Leading Through Covid and Learning From It

When people look to the church for help, Debbie Causey and her team are ready and waiting. The Care Ministry comprises nine different ministry areas ranging from marriage counseling and financial support to substance abuse and parenting LGBT kids. It’s a big job. And as you can probably guess, 2020 has kept them busy.

Debbie, tell our readers about you and your role at NPM.

I’ve been working at North Point for 22 years, focused on Care Ministry for the last 20. I’m a licensed professional counselor and an ordained minister—a counselor and pastor in equal parts.

The vision of the Care Ministry is to meet people where they are and connect them with a better way forward. Our strategy is not to start or staff ministries to meet every possible need. After all, with roughly 30,000 attendees across all our campuses, it would be impossible for us to help everyone. Instead, we search our community to identify established experts we can point people to—like marriage and family counselors or addiction and recovery organizations. This partnership approach allows us to do more with less.

What has 2020 looked like for the Care Ministry?

Well, you might think that when COVID-19 hit, our phones blew up with people in the community asking for help. But that’s not at all what happened!

Everyone was just trying to get by, I think. We all had so much to figure out—suddenly working remotely, homeschooling kids, being homebound. People lost their jobs and could see financial hardships coming or were experiencing anxiety—but they weren’t ready to ask for help . . . yet.

What surprised me early in the pandemic was the deluge of requests that came from our staff. They weren’t asking for personal support necessarily. They were adjusting ministry plans and trying to help their volunteers and attendees. And that meant talking about Care-related topics.

Our ministry isn’t big and flashy like Sunday morning programming or warm and fuzzy like global missions. People don’t want to advertise that they’re struggling in their marriage or finances or with addiction. As a result, our team sort of runs behind the scenes—always here and always helping, but rarely drawing public attention. Then COVID-19 hit and, all of the sudden, it felt like we were called up to the big leagues. Everyone in our organization was turning to me asking, "What are we going to do?" And, honestly, I had no idea. My team was pretty overwhelmed.

One of the first things we helped with was adjusting all of our websites to lead with a Care-related message. We wanted people to know as soon as they visited our sites that we were here to help.

Next, we drafted a financial relief document to answer some of the most common questions people were asking as it related to money. We did the same around emotional relief for people who found they were struggling with anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Then, when racial justice conversations began, we initiated the creation of web pages with resources to help navigate those discussions.

Ultimately, we have been trying to anticipate the kind of help people will need so we could prepare tools in advance and make them easy to access.

What are some common trends you’re seeing in Care Ministry these days?

Marriages are not doing well. Crises tend to reveal what’s already there. So while couples have been quarantining at home without distractions like work, hobbies, or travel, problems that have previously been ignored suddenly become magnified.

We categorize struggling marriages in two different buckets. For some couples it is evident that the problems are so severe that we consider them "above our pay grade." We direct those couples to trusted counseling practices. We’re always vetting licensed counselors in the area who have the expertise to come alongside the toughest challenges. These days, we’re providing more counseling referrals than ever.

For couples struggling to a lesser degree or even those who are proactively working on their marriage, we have a ministry called Thrive. It’s a small group experience led by seasoned couples. We’re seeing more demand for Thrive from all of our campuses than we have in the past. And since the pandemic has made it difficult for groups to gather, we’ve just recently filmed it so it can be offered as a digital experience. Going digital will make this material so much more accessible—not just to our own campuses, but to people who may never step through the doors of one of our churches.

Addiction is up too. Just prior to COVID-19, we started a partnership with a 12-step recovery ministry for alcoholics—similar to AA, but Christianity is a prominent component. Those recovery groups have also gone digital with great success.

Our decision to join forces with a recovery organization last year came as part of a relatively new strategy for our ministry—unrelated to the pandemic. We realized that a lot of people who don’t go to church or don’t go to church anymore would still turn to the church for help with a specific need. Partnering with an organization that is successfully addressing that issue allows us to be a bridge between people and the help they need. We feel like if we can create opportunities to love these folks and help them handle their specific challenges, it may serve as an on-ramp into our churches for people who have never connected with us.

The other trend we’ve seen is an influx of requests about anxiety, depression, and substance abuse—indicative of people coping with life these days. It’s only recently that we’ve started seeing an uptick in financial assistance requests. I think that’s largely due to the fact that the government stopped offering financial relief in July, so people are just now turning to the church for help. Our MoneyWise ministry offers one-on-one financial mentoring or a self-guided option for people who would rather stay anonymous.

Some of our Care offerings are working well digitally when meeting in person isn’t possible. As I said, alcohol recovery is a good example of this. On the other hand, there are topics that I’m starting to think are just not meant to be worked on in isolation. Parent Connect, which is a group environment that serves parents of LGBT kids, is a good example. When we meet in person, our attendance is much higher than when we meet digitally. I wish I knew how to fix that.

What are you learning in this season?

As a licensed professional counselor, I need continuing education credits every year. Right now, I’m meeting that requirement with a course on trauma, and it’s fascinating and so relevant to what we’re experiencing in 2020.

In it, a leading expert on trauma is talking about 9/11 and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We know that not everyone who experienced that event personally came out of it suffering from PTSD. So researchers have been asking, "Why did some people have PTSD and not others? Who did and who didn’t?"

In 2001, the people who had safe homes to return to at the end of the day were the ones who didn’t suffer from PTSD. They were experiencing 9/11 in the same ways, but they had a safe home to return to where somebody who cared about them—and whom they cared about—was waiting.

That has huge implications for what we’re going through right now. The emotional effects of this pandemic will linger for years. Some of us will struggle with some form of PTSD from this experience. But what we’re learning from this 9/11 research is that a safe household drastically increases our chances of coming out the other side with our physical and emotional health intact.

Why does this matter to us as a church? Well, it helps prioritize what to focus on. The best way we can serve our community and the people in it is to focus on areas that help strengthen the home. Specifically, we’re prioritizing substance abuse and addiction offerings. We’re adding more and more Thrive opportunities for the marriages that are being tested in 2020. We’re offering more parenting resources for families who are navigating this season with kids. We’re doing everything we can to help shepherd people financially through 2020 and set them up for success in the future.

And most of this we’re doing in the context of community.

This is another key learning for me right now. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it's community. We thought for years the best approach with addicts was to isolate them, let them hit rock bottom, and then they’d figure out they needed treatment. But that's the opposite of what that person needs! That person needs a loving family and community, not to enable them, but to be there for them, to walk alongside them. And this applies beyond addiction. Inviting community and wise counsel into your mess—whether it’s financial, marital, parenting, whatever—is the best way forward.

What has been the most difficult thing for you and your team in this crazy season?

Three of our teammates have lost immediate family members. So to be honest, right now the Care team needs a Care team.

I think that’s true at times for everyone in ministry. We’ve dedicated our lives to serving others, but we’re not immune to the trends, pressures, and losses that everyone else is feeling. It’s hard to serve others when your tank is empty.

As the leader of this team, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to pour back into the people everyone looks to for support during crises. We’ve started meeting more frequently and our focus is mostly asking each of our teammates, "How are you doing?"

Actually, we’re asking our entire staff. Just over a month into the pandemic, staff members got a survey asking about their emotional well-being. We recently realized it was time for another check-up. On the survey that will be sent soon, we’re asking them to anonymously answer, "What’s going on in your life these days? What are your predominant emotions?" We’re even asking about substance abuse. Once we know what’s actually going on, we’ll make a strategic plan for how to meet our staff’s needs so they can do the same for the people in our community.

A few months ago, Andy preached a series called Better For It. In it, he talks about how it would be a shame if we didn't gain anything from this season. From where you sit, how do you see us being "better for it" post-pandemic?

As I said earlier, historically the Care ministry operates behind the scenes. But this season has forced us into the "spotlight." Look at any of our campus websites and you’ll see how we’re prioritizing Care through messaging, resources, and even prayer requests.

Ordinarily, the size of our church makes it impossible to receive personal prayer requests, but this season has given some of our staff the margin to respond. So we’re asking people to reach out. In fact, earlier in the spring, one of our campuses made phone calls to every attendee over the age of 70 to ask how they were doing. People loved it! These days, it’s not uncommon to hear Andy or one of our campus pastors invite prayer requests in their Sunday messages and emails. These are the kinds of things I’d love for us to figure out how to continue even after our buildings open up.

Finally, I think we’ll keep a blend of in-person and digital offerings moving forward. Having been forced to "go digital" with some of our Care ministries has really opened up new opportunities for our team. We’ve had to reexamine the assumption that the best and only way to care for people is up close and personal, and now we’re serving more people in more places than ever before.

If you'd like to talk with your team about some of the things Debbie mentioned, we have a discussion guide to get you started.

Did you miss any of our other interviews? We've talked with a handful of decision-makers on North Point's leadership team. Catch up on those chats now.

Want to pass one along to a colleague? Or talk about it with your team? We’ve bundled all seven interviews and discussion guides into a free eBook: Leading Through COVID and Learning From It.

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