Recently I asked clergymembers from several Wesleyan Methodist denominations in the United States about what it’s been like coping with a pandemic. Ministers in other parts of the world have experienced these dynamics before, and pastors a hundred years ago went through this in America. For many church leaders in the U.S., these have been uncharted waters, new territory. A number of pastors answered my questions, and their time is an especially valuable gift right now. I watched as more than normal intended to reply but could not, pummeled by to-do lists and coping with news cycles demanding last-minute updates from clergy, denominational leaders, and churches. One pastor unable to participate was busy responding to a crisis outbreak in their rural community – a town with one of the highest per capita case loads in the country.
Church leaders are finding unexpected support, bright spots, or new skills; many pastors miss seeing their church members face to face; and many are grappling with uncertainty, overwhelming demands, or the need to quickly implement new platforms and tools.
In addition to basic questions on how church leaders are coping, I also asked some pastors, “If you could travel back to December and leave a Post-It note for past-you, what would you say to prepare yourself or your people for the current situation?“ One pastor reflected, “The Church is not the building. We all know that, but we are about to live it.“
We are grateful for the glimpses into leadership life right now.
– Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor
Coping: “How are you?“
- “I am anxious about what the church may look like in the next few months. People need community, and online platforms – as helpful as they may be to keep us connected – can’t take the place of mutually sharing and experiencing physical presence. I am constantly preoccupied and thinking about what we need to do. This often leads me to feel overwhelmed and inadequate, as I try to anticipate what we need to be doing next.”
- “I’m learning it’s best not to ask on Wednesdays. I’m not sure why this is the day I feel least on top of ministry, and the most fragile.”
- “I miss my people. I love being a pastor; pastoral care may be my favorite part of ministry, so I am really missing that connection. But personally, I have enjoyed being able to spend more time with my family. It has been nice to just have lazy time with them. Going into the living room and joking with my kids during breaks. Time from all the pressure of activities at night. That has been life-giving for me.”
Discerning: “What’s been an unexpected source of guidance?“
- “Learning from what others are doing and reaching out to friends to ask their views about concerns and ideas I have. Reading articles about our current challenges and how we can use this time as an opportunity to create a new future dimension of ministry.”
- “The World Vision pastors group, “We the Church.” The Barna Group’s Covid tool kit.”
- “Unexpected friendship. There are pastors in our conference who I admire, but I’ve never really had much of a relationship with them. It’s been a joy to get to know them better and turn to them for advice in difficult situations.”
Equipping: “What resource do you wish you’d had?“
- “A break. More clear guidelines or suggestions for funerals at this time. ‘How to transition appointments during pandemic’?”
- “I wish I had better tech skills. I’m pretty good, but there are so many things that I don’t know and haven’t had the time or patience to learn.”
- “Instead of ‘playing catch-up,’ I wish we would’ve had a well-organized and implemented digital ministry in place. I wish we had these online tools we are using now already at work. Now, in addition to created online content, we also need to train our leaders and laypeople on how to access them.”
Enduring: “What’s been a source of sanity for you?“
- “Good friends and family. I’ve got a text thread with a couple of pastors; we turn to each other for advice. That’s been a real blessing and source of hope.”
- “This will be one of the most cherished times for my children. As much as they miss school and friends, they loved being at home and spending quality time with mom and dad. We started new activities together like biking and going for walks almost daily, and that has transformed how we relate to each other. We are no longer ‘on schedule’ but have liberty and flexibility on how we use our time together. This has been a blessing to us as a family, one that has provided me with healthy feelings and thoughts.”
- “Solidarity – knowing so many others are going through the same ministry challenges.”
Expressing: “What do you wish your denomination or church members understood better?“
- “Just the emotional energy pastoring takes right now. I’m not sure what leaving well looks like.”
- “I don’t think I can speak to what anyone is doing, or could have done better. Everyone is trying their best to figure out ministry in this challenging season. I am grateful for the hard work my colleagues and others are doing to provide us with resources.”
Grieving: “If you could have or do one thing right now, what would it be?“
- “Have a gathering of my graduating seniors; have regular youth gathered for fellowship.”
- “Between Zoom meetings, homeschooling, creating online content, writing Bible studies and sermons, I wish I could see everyone every day to talk about how they are really doing and to encourage them. It is hard to feel so powerless to support my congregation in their struggles. We have an active pastoral care ministry. I just wish I could visit with every one of them.”
Praying: “How can we pray for you?“
- “I ask for prayers of encouragement, strength, and good health. But most importantly, I ask for those same prayers for my congregation.“
- “That I would clearly hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance for ministry and family. I don’t know the best way to navigate these uncharted waters, but I know the One who does.”
Hindsight: “If you could travel back to December and leave a Post-It note for past-you, what would you say to prepare yourself or your people for the current situation?“
- “I would make sure that I prepared my teams to view online resources as essential and not secondary. We had just completed a shift in our online giving platform and moved to PushPay. Had it not been for this move, we would be seeing a significant financial challenge. As for other platforms, I would have prepared our leaders to see digital platforms as an essential (not supplemental) resource for ministry, as there are already many people waiting to be reached via these platforms. We are reaching nearly twice as many people weekly through our worship services and 8 times (you read that right) as many people through our discipleship classes. I would have done crisis management training for all of my leaders.
- “I think I would say, ‘Pace yourself‘ and ‘Go see your mom and dad in early February.‘”
- “Ok girl, big changes are coming. No weddings, no dining out, and no church in person. So here’s what you need to do: Don’t cancel your hair appointment for the last week in February. You are going to miss a lot of things. But you are going to gain a lot of perspective on what’s most important: family, friends, the warmth of an embrace. The Church is not the building. We all know that, but we are about to live it. And embrace the deep connection that stands even when we are socially distanced. Sharpen your media and tech skills. You are about to become a videographer, editor, sound technician, and production guru. Get ready for all the kids to crash into your nest. Try not to get too bent out of shape about any of this. Enjoy it if you can. It’s a strange season we are passing through.”
- “Good computer and editing skills, basic internet skills, Zoom and Conference Call 101 lessons for my members and myself!“
- “Let’s prioritize our media ministry and start livestreaming our worship celebrations. Part of who we are in the community means having online presence. We can do so much ministry online through these digital platforms. True story: Prior to March 22, we had little to no online presence. We went from in-person worship on March 15th to Facebook Live from my living room on March 22nd!”
- “Expect the unexpected. You can build community online – software that allows response is better than software that doesn’t (so, as beautiful as watching the service at the National Cathedral is, I probably get more out of wonky Zoom with my 20 congregants). Christians have been here before and the church survived. Your theology meets reality when you have to decide whether you are afraid of dying.”
As the well-documented extended-crisis adrenaline slump continues to hit caring and serving professions – from ER physicians to nursing home aides to church leaders – there are sure to be resources emerging for coping with the fallout of crisis. Pastors drained from an extraordinary season of unexpected challenges still face uncertainty, changes, conflicting perspectives, and health ramifications, while shepherding church leaders and members through those same dynamics.
If it has been difficult coping with the sudden changes and demands of ministry in pandemic, here are additional resources on possible signs of exhaustion or burnout and resources for leader self-care in the face of extended crisis:
The National Center for PTSD Clergy Self-Care page on “potential emotional reactions to working with trauma survivors”
Clergy Care Wellness Resources in the face of Covid-19 (especially for United Methodist clergy)