Gregory the Great (540–604)—whom Calvin deemed as the last good Pope—viewed the care of souls as the “art of arts.” In his Book of Pastoral Rule, Gregory compares medical doctors, who must not be ignorant of the functioning of the body and the powers of medicine, to spiritual ministers, the physicians of the heart, who must be knowledgeable of the afflictions of the mind and the healing power of the spiritual precepts of Scripture.
Gregory highlights that physicians of the heart must be attentive to people’s diverse particularities. Like bodies react differently to the same medication (or the same virus), the minister must be sensitive to the type of care he should dispense to each person. “Every teacher, in order to edify all by the single virtue of charity, ought to touch the hearts of his audience with the same common doctrine but by distinct exhortations.” The doctrinal foundation is the same for all, but encouraging and caring for people varies according to their uniqueness. Diversity of people requires diversity in care.
Soul care amid a pandemic must factor in this diversity. The pandemic adds a situational layer of complexity to the task of caring and counseling. It impacts people from our congregations in different ways and provokes particular heart responses. Assessing this variety of impacts and responses becomes even more complicated when in-person gatherings are limited or entirely prohibited. So, caring for souls in a pandemic requires “artful” creativity and adaptability, which in turn should lead to greater dependence on God.
Variety of Impacts
The pandemic impacts different people in distinct ways. Being in quarantine looks very different for a mother of five compared to an international college student who lives by himself or an older couple who has depended on caregivers to leave their home since before the pandemic. Managing the energy of five children under ten is not a task for the faint-hearted. But neither is the loneliness of the international student or the physical limitations of the older couple. They are all challenging—in distinct ways, but challenging nevertheless. The same order, “stay home,” means different challenges to different people.
But it gets more complicated.
Both Mary and Joanne have five children around the same age. Mary’s children used to go to school every weekday. They live downtown, in an apartment, with no play space outside. Their school assigned her children to attend classes via Zoom for several hours a day. On the other hand, Joanne lives in a rural area with lots of space outdoors, and she has always homeschooled her children. It is not hard to imagine the different ways the pandemic will impact each one of these moms.
The contrasts in my examples are obviously drastic. There are hundreds of other factors that we could consider here—many of them not as clear. But the point is made: the pandemic affects different people in distinct ways, and a good physician of the heart will pay attention to the multiple particular factors at play.
Diversity of Responses
Likewise, different people respond to similar situations in diverse ways.
Consider John and Sam, two college students who live by themselves and are in quarantine. John has never really enjoyed social gatherings. Having more time on his hand, he decided to study for his classes a few more hours per day—and he feels pretty good about it, even though his Bible remains untouched in a drawer. Unlike John, Sam cannot stand being by himself. Although he lives by himself, he was never home before the pandemic but always out with church friends. Now he spends much of his free time with games and “watch parties” online with family and friends. But when these online meetings are over, an overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness seems to penetrate deep into his soul. Not having his accountability partners around as often as he used to, the Internet has never been so tempting for lustful use, but he continues to fight it.
John and Sam are different and respond differently to the same circumstances. Behind these unlike responses are different hearts, with distinct values, beliefs, and commitments. The care for their souls will differ exactly because the roots of their responses are diverse. And so, it is the job of a good physician of the heart to draw their motives from these “deep waters” (Proverbs 20:5).
The Art of Adapting to Care
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many things have changed in the logistics we can use for soul care. How can I draw out the motives of someone’s heart when meeting in person for counseling is often impossible? How can I give the opportunity for people to make me aware of their struggles when the informal weekly conversations after each service are no longer a thing? Not to care is not an option—especially for those who will give an account to God for this work (Hebrews 13:17). We must adapt.
But how should we adapt?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Different cases require different strategies. And these strategies may have to change even as the process of caring happens—as people and circumstances change, other approaches may have to be considered.
Adapting to care for my grandparents in their late 80s looks different than caring for Sam, from my example above. My grandparents don’t own a computer and have no access to the Internet. The calls they received from their pastor through their landline phone are the only point of contact they had with the church body for more than a year. With Sam, however, you could choose to use Zoom, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Facetime, and many more advanced apps that he knows but you never heard of.
Before the pandemic, my grandparents would chat with their pastor every week after the service, but now they are more likely not to “bother” their busy leaders with “irrelevant” tears. Caring for them requires proactivity—carving out time, adapting schedules, counseling through a phone call. On the other hand, caring for Sam, who texts all his pastors as soon as something comes up insisting on meeting in person, may look like walking together in a park.
Thus, adapting methods and strategies is what will make soul care viable in times like this. Not to care is not an option. We must creatively adjust ourselves, always seeking the opportunity to minister God’s word and care for those who with us belong to the body of Christ. In part, that is why we can consider soul care an art.
God Never Stops Caring
The pandemic has added another layer of complexity to the care of souls in our congregations. Different people suffer different impacts and respond in a variety of unique ways. Acknowledging those dissimilarities during this pandemic time should lead us to consider distinctive strategies as we seek to minister to those under our care. Yet, in the end, this complexity invites us to depend on our creative God more deeply for the work of soul care. He is ever working and yet ever at rest. And we can find our rest in the fact that he never stops caring.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.VII.
 Augustine, Confessions, I.IV.