Conference Pastoral Counselor and chaplains comfort, share messages of hope during pandemic


By Kara Witherow, Editor

We are not alone.

That’s the message of South Georgia’s chaplains and its Conference Pastoral Counselor.

Whether that message is communicated by a handmade pocket prayer shawl, a daily prayer heard over a hospital intercom, or in a personal conversation, it’s one that’s echoed across the Conference as chaplains and pastors care for those in their flock.

As Rev. Columbus Burns makes his daily rounds at Savannah’s Candler Hospital, he notices the staff, sees the stress in their eyes, and gives an encouraging word and smile.

“We are all feeling the stress of COVID-19, so we’re very aware as we move around among our staff to encourage them,” he said. “We are also finding that our patients are more in need because they don’t have their family members like they normally would to support them.”

As Director of Pastoral Care and Counseling at St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital, Rev. Burns oversees about a dozen chaplains at the two Savannah hospitals.

As hospital chaplains, they provide care for patients, family members, staff, caregivers, and visitors. While the pandemic has changed some of their day-to-day work and ministry – they had to suspend in-person worship services and mass – the chaplains are still serving and bringing a message of hope and healing through visitation, a televised weekly worship service, daily prayers offered via phone and over the hospital intercoms, and more.

“The priests and Sisters insisted that they would not and could not leave their flock. This is our parish. I was very proud of them,” Rev. Burns said. “We never quit visiting, we just visit more cautiously and carefully. We never quit visiting our patients, ever.”

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Magnolia Manor restricted visitors from its nine campuses. Social distancing measures are in place, and coronavirus testing is frequent.

“It’s been a time of grieving and isolation and sadness,” said Rev. John Walker, Magnolia Manor’s senior chaplain and vice president for spiritual care.

To help combat the grief and isolation, Magnolia Manor’s chaplains have been creative in how they’re ministering and caring for the residents and in how the residents are able to interact and visit their friends and family.

At Magnolia Manor’s Americus campus, which is one level, residents are able to see and talk with their families through their windows. Chaplains and staff members have also helped residents connect with family members via Zoom and Facetime.

Rev. Walker’s brief “Thought of the Day” emails – sent on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – help keep residents encouraged, and his weekly sermons, recorded and posted on Facebook, help them stay connected to their faith when they can’t physically be with their faith communities. When he writes someone a note he includes a pocket prayer shawl – crocheted by residents – to help the recipient remember that God is always with them.

In the midst of the unknown, the grief, and the loss, that’s the message he tries to convey.

“I love the hymns, and ‘In His Time’ is one of my favorites. I remind our residents and staff that, in God’s time, He makes all things beautiful. That’s what the song says. We are going to pull through this as we stay together, as we stay connected, as we pray for each other, and as we support each other,” Rev. Walker said. “God has not left us, God is Emmanuel, and He truly is with us. We hear that at Christmas, but we need to hear that all year long.”

In the past four months, Conference Pastoral Counselor Rev. Deborah Wight-Knight has seen three to four times her normal volume of pastors, family members, and laity.

As a counselor to pastors and their families, Rev. Wight-Knight knows the challenges normally faced by clergy, but they are even greater during these trying and tumultuous times.

“Our pastors have had to negotiate the difficult task of how to minister in these unprecedented times,” she said. “This is more challenging than most people realize. As a result, their stress level has increased tremendously.”

Telemedicine has helped her connect with clergy and help them cope, brainstorm creative ways to deal with their circumstances, manage crisis, and manage pastoral care.

Pastors are accustomed to being a part of people’s lives, whether in their homes, at church, or beside their hospital beds, she said, and the shutdown of in-person worship, discontinuance of constant activities and meetings at church, the absence human-to-human contact with their congregation – while necessary – has contributed to clergy feeling more isolated than ever before.

She does think, however, that the regulations and precautionary guidelines that many South Georgia congregations have undertaken are critical for safety.

As Christians and United Methodists, she says, it’s a believer’s responsibility to care for and love one another.

“We’re all suffering from an adjustment disorder, and we’ve had to adjust our faith accordingly given that the myriad ways in which we are called to offer grace and reconciliation sometimes require looking for God in the dark places, in the shadows, standing right with us,” she said. “I think that our story of faith is that, in the midst of darkness and despair and conflict, we know and learn what God’s presence in our life really means. It is an honor and a blessing to serve in this position at this particular time.”

Rev. Burns echoes several of Rev. Wight-Knight’s sentiments and reminds people that they are not helpless or hopeless.

“There are things we can do during this time. Social distance. Wear masks. We can do things to help and to keep ourselves safe,” he said. “We Christians know that life is not without its challenges. We have lived through difficult and challenging times, and this is just one of them. We have made it through before and we will make it through this challenge as well because God is on our side. God is with us. We are not alone.”