I’ve never been a great journal writer. During my divorce thirty years ago, I journaled when I was angry, not when life was good. But now through journaling, I’ve discovered my own artistic abilities to illustrate my life, my prayers, and how I see God at work in the world. As I consider journaling, I also know that the accountability of a group helps me take on this inner work.
To that end, I sent personal invitations to women in our congregation who I thought might be interested in this work (some essential workers and mothers, some isolated and lonely, and many in-between). The invitation was to start processing our experiences of the pandemic via a COVID journal.
I did not find an already-made COVID journal available online (except for some aimed at school children and youth), so I started creating journal prompts or topics that might help people write about their experience. And since filling a blank page is often difficult, I began to draw worksheets with boxes, circles, and other shapes to make notes and document memories.
I connected with Rev. Betsy Hoium and Rev. Karen Williams to review, edit, and add to the list of topics for journal sheets. My son-in-law even offered to draw some of them. Our topic list has now grown to about 90 prompts, and we continue to add more for community-centered events, including the death of George Floyd and others.
Fifteen women signed up for this 4-week Zoom at-home experience. We usually had 9-12 attend each week. Worksheets were sent by email before the session, and I recorded the class on Zoom to share with those who could not attend. We opened with reminders about confidentiality, the need to avoid self-criticism or the criticism of others, and that sharing is always optional.
We began with prayer, then a simple art or writing experience that requires only a few items. The Six-Word Stories below were one of those exercises for two sessions. And they flowed! What we thought would be difficult, we found to be profound and faithful.
Alone is fine until it isn’t.
Milo’s mission is making people smile.
Covid calories don’t count. Oops! Wrong.
I couldn’t, but I could.
Father’s death. Gone forever. Love you.
Hurry, hurry, Turkey! Cross the road!
I’m not alone. God is with me.
Next we held ten-minute quiet times to write about the two worksheets of the week, and then went into breakout groups for reflection with a smaller group. No one had to share what they’d written or drawn or painted (the tools used on the worksheets were up to the author), but people found it a brave space to share the opportunities and the challenges. Each week, we closed with a prayer that reminded us that God is present in the wilderness and difficult times of our lives.
At our last session, I asked what the group wanted to do next. Responses included:
“I so look forward to this every week. I want to keep meeting.”
“My life is good, and my work is stimulating. But this time quiets my spirit in ways I didn’t expect.”
“With masks and my profound hearing loss, Covid has been hell for me. This has been life-giving to me, and I didn’t know I needed it so much.”
“Could I use it at my church?”
Based on this response, we are going to keep meeting twice a month in the coming months. The format we are using will allow people to jump in and out as they have interest, so that anyone can join as they see the need.
Betsy Hoium, Karen Williams, Susan Schoon and I are also going to meet and plan an event for church professionals. The unique experiences we’ve had in leading congregations warrants compassion and care, too.
Long term, I hope to publish the worksheets as a free digital booklet to download and use as desired.
Here’s a sample of worksheet titles we’ve put together. (These titles reflect about half of our total list).
- Seasonal Memories
- My Mask Story
- Music that Helped Me
- A Letter to Myself Ten Years Ago
- A Letter to Myself in Ten Years
- My Vaccine Story
- How I “Canoed the Mountains” – Adapted for my Life during Covid
- How My Church “Canoed the Mountains” – Adapted during Covid
- Gratitude: What I’m Thankful For
- What Vacation Looked Like
- Back to the Beginning: When I Found Out about COVID
- Reconnecting with People Who Have Different COVID Perspectives
- George Floyd’s Death and the Chauvin Trial
- People I Miss…and Why
- COVIDLife with Animals (Domestic & Wild)
- How I Worshipped and Connected with God During the Pandemic (Or Didn’t)
- Hobbies I Learned or Picked Up Again
- Weird Things I Learned About Myself
- My Prayer Life during the Pandemic
- My Hopes & Dreams as Vaccinations Allow Us to Do More
- Restaurants I Miss
- Unemployment & Furlough
- Working From Home stories
- Where I Found Community & Where I Lost It
Upon reflection, how we’ve experienced the highs and lows can surprise even those closest to us. When my adult daughter asked me, “Mom, what has been the hardest part of COVID for you so far?” I think she expected me to say my new tech challenges at church, or not having services in the building, but this was my answer, “Not hugging you.”
What do you need to process about the past year? If writing prompts are helpful, here are some:
- What do you want your family to remember was important to you?
- What might you want to leave as a legacy for your church community?
What do you want to remember?
We are considering a digital time capsule as a congregation-wide project: a photo and short writing from as many people as possible from the congregation, including access to a digital photo file of events we’ve photographed at church.
About the Author
Bonnie Wilcox is an alum of Luther Seminary, and a second-career pastor in the ELCA. She is in her fifth year as the senior pastor at First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. She’ll show you a photo of her grandson anytime, as well as her latest art projects.