By Andrew Humphries
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the nation on March 18, he announced the first battle in the war against a silent health enemy that had emerged only weeks earlier.
In the seven months since, every Australian has become all too familiar with a virus that has turned the country upside down. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our health system, taken an axe to the economy and changed society in ways that will be felt for generations.
The impacts have taken a frightening toll on our mental health and wellbeing. In regional Victoria, towns such as Colac have been hit hard, with residents enduring onerous restrictions and experiencing the same fear that has gripped smaller communities around the country.
That fear became all too real again early last month, when Colac was hit with more than 20 COVID-19 cases in just a few days.
For the city’s Uniting Church minister Stephen Ratcliffe and church council chair Mike Holland, the pandemic has presented challenges on many fronts and posed some fundamental questions for them and the church.
How could a physical connection be kept with the congregation, when ongoing restrictions meant an end to church services? How could they make sure congregation members were doing OK in virtual isolation? How would the congregation, and the Uniting Church itself, emerge from such a difficult time?
Seven months on, the Colac congregation continues to be heavily impacted by changes wrought by COVID-19. Traditional avenues of worship and faith have disappeared and a brave new world involving greater use of technology, including live streaming, has taken their place. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Stephen.
“I see live streaming of services as something that will continue, whatever else happens,” he says.
“It might be that we have lost some of our congregation members at services, but live streaming means they can now stay at home and watch from there.”
Even the humble telephone and email have taken centre stage in communicating with the congregation as face-to-face interaction has become much more difficult.
But that loss of personal interaction nurtured by Sunday services and other gatherings poses other problems, as congregation members risk becoming isolated, leading to mental health issues.
In a Public Health Research & Practice paper published at the end of June, academics Ben Smith and Michelle Lim described the effects of COVID-19 on health, the economy and social engagement as “swift and far reaching”, suggesting even at that relatively early stage it had had “dramatic mental health impacts”.
Those impacts were certainly felt in Colac, as the safety net of inclusion disappeared for many Uniting Church congregation members. Mike knew that without regular lines of communication, some members were in danger of slipping through the cracks.
Among the most vulnerable were the congregation’s elderly members, about 20 of whom reside in aged care. As medical experts began to gather information on who COVID-19 affected the most, it quickly became apparent that the elderly were most at risk, particularly from a health perspective.
But no less important have been the mental health impacts on them. As council chair, Mike felt a strong sense of responsibility to make sure that all was done to keep the congregation’s elderly members connected to the church.
“The issue of a duty of care towards them was felt pretty strongly among the council members,” he says.
That duty of care saw a small team of volunteers step up to make sure contact was maintained with elderly congregation members and anyone else struggling to cope.
Now, every member of the congregation is on a contact list and receives a regular phone call to check on their wellbeing, while early last month the council began to look at ways to better meet the specific needs of congregation members in aged care.
So with steps in place to look after the congregation’s wellbeing, what about its minister? How is he coping?
Stephen says he has found the absence of certainty around when things will return to normal the hardest thing and admits to concern about whether some congregation members will return to the church. And if they do return, what sort of a church will they find when Australia emerges into a post-Covid world?
Stephen acknowledges that is a much harder question to answer. After all, we have no idea how fundamentally society itself will have changed when COVID-19 no longer impacts us on a daily basis. While Stephen has no doubt the church will continue to endure, he is not so sure exactly what it will look like postpandemic.
“One of the obvious questions I have is will our older members, who are the mainstay of our attendees, feel safe enough to even return to worship when it is declared safe to do so?” he says.
“This thought is compelling us even more urgently than before, to rethink how we will best minister to our communities over the next couple of years.”
As he considers the broader question of how he can best fulfil his role as his congregation’s spiritual leader, Stephen’s faith remains a constant in such difficult times. That faith has provided great strength during the pandemic and he has learned a valuable lesson along the way. Sometimes, something as simple as a positive outlook can make a huge difference.
“I think that’s where God’s love and trust for the future of everyone speaks to me about not worrying about those things and just doing what we can with the time that we’ve got,” he says.
On a personal level, one major change for Stephen and his wife Mele, also a Uniting Church minister, was that the cancellation of services suddenly made Sundays an obligation-free day for them. As a minister for 32 years, it meant a whole new routine for Stephen.
“When COVID-19 restrictions began in late March, what was normal became abnormal, and what was unfree became free,” he says.
“It’s not that my overall workload decreased, it’s just that Sunday mornings became days for family worship or watching other church services online.”
Stephen says it’s been a pleasant change as it has provided an opportunity for he and Mele to refresh themselves spiritually, partly because of the change towards providing a more socially distanced and separated form of ministry.
For Mike Holland, COVID-19 represented the biggest test in his three years as church council chair. The former Colac High School principal has a track record of getting things done and knew an action plan needed to be put in place immediately to deal with one of the most significant health issues in our history.
His educational background meant Mike was more than familiar with concepts like risk management and emergency action, but even so, COVID-19 represented a whole new frontier.
“It was a major challenge because it was obviously new to people and represented a different sort of risk management scenario, but we worked through it well,” he says.
As Colac’s Uniting Church congregation members move towards the end of a year like no other, Stephen says COVID-19’s emergence has taught him a great deal about resilience and how people will come together and support each other during the toughest of times.
Stephen says he couldn’t be prouder of his congregation.
“They have demonstrated that they really know how to care for each other and they really have stepped up during a difficult time,” he says.
Hall hands on deck
While most of his time in the past six months has been focused on helping the Colac Uniting Church congregation deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, a project bubbling away in the background is giving council chairman Mike Holland plenty of cause for optimism.
A major renovation of one of the historic buildings adjoining the church is due for completion next year, while the creation of a community garden is also part of ongoing plans.
“We have three halls and the oldest one is what we are working on,” Mike says. “There was a building added to it in the 1920s and then another one in the 1960s.”
While they will become an important focal point for both the Colac church and regional congregation members, Mike envisages both the rebuilt hall and garden bringing joy to the wider community.
“The building work is being set up with a very strong missional intent behind it,” he says.
“It’s more than just a paint job on an old building that needs it and we’re getting fantastic support from the Synod Property Services Unit, so it’s all being very professionally managed and supported.
“The project is really highlighting part of our mission work within the community.”
Mike says the project is based on the Uniting Church continuing to have a presence in Colac for many years to come.
“We’re still nervous about sustainability, but we are planning on the basis that there will be a Uniting Church in the community for the next 25 to 30 years,” he says.
Mike is also looking forward to seeing the community garden take shape.
“We’ve got quite a lot of space around the church and we thought we might put something in like a labyrinth and a ‘biblical’ garden, fruit trees and even some vegetables,” he says.
“We’re told there is quite a lot of interest in it and it’s all about moving out of our immediate orbit and creating something the whole community can enjoy.”