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The role of religious leaders in a pandemic

By Abigail St. E. Bilby

As places of worship across Virginia begin to resume their ministries, committees draft guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, and parishioners decide whether or not to attend in-person religious services, it is increasingly important that religious leaders understand the complex role that they play in this pandemic. As leaders with the ability to impact and influence dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, they carry a responsibility to make informed and logical actions that can save lives.

The current pandemic is a worldwide conflict. Just within the United States, some people hoard supplies, others protest recommended safety precautions, and in extreme situations act aggressively towards other people doing their best to protect their families. Dr. Marc Gopin, global peacebuilder and director of the Center for Religion, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, says that during times such as these, religious leaders can serve as inspirers of guidance and comfort. They play an integral role as peacebuilders in their communities; trusted to offer spiritual guidance and compassionate care for their congregants, these leaders face the coronavirus pandemic with a unique set of responsibilities. To meet these needs in their communities, I propose three steps that religious leaders can take to better protect and uplift their congregations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first is for religious leaders to educate themselves and then their congregants about the coronavirus. Religious leaders must do their best to learn the facts of the pandemic so that they, as trusted centers of guidance, can pass this information on to their congregations. The WHO and the CDC have both recently released guidelines for religious leaders arguing that is it their duty to ensure that they provide information to their congregations that is accurate and medically sound. The understanding here is that if religious leaders act as authority figures distributing reliable, researched information about the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a possibility that congregants will take this information seriously.

The second is for religious leaders to lead by example. In areas where social distancing and stay-at-home orders are in effect, religious leaders can search for alternatives to in-person meetings, such as video-recorded services and virtual counseling sessions. Leaders can firmly request social distancing and adhere to limits on group gatherings during essential ceremonies such as funerals. By modeling this behavior to their followers, religious leaders can communicate the importance of every person taking these precautions in their personal lives.

A third step for religious leaders to practice responsible peacebuilding in the midst of this pandemic is to teach universal religious values in a language of belief that congregants understand. In his 1997 piece “Religion, Violence, and Conflict Resolution,” Gopin emphasizes that lessons of empathy, interiority, the sanctity of life, and the inner self and well-being — which are central to many religions — could greatly impact personal behaviors of practitioners.

Although there are many religious leaders who already do not heed warnings by trusted sources of disease information, refuse to take measures themselves, and instead label this pandemic as a hoax instead of something to offer spiritual guidance through, religious leaders ultimately have a responsibility to protect their congregants and the people around them during this pandemic. This moment in history is a time for these leaders to step forward, in their communities, and around the world, to act as responsible peacebuilders.

Not every leader will take every precaution to ensure the safety of their followers and others, but for every religious peacebuilder that does, dozens, hundreds and even thousands of lives can be protected here and around the world.

Abigail St. E. Bilby, a Suffolk native, is an honors undergraduate student in global affairs at George Mason University. Contact her at abby.bilby@gmail.com.