On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, we welcomed 17 Ukrainian refugees into our church.
They had arrived in the UK, with just a handful of possessions, only days earlier after locking down their home in kyiv and fleeing to the Polish border a few weeks earlier.
This is a Christian family – made up of mum, dad, thirteen children (ages 3-19), an aunt and grandmother – and the parents of someone from our church, coming to the United United under the Ukraine Family Scheme.
At the Evangelical Church of Swindon, we are no strangers to refugees and asylum seekers: Swindon is one of the government’s designated ‘Sanctuary Cities’. Just a few months ago I went to London for an asylum hearing for someone from our church.
We have experience with refugees but each case is unique. Welcoming 17 Ukrainian refugees is different!
It’s a huge task but I’m grateful to God that our church is up to it.
As we welcome this refugee family, here are five lessons I learned.
I have to delegate
The week before they arrived I was preaching on Acts 6. That happened to be on my mind that week and I’m so thankful to God that it was.
In Acts 6, the apostles delegate the ministry so that they do not neglect their priority of prayer and the word. Delegating means they can do their job and others step in to serve.
Delegation prevents a bottleneck in the life of the church. I needed this lesson.
The Sunday before they arrived, a few of us had an emergency meeting after the morning service, including our care committee.
We have had a care committee for years and have found it very helpful. It is a small group within the church that meets from time to time to discuss sensitive pastoral needs. The Committee gives help through a separate fund which we have set aside to practically look after the people in the church. The presence of the committee ensures that the needs are met without the elders having to get involved in the smallest details.
The needs of 17 refugees, however, are another story. It was too much even for the structures we had in place. I knew we had to put something in place, but to be honest, I didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, some women from the church came to see me.
In the workplace, they manage projects and solve problems every day. They found a structure to help the family: someone overseeing the team and others taking care of various areas. All tasks were distributed and assigned to different areas and people. They determined what the Council and local charities could do, and what parts 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 of delegating and involving others.
I have to plan ahead
I wish I had done all the delegations a few weeks earlier!
We all know the ministry workload can make it difficult to move forward 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 that you actively plan for it now: put a team in place; think about what you need to do; set aside funds for it.
I have to be ready for change
A church changes when new people arrive – that’s normal. Newcomers dilute the previous way of “doing” things and bring new perspectives. This is especially the case when people from different cultures move in.
A new Ukrainian family of 17 people (including thirteen children) will change our state of mind. We now have a large group who don’t speak much English and our children’s work is going to be quite busy!
It’s a wonderful thing, but it means we have to think carefully.
I need to be more aware of cultural sensitivities when leading and preaching. I probably need to slow down when I’m talking. I have to think about the hymns we sing and the style of music – are hymns filled with “You” and “You” really accessible?
I need to prepare for the long haul, but keep things loose
We are here for the long term. Pastoral care takes time. They’ve been through things we just can’t imagine. It’s going to take time for me to love and support them so they can even begin to understand what happened.
I also have to ensure that our practical care is not a flash in the pan, but a long-term investment: what we do has to be sustainable over a longer period of time. This means getting outside help and liaising with the Council and other charities.
That said, they could move on. They might decide they want to go to another church in the future. It is very good. Our task is to bless them, to care for them and to hold things free.
We want to do them good but we have no “claim” on them. Our love for them comes with no strings attached.
I need to depend on grace
As we began to put the team in place, a woman involved said to me, “I feel completely overwhelmed and inadequate”.
I felt the same. The task is too big. The needs were too vast.
Then she remarked that it made her pray more, before adding “I just can’t do this on my own”.
These words struck me. This is true for all of life and ministry, but especially for such a colossal and sensitive task as caring for Ukrainian refugees.
It is my prayer that we continue to experience his grace and direction as we work for him.