5 Lessons for Churches Hosting Refugees
As homes across Britain are opened to host Ukrainians fleeing the war, what do church leaders need to do to welcome refugees into church life?
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, we welcomed 17 Ukrainian refugees to our church.
They had arrived in the UK, with just a handful of possessions, only a few days earlier having locked up their home in Kyiv and fled to the Polish border a few weeks before that.
They are a Christian family - comprised of mum, dad, thirteen children (spanning ages 3-19), an auntie, and a grandma - and relatives of someone in our church, coming to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme.
At Swindon Evangelical Church we’re no strangers to refugees and asylum seekers: Swindon is one of the government’s designated ‘cities of sanctuary’. Just a few months ago, I went to London for an asylum hearing for someone in our church.
We have experience with refugees but each case is unique. Welcoming 17 Ukrainian refugees is different altogether!
It’s an enormous task but I’m grateful to God that our church is rising to it.
As we’ve welcomed this family of refugees, here are five lessons I’ve learned.
I need to delegate
The week before they arrived, I was preaching on Acts 6. It just happened to be the passage in my mind that week and I’m so grateful to God that it was.
In Acts 6, the apostles delegate ministry so that they do not neglect their priority of prayer and the word. Delegating means they can do their job, and others step up to serve.
Delegation prevents a bottleneck in church life. I needed that lesson.
The Sunday before they came, a few of us had an emergency meeting after the morning service, including our Care Committee.
We’ve had a Care Committee for years and we’ve found it very helpful. It’s a small group within the church that meets from time to time to discuss sensitive pastoral needs. The Committee gives help via a separate fund which we have set aside to care practically for people in the church. Having the Committee ensures needs are being met without the elders having to be involved in every last detail.
The needs of 17 refugees, however, is a different story. It was too much even for the structures we had in place. I knew we needed to put something in place, but to be honest I didn’t have a clue where to begin. Thankfully a few women in the church came to me.
In the workplace, they project-manage and problem-solve every day. They came up with a structure to help the family out: someone overseeing the team, and others looking after various areas. It had all the tasks broken down and assigned to different areas and people. They’d worked out which things the Council and local charities could do, and which bits we were responsible for. Now the vast task was broken down into manageable chunks.
I could never have done that, but others in the church could. I quickly had to learn the lesson to delegate and get others involved.
I have to plan ahead
I wish I’d done all the delegating a few weeks earlier!
We all know the busyness of ministry can make it hard to get ahead and plan, but if I had planned ahead it would have saved me a lot of stress.
If you expect to receive refugees, I recommend you actively plan for it now: get a team in place; think through what you need to do; set aside funds for it.
I must be ready for change
A church changes when new people arrive - that’s normal. Newcomers dilute the previous way of ‘doing’ things and bring fresh insight. That’s especially the case when people from different cultures settle.
A new Ukrainian family of 17 (including thirteen children) is going to change how things feel for us. We now have a large group who don’t speak much English and our children’s work is going to feel pretty busy!
That’s a wonderful thing but it means we need to think carefully.
I have to be more aware of cultural sensitivities when I lead and preach. I probably need to slow down when I talk. I need to think about the hymns we sing and the style of music - are hymns full of “Thee” and “Thou” really accessible?
I need to prepare for the long term, but hold things loosely
We’re in this for the long haul. Pastoral care takes time. They’ve gone through things we simply cannot imagine. It’s going to take time for me to love and support them so that they can even begin to process what’s happened.
I also need to ensure that our practical care is not a flash in the pan, but a long-term investment: what we’re doing needs to be sustainable over a longer period. This means getting outside help and liaising with the Council and other charities.
That said, they might move on. They might decide they want to go to another church in the future. That’s fine. Our task is to bless them, care for them, and to hold things loosely.
We want to do them good but we don’t have a ‘claim’ on them. Our love for them doesn’t come with strings attached.
I need to depend on grace
As we were beginning to put the team in place, a woman involved said to me, “I feel totally out of my depth and inadequate.”
I felt the same. The task is too great. The needs were too vast.
Then she remarked that it had driven her to pray more, before adding “I simply cannot do this on my own.”
Those words struck me. It’s true for all of life and ministry, but especially so for a task so colossal and sensitive as caring for Ukrainian refugees.
It’s my prayer that we continue to experience his grace and leading as we labour for him.