who we want to be.”
In terms of service and support, Brownyn reports UnitingVic.Tas has seen “an increase in numbers of people asking for material aid, and support with energy and water bills, and pharmaceuticals. Particularly, we are seeing more people who were in casual, impermanent work.
“We are deeply concerned for many members of our communities who are older, frail, shut-in, who may have mental health issues and those who may be suffering from abuse. We are also seeing an increase in the demand for our services for people who are faced with addictions to alcohol and other drugs.”
A deeper problem, stemming from stresses, substance abuse and financial pressure, is family violence, which Bronwyn says “can be very hidden in a pandemic”. “People are not coming forward because they are locked in a house with the perpetrator of violence; they don’t have the freedom to get out and seek assistance,” she says.
Bronwyn says many of her staff are working from home and “doing phone contacts and Face Time … we have been providing ‘takeaway’ food and delivering food to people who are unable to travel, rather than having people come into our sites, sit down and share meals, as we did before COVID-19”.
Asked if she and her staff are encountering optimism or pessimism, Bronwyn says that “largely we are facing people’s fear – fear of losing their home, and longer-term financial consequences. People are scared for their kids, scared for themselves, scared for their elderly parents”.
“Underlying it, people are frightened of being infected with COVID-19. A lot of people are so frightened that they are not going to medical practitioners for other health conditions and assistance,” she says.
Bronwyn’s staff combats this fear by finding hope “in the constructive ways people have responded to this crisis”. “There has been an outpouring of generosity also, and a renewed respect for the things we need to do for the common good,” she adds.
“I’ve seen people adapt fairly quickly to an emergency; I remind them that people are important, and that change is possible.”
This is not Pollyanna optimism – it is an observation from a former Victorian Government minister, skilled in political and service operations, and a seasoned observer.
“Intractable problems can be solved very quickly in a crisis; consider the fact that we have seen a thousand homeless people taken off the streets into temporary accommodation to assist the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. People can and do rise to the occasion, and we can do amazing things as a community when we need to,” Bronwyn says.
“We’ve learnt that we are more adaptable than we think we are. Our computer skills have increased 100 per cent. We can communicate in adverse situations, and we can change our patterns of behaviour and work when we need to.
“We have also learnt that we can slow down a bit and still achieve great things – a lot of people are valuing having more time with their families and getting out of the ‘rat race’. And, surprisingly, that we don’t need three-quarters of the clothes in our wardrobes!”
As General Secretary, Rev Dr Mark Lawrence is the Executive Officer for all Synod Ministries. His remit includes the Office of the Secretariat, the Office of the Moderator, the Property Trust, the Mission Resourcing Unit, which includes Administration, Finance, People and Culture, IT … the list goes on to include education, leadership, strategy, advocacy, etc. Mark also serve as the formal liaison point between the Synod and other councils and institutions of the Church.
Before COVID-19, Mark had light- heartedly described himself as a “meeting junkie” – how is that description standing up at present?
“There are still as many meetings,” he notes, “but they tend to become shorter because of Zoom and Teams. Life is more sedentary, checking in and out of video meetings rather than physically travelling.”
Mark had also, somewhat prophetically before the pandemic, called for the church to look for “fresh words and deeds”.
Mark places the quote in the context of the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para 11), which in a lengthier setting thanks God “for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr”.
Somewhere in the midst of all those roles, as people pray and hope, suffer or die, work for a cure and nurse the afflicted, grieve losses, celebrate progress and fear the unknown, the “occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds”.
“Expressions of the faith are never carved in stone,” Mark explains. “It is a question of what is appropriate – in light of following Christ.”
In our churches, he says, “across the congregations, it’s been incredibly encouraging to see them using new forms of technology. They are also using old ways – calling people over the phone, writing letters, posting them”.
“They have gathered together ‘virtually’ for worship and pastoral support,” Mark says.
“Our congregations have been really creative. But yes, it has been hard. This is a moment in time when they can use what’s available, like Zoom for meetings and study groups and worship.
“A number of congregations are using YouTube for services. Others are using Zoom to have a ‘cuppa’ with groups and friends before or after services.”
Mark notes that some ministers are writing services and posting them to their congregation members during the week, to have for Sunday. Others are wrestling with God, “theologically reflecting in response to COVID-19 impacts about factors such as the Church’s forms of worship, community, and engagement with society”.
Past the pain and uncertainty, in the doubt and trials, Mark sees a role for us. COVID-19 is an “exciting opportunity for further growth and understanding about faithful and thoughtful engagement with the world of which we are a part”.
“Overwhelmingly, members of the church are part of a wider community that needs to change, for everyone’s sake and health,” he says.
“The church needs to maintain its social license, and in whatever we do we need to abide by community standards. That’s happening in our congregations.
“Our Synod staff are working from home – the way they have engaged with technology to continue to provide services to the wider Church makes me proud. They have done that well.
I recognise the challenges, balancing their work with their parenting and the schooling of their kids. They have been very flexible, they have met those responsibilities and supported the church.
“There are a lot of commitments and meetings, but we are having shorter meetings more frequently. We have risen to the occasion, contributing to the resourcing of the Uniting Church.”
Mark thanks God that people have been able to continue to worship and serve their communities, even with the current restrictions.
“We are all asking questions about the future and how long we can sustain those efforts. I remind people that the Church has always been called to think about how it shares the good news of Jesus, in the context in which it finds itself,” he says.
“We are a pilgrim people; our tradition is that of a reforming and renewing church. A church with this tradition, and as a pilgrim people, we are always called to engage with the culture we find ourselves in.”
Keen to think things through, to burrow down, Mark is already contemplating what we have learnt and can learn from the past months. “We need to be – I need to be – attentive to this strange, strained environment,” he says. “Addressing change effectively takes a lot of concentration. Working through difficult and different things does take energy, and we can be more tired doing new things.
“I am surrounded by people who are optimistic; people who want to continue to express worship, witness, and service as a church, whatever the circumstances.”
Andrew Kinnersly is the CEO of Uniting AgeWell. He has worked to keep up the morale and safeguard the health of those people in his remit.
Stringent cleaning and physical isolation measures have reduced the risk of infection for 1590 residential care beds in 20 residential care facilities in Victoria and Tasmania, as well as caring for 520 residents in independent living units and 7350 home care and community services clients.
Andrew also has responsibility for the wellbeing of more than 2800 staff and 660 volunteers, although, he explains, “most of our volunteers are protecting our residents and themselves by staying at home and physically isolating themselves as per the authorities’ instructions”.
Morale for aged Australians in Uniting AgeWell care has been sustained by “a significant focus on lifestyle activities, and keeping families connected”.
“We have invested in tablets, smartphones etc, using Face Time and Skype, and boosted our wi-fi,” he says.
“It’s been really important and we have received great feedback from families, saying that it is so helpful to be able to ‘see’ their loved ones, and know they are healthy and happy.”
The prospects of loneliness, anxiety and depression, Andrew says, have been countered by the fact that “we actually have a lot of people about”.
“Our chaplains and staff are brilliant; they help keep human interactions humming along and keep people active. Our residents are mingling, and we have a lot happening, which is good for everyone’s mental health and sense of wellbeing.”
Andrew acknowledges that COVID-19 has been challenging for home care clients, but says the home care staff, and management team are doing “a fantastic job working hard to combat social isolation, again helping people stay connected through technology”.
Protecting lives by observing health authorities’ instructions is good stewardship. But handling the ceding of personal freedoms with the act of preserving life – ensuring health by limiting personal freedoms of movement, etc – is a nuanced and necessary balancing act.
“By far the biggest issue is not having face-to-face contact, and smiles and hugs from family members,” Andrew says.
“Technology is a great help, but it is honestly not as good as physical contact. But it is a big step in the right direction.
“We have done and are doing everything we can to make social interactions both meaningful and plentiful, and feedback from families of residents has been really positive about the contact they’ve had and the extra care their loved ones are receiving, and the extra cleaning we are doing, in line with government recommendations. That feedback boosts our staff morale.”
It was in discussing the crisis with residents that Andrew realised time and again “that most of our residents are extremely resilient. They tell us of hard times they have endured in the past, such as the Depression and wars”.
“The ANZAC celebrations gave us a lot of food for thought on attitudes, and ‘bearing up’ under adversity,” he says.
“We learn from older Australians that community is important, and that we need to stick together and not bicker.
“I have found it quite inspiring, personally. We have a lot to learn from older generations.”
Andrew receives a lot of positive feedback “about our culture” and tells his staff “that we will get through this, and that we will be a stronger organisation because of it”.
“There is so much anxiety in our society, and it is present with us too; we are human.
“Anxiety is high with our leadership team, our clients and residents and their families, and we acknowledge that truth and talk about it. We clearly do not want to see COVID-19 in our communities, and no-one wants to see it in our own homes, either.
“I tell my staff they are on the frontline and they are heroes. Despite our nerves, we are holding strong. Dealing with anxiety is crucial – I am optimistic personally and we are planning huge, respectful parties to celebrate our ‘win’ at the end of this.
“We send letters and video messages to staff, to remind them they are valued, and we share positive stories. Our people are going above and beyond, and that is being noticed; we happily share with them the rich feedback from our residents’ families.
“We are having great outcomes, especially when compared to our peers in overseas nations.
“I tell our staff we have well- documented challenges, and no-one is perfect or incapable of error, but our sector is standing up and their efforts are to be applauded.”
As CEO of U Ethical managed funds, Mathew Browning and his 24 Melbourne- based team members manage investments across more than 4000 client accounts nationally. Those clients include corporate and institutional investors, charities and not-for-profits, as well as individual investors and self- managed super funds.
U Ethical invests more than $1 billion on behalf of its clients. Some 80 per cent of the funds under U Ethical’ management springs from charities and not-for-profits, including education, health, community and religious organisations.
“Though we have been actively growing our broader client base,” Mathew explains, “the Church, including presbyteries and congregations, still makes up almost 70 per cent, with members of congregations adding to that.”
The question arises, does a pandemic affect confidence in the investment market?
“Significantly!” Mathew responds. “The economic outlook is, and will continue to be, uncertain and this constrains our ability to forecast and to value investments. Investment managers like U Ethical are paid to have a view and, ideally, one held with a degree of conviction, but we must also be realistic.”
Mathew cites a quote from medical statistician Robert Grant. An acknowledged expert in infectious diseases, Grant addressed the reality of uncertainty and said, “That’s why you don’t see me making any novel coronavirus forecasts”.
“Confidence also affects how organisations and individuals choose to invest,” Mark explains, “and this in turn affects how we work with our existing and prospective clients.”
The pandemic has seen U Ethical Investors transition successfully to a “working from home force”, with lots of video conferencing across the team and with clients. “Very much a move to ‘business as unusual’,” Mathew quips.
“Our investment performance reflects the quality of our investment team, with our Australian and international equity strategies strongly outperforming their benchmarks. The swift and extraordinary pressure on financial markets, along with ultra-low interest rates, has prompted us to ensure our products are fit-for- purpose and we shall be making some changes to ensure they continue to work effectively for clients over the long-term.
“We’ve also increased the frequency of our client communications – this is crucial in uncertain times.”
One’s person’s cyclonic flood may well be another person’s drought-breaking rain.
“In our portfolios,” Mathew says, “some of our investments in the health sector have done very well. Companies that are struggling include those in sectors like discretionary retail, tourism and hospitality.”
Reassuringly, Mathew notes that public concerns about people withdrawing funds against their superannuation has not impacted U Ethical investors. “We manage money for some institutional superannuation funds, and also a number of self- managed super funds, which have tended to be less affected,” he says.
We all respond to world-changing events in our own way. Mathew notes that “organisations at their core are groups of people”, and that “overall, most are coping and, importantly, making sensible decisions and staying safe”.
Mathew believes we can find hope in the quality of resilience.
“I am a student of history and pandemics have occurred before, so in a sense nothing is new and yet everything is new. It is a question of seeing our experience in context,” he says.
“The lessons we learn will go on to have a more long-lasting impact than we currently realise. Significant events like this affect human behaviour for a generation, so its ripples will be felt for years. The human response to life is learnt and lived out over time.”
Among the most potent foes we face during COVID-19, as discussed throughout this article, are fear, loneliness, depression and anxiety, the existential threat of the prospect of death or bereavement, and the emotional impacts of losing or being separated from those we love, and being unable to provide for them or ourselves.
These looming issues can manifest, in and outside of the church, through substance abuse, family violence, poverty, unemployment and financial pressure.
As Moderator – the church’s spiritual leader whose first responses are reflexively pastoral – Rev Denise Liersch knows context is everything when it comes to how the Church and our broader society are to deal with COVID-19.
“It differs entirely for each of us, depending on individual circumstances and personalities; it is contextual,” Denise says, acknowledging that many individuals “are really, really struggling”.
“People are feeling the isolation,” she says. “For many workers, almost the whole of their lives at this point consists of them sitting in front of a screen, and it’s not enough for them, not nearly enough. And a lot of people are in that situation. People are finding they are on edge, narky in their responses to others, or withdrawing. Life is harder for them.”
Conversely, however, Denise also knows that others are re-discovering time and space. She mentions friends, colleagues and acquaintances “who are taking time for themselves and their families and friends”.
Denise shares that she has “gained clarity” during this trying time. “I have really valued the connections with individuals in my life and we have gotten to the real nitty gritty of what is most life-giving in the ministry of the church. We are talking about the stuff that really matters,” she says.
“Personality comes into play. As well as being physically isolated, people are feeling isolated socially and without their usual work, church and community activities, have lost their sense of purpose. For some of our Uniting Church members, identity and purpose and meaning are found in church activities, which have changed out of necessity. In rural communities, especially, the one chance to see people and talk is on a Sunday, and that’s gone, temporarily.”
Denise is aware the experiences for individuals and congregations vary markedly. “For some,” she notes, “the use of technology has not been an option, as they don’t have computers or smartphones, or good internet. There are factors of age, computer literacy and skills, socio-economic realities and tight incomes or no incomes.”
So, while many Uniting Church communities are thriving with the assistance of technology, others are not.
“Across Victoria and Tasmania, we know a lot of our people are coping with heartache and grief; there are also a lot of us who are resilient and are doing well,” she says. “Often it is a question of what is manageable, and what feels like too much.”
Denise has joined the rest of the country in largely being “grounded” at home. “Like everyone, I am missing events and celebrations. I am an introvert, so I haven’t had as much difficulty as some people, but it is still difficult at times.”
What weighs heavily on her heart is those who are disconnected socially and spiritually.
While thankful that “our congregations, worship leaders, ministers and lay people have, to a large degree, adapted and found different ways of ‘being church’, serving their communities and connecting with people” she knows that is not true for all. The need for constant adaptation to the changes is draining our energy, and that’s taking its toll. That hurts her.
But it’s not all bad news. “People are saying to me, often with genuine surprise, that they are coping,” she says. “I have feedback from congregational leaders, ministers and lay people, saying they normally have 40 people participating in worship, but they are having 300 people participating, and emailing them thanks afterwards.
“The use of technology does allow accessibility for people in many situations to get what they need. Also through phone calls, print mailouts, letters. What matters in these times is that human connection to each other, and looking out for each other.”
Denise is sharing hope with those she speaks to, by reminding them that their God is a God of new things. “I tell them God is calling us into something new, towards words of graciousness and promise,” she says quietly.
“God is with us through the isolation, the issues of our mental health and our well-being. God is among us and within us. I encourage them to seek God’s presence, no matter the darkness, or even the presence of death.”
Where to next?
Bronwyn Pike, Uniting Vic.Tas CEO
“I hope we can continue to work hard, maximising our impact on the lives of individuals and their communities in a positive way. We can continue the nimble, innovative approaches we have developed; the creative ways we have found to help people.”
Mark Lawrence, Synod general secretary
“As the councils and agencies of the Church working together, we can provide practical, pastoral, and spiritual assistance to people. We can help them to think through their engagement with each other and with the divine, and what meaning they can find in life.”
Andrew Kinnersly, Uniting AgeWell CEO
“We can apply the lessons we have learnt of community, resilience, and sticking together as a team that’s united in mission. I am stoked by the positivity that we are seeing result from better communication. I hope we don’t lose that.”
David Herbert , Synod Director of Risk Management & Insurance Services
“I hope the Uniting Church and its agencies realise we can do things differently; that we have innovated through necessity. In some ways I believe we have learnt how to better support the communities we serve.”
Mathew Browning, U Ethical CEO
“We are, as a nation, still living on government payments. When they go it will be hard work for many, many people and the fantastic services the Church and its agencies provide across the community will be all the more in demand.”
Denise Liersch, Synod Moderator
“We still have difficult challenges about what really matters. With all we’ve been discovering, we’re faced with the question, ‘What is God calling us to?’ Big questions are front and centre and we can’t just flip back to how things were. We are being called into a different future, which may not necessarily look like what we’ve known from the past.”
This article originally appeared in the June edition of Crosslight. To read the full magazine, click here.