A group of southern Manitoba pastors are being called upon to help address the low COVID-19 vaccine uptake in the region.

John Klassen spent about 35 years involved in pastoral ministry in the Winkler area, having recently retired from his position at the Emmanuel Mennonite Church in March, and is presently serving on a part-time basis for the Arnaud Mennonite Church. 

According to data compiled by Manitoba Health, the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in the Southern Health region is 43.3 per cent as of Wednesday.

Klassen, along with a number of other pastors that are a part of Mennonite Church Manitoba, recently met virtually with Cordella Friesen, a southern Manitoban herself and member of the province's vaccine implementation task force.

"In her (Friesen's) words, the goal of the meeting was to try to understand why the vaccination uptake is as low as it is, and to request our assistance as Manitoba Health discerns ways of addressing this," Klassen says.

At the meeting, Klassen says the group was made aware of the low percentage of people in southern Manitoba who so far have chosen to receive the vaccine.

From his perspective, Klassen feels the session was less about focusing on those who are against vaccines, but more about those who are hesitant, people he says who may need some gentle encouragement or facilitation to be ready to receive the vaccine.

"I believe religious leaders definitely have a role in protecting our community and showing love to our neighbours, it's one of the central truths that Jesus taught us," said Klassen, who received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as he was eligible and is scheduled to get his second dose in mid-June. "Some of the best examples I've seen of pastors doing this is by telling their stories of being vaccinated, and why they chose to do so. When trusted pastors explain why in their church circles, their members will be more likely to do as well, and sadly when pastors question the vaccine and resist the vaccine, this too communicates powerfully."

In addition, Klassen feels pastors need to listen carefully and supportively to those who have hesitations and help them receive answers, "that are accurate and truthful, rather than being influenced by something someone has written on Google".

As pastors, we want to care for all people in our churches...so yelling at people to get in line and get a shot in their arm isn't the answer (either)," he added. "Rather, I think it's about setting an example, proclaiming why we believe this is a good thing and something that is consistent with our faith and discipleship and listening to those with hesitancy to help them overcome their hesitations."

Meantime, Klassen notes there are some pastors who are hesitant to discuss this topic because he says there are mixed feelings within congregations. He encourages them to have the courage to explain their decisions, setting a strong example without forcing the issue.

By the end of the meeting, Klassen says the group reached a consensus on three areas moving forward.

The first calls on church leadership and other trusted voices in the community to speak to the concern.

"There's a strong level of suspicion of outside voices, or government voices, in our area, and people will listen much more to a pastor, doctor, coach, or another community leader they already trust," he explained.

Second, the group pondered ways in which to work with local employers to encourage them to bring the vaccine clinic to their workplace for a day or two, and make it much more convenient and feasible for people to receive it, says Klassen.

As well, by choosing this particular group of pastors to speak with, Klassen says they felt Friesen was, in a sense, "preaching to the choir".

"In most of our churches, those pastors that were represented at this meeting, we felt that well-over ninety per cent of the people were not only willing but eager, to receive the vaccine," explained Klassen. "We pointed out some churches and church leaders where a meeting like this might be much more necessary."

According to Klassen, the indication from Friesen was that she had also met with one other denomination of pastors regarding this subject.