ALLOUEZ — What would Jesus do with his followers in this pandemic?
What he always did. He accompanied people. And he did that in three ways: In large groups, like the crowds that listened to his parables; in small groups, like his apostles, and in one-on-one encounters.
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the country, the followers of Jesus who minister in the Diocese of Green Bay are using the same ideas.
The diocesan staff immediately formed what is known as the Spiritual Accompaniment Task Force. Every week, twice a week, about two dozen people from various offices of the diocese offer a live video conference to parish staff called “Parish Life Line.” At each meeting, 80 to 100 people tune in to share concerns, pray or just listen.
Julianne Stanz, director of parish life and evangelization, said the effort came after praying about how to “personally walk with people during this time.” She called Parish Life Line “the work of a team of Diocesan staff who wanted to bring parishes together, to provide a life line for conversation and prayer as disciples and a place to listen to their needs. It seemed to be a natural extension for the work that we were naturally doing across the curia.”
The twice-weekly meetings are directed by the needs of people serving in the parishes and range from prayer requests to managing stress to ideas about how to reach out to parish members for faith formation and spiritual guidance.
“How to minister differently throughout the pandemic is a frequent theme,” Stanz noted, “along with how to exercise our mission to care for people at a time when public Masses have been postponed. Our parish leaders feel the absence of the Eucharist along with their people and are trying to reach out as never before to share their love and support for their parishioners. We also hear the toll that the pandemic is taking on our people — the effects of the grief, anxiety and depression, along with how to exhibit good self-care when ministry is conducted online.”
As needs are voiced, the curia staff turns to its members who are experts in various fields, as well as outside sources, such as Ted Phernetton, head of Catholic Charities for the Diocese Green Bay, and Dr. Lynn Wagner, an integrative medicine and emergency room doctor with Aurora BayCare in Green Bay.
One topic was “Praying in Difficult Times.” Joe Tremblay, parish evangelization coordinator for the diocese, led that feature.
“I spoke on topics relating to anxiety and trauma within the context of faith,” Tremblay explained. “I knew that unresolved tension with family and work relationships could heighten anxiety levels. In fact, leading up to the pandemic, anxiety levels were already high.”
Tremblay, a father of six, also noted that during times of distress, “our view of God can get distorted and our faith in him can suffer. Unresolved questions such as, ‘Where was God when I needed him?’ can lead to a faith crisis. At the same time, the word of God and our Catholic spiritual tradition has so much to offer us in times like these. I wanted to speak to those issues.”
Just as Jesus spent time with small groups, Parish Life Line members found small groups helped parishes. So the “Office Hours” offshoot began. Several diocesan leaders host weekly virtual gatherings that share casual conversations on a particular topic. These range from “Hearing God’s Voice Today,” which includes exploring the Bible; “Christ, Communication and Coffee,” offering communications tips for parish leaders and a “Leadership Lunch and Learn” every Wednesday.
The Lunch and Learn is Stanz’s “Office Hour.” She describes the group as “a smaller venue to share with like-minded people on a variety of topics. … The (26) people in my group come together around a shared topic and are really creative and thoughtful in how they are approaching their ministry.”
Joe Tremblay leads a weekly Office Hour on “What’s Really Bothering You?”
“We talk about deeper issues such as inner healing and brokenness. Speaking from a position of vulnerability opened many doors and led to many answered prayers for people,” he said “It’s worth noting that, in times such of these, the very best qualities of people can surface and, unfortunately, the worst qualities do emerge as well. But just having a safe place to talk about these things and put it all in God’s hands has really helped quite a few people.”
Tremblay’s wife, Elisa Tremblay, serves as marriage and life ministries director for the diocese. She hosts her own “Office Hour” on Thursday evenings, called “Mom’s Night In.”
“I realized that ladies and moms especially are always receptive,” she said, “to things that help them step away from what they are doing and connect with other women just to talk. I have always loved ‘Mom’s Nights Out’ and have made many good friends over the years. This seemed like a perfect way to continue that experience just through virtual means — thus ‘Mom’s Night In.’”
She calls the weekly turnout “beautiful.”
“What makes me so happy,” Tremblay said, “is that there are women from literally all over the diocese who come onto these Zoom meetings. It is so great to meet women I would probably have never met otherwise. We have some women join us each week, and some join us when they can, either way we always have great conversation.”
Another “Office Hours” evening offering is “Late Night Nosh” with Jane Angha, diocesan young adult coordinator. Her online offering involves both talk and food.
“I asked our young adults what they might like to do on any given night as they were doing the isolation thing — and the topic of food came up, as it usually does,” Angha said about her Tuesday evening virtual chats.
“Late Night Nosh” involves recipes and cooking lessons — but for simple foods including homemade Pop-Tarts and brie cheese bites. The recipes are posted a few days ahead, and then most members send out links on their Facebook pages.
Angha said 15 to 25 join each week, from young adults to parents to regional young adult coordinators.
“This little hour together is not over planned,” Angha said, “it’s mostly a time to just be together — and talk. We cook, of course, but often people just join for the conversation or to watch. We usually share a glass of wine or other beverage and talk. … It’s just a time to be together — connect and not feel so alone. There is lots of laughter, conversation. That’s it — it’s been delightful actually.”
Along with the large Parish Life Line and the smaller group settings of “Office Hours,” about 20 diocesan staff members also handle one-on-one talks, checking in with parish staff who have requested calls. Stanz calls it “deep empathetic listening as people share their joys and struggles with us.”
While these various groups are aimed at helping parish staff, the hope is that, as those parish staff become more settled in the new reality of the ongoing pandemic, they will gain confidence to reach out to parish members in much the same way. Many already have.
The diocesan curia keeps a listing of best practices that they have heard from the 156 parishes around the diocese. These include parking lot adoration, phone trees to nursing homes, car blessings, drive-in reconciliation, virtual rosaries and inspirational chalk drawing on parish and school parking lots.
As Joe Tremblay explained it, “something unexpected (has) started to emerge. People started to say how much they loved, not only the Parish Life Lines, but the “Office Hours” (as well as the one-on-one Zoom meetings). There was an interconnectedness that many of them had not experienced before.”