COVID Impact: Religion
by Geoff Vetter
on April 16, 2020
by Geoff Vetter
on April 16, 2020
Social distancing has fundamentally altered our collective experience, forcing a deeply personal change upon many of the world’s faithful. Over the last month, millions of people celebrated two of the most significant religious holidays in Judaism and Christianity in new and different ways. Just last week, those of Jewish faith celebrated Passover Seders via video conference. For more than two billion Christians, this Easter had a very different look and feel, as pastors recorded sermons before rows of empty pews and sparse choirs sang hymns six feet apart. How these leaders communicated their responses to an unprecedented situation, and how they reassured their followers and maintained their operations, holds wisdom for other institutions, regardless of their size, age, or purpose.
The vast majority of faith leaders communicated their advice and guidance around this moment responsibly, offering words of support for communities impacted by the virus, signaling necessary changes to their services, or canceling them altogether. This past weekend for example, Pope Francis concluded Holy Week with his annual “Urbi et Orbi” blessing. While many of the themes of his address were unchanged from those in the past, the contrast in scenery was stark. This blessing is an important annual address for the Catholic faith, typically delivered in front of thousands in St. Peter’s Square. This year’s Easter mass and blessing, on the other hand, were live-streamed from a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica.
What’s notable about how Pope Francis handled this moment was his calm demeanor and emphasis on compassion. Rather than focusing on how the pandemic was affecting the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed sympathy for New York and other heavily affected areas, commended those on the front lines, and preached perspective, reminding us of the temporary nature of economic loss and the passing memory for pandemics and crises in global history. His focus on how we could be doing more to help our neighbors and encouraging people to keep a level head is instructive. Today’s executives and corporate communications should take heed—if at any point you find yourself writing or editing in an effort to preserve your bottom line rather than help your customers, regardless of how it impacts you, you may want to rewrite and reevaluate.
Similarly, Jewish faith leaders in the United States, Europe, and Israel encouraged social distancing measures by promoting Passover celebrations with smaller, more intimate Seders composed of individual households. These changes are particularly groundbreaking for the Orthodox Jewish community as many, if not most, Orthodox Jews abstain from using modern technology on Shabbat or throughout religious festivals. This year’s Seder ended with a topical twist on a historical refrain, “next year in person.” Jews across the globe were encouraged by their rabbis and other faith leaders to do the responsible thing and stay home—the priority was their safety, regardless of how dramatic a change it represented.
This last month has put Christian and Jewish faith leaders’ efforts to address the pandemic in the spotlight, but they are hardly the only traditions that will be impacted by its spread. As Ramadan approaches, the world’s Muslims will face a similarly difficult choice between preserving an event that is important to millions and upending time-honored traditions to adhere to social distancing measures and slow the spread of COVID-19.
Despite all the positive stories, there have been cases of religious leaders abusing their position to promote spiritual “healing” and advance their own interests. In one tragic case, a pastor in Virginia died from COVID-19 complications after defying social distancing recommendations and preaching to a packed congregation, vowing to keep his church open “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” To help prevent further tragedies, governors in several states had to enforce limitations on the size of congregations. The lesson here? Don’t wait for a tragedy or government action to do the right thing. The reputational—not to mention moral and financial—damage isn’t worth it.
So what can we learn? For communicators, the importance of clear, decisive, and quick message delivery stands out. Many religious leaders promptly encouraged social distancing and offered remedies to encourage participation in worship that provided clarity and continuity to parishioners. This pandemic has demonstrated the strength of our interconnectedness in ways we didn’t previously appreciate. And while no one is happy about the distance among all of us, these novel approaches in finding a sense of community, normalcy, and solace are welcomed during this crisis. Whatever we, as an industry, can do to preserve normalcy for our communities, while supporting public health guidance, could become a lifeline for our audiences.
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