By Doug Talley
I’ve been on a LOT of Zoom calls since mid-March. Most of them have been with pastors and associate pastors. I often lead with the question, “On a 1-10 with 10 being ‘fantastic,’ how are you really doing?” The responses are all over the place from 1-9. I am not getting any 10s. And there are very few 9s. A lot are in the 4-6 range. Some lower than 4. I talked to one pastor recently who said he was 6.5, and we were celebrating because he had been in the 1-3 range for several months.
Since mid-March I’ve been hosting a weekly Zoom with about 15 of my peers who are also regional/state pastors. We begin by checking in on the 1-10 range. We have often talked about how the pastors in our region/state are doing. We all agree that the last six months have been brutal on pastors. We wonder how many will get knocked out by the end of the year or in 2021.
Life is difficult for pretty much all of us right now. I don’t want this to sound like only pastors are struggling. All people are struggling. The last six months have ushered in a version of life that none of us have been prepared or trained for. That includes pastors. And like everyone else, pastors have had to pivot repeatedly in order to adjust personally and professionally to the fallout of the pandemic. Plus, pastors carry a spiritual burden for the people in their congregation and community which adds a spiritual warfare dimension to their work. Even during the best of times, pastoring is incredibly challenging. No wonder the dropout rate is so high.
I recently asked a friend of mine who counsels pastors what he was hearing from them. Here’s the list of struggles he quickly listed, along with some others I have heard:
- I am beyond tired.
- Stress is becoming unmanageable.
- Doing school at home with my kids is challenging.
- I am concerned about the safety and well-being of my parishioners.
- I feel isolated and alone.
- My workload has increased exponentially, yet I have less energy to do my work.
- I am feeling unmotivated, even depressed.
- I miss the support I used to feel from my leaders and congregation. Since we aren’t together like we used to be, I’m struggling.
- The conflict regarding masks/no masks, opening/not opening, childcare/no childcare, black lives matter/blue lives matter, etc. is draining the life out of me. No matter what I do or say, it is the wrong thing and people get mad.
- This season is creating personal and marital/family stress for me. Yet I am expected to have it all together.
- The vitriolic and divisive political climate seems to have infected everyone and everything.
- I wish I could get away for a while, but I am afraid everything will fall apart while I am gone. And even if I try to shut down for a day, my phone keeps blowing up with calls and texts.
- My walk with God is being negatively affected by all of this.
- I can’t take much more of this.
Pastors have been broadsided by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early March as the government announced “Stay-At-Home Orders,” pastors had to make an immediate shift to church online. Some churches were already online, but the vast majority were not. Getting a church online requires technical expertise that most pastors lack, as well as a high level of patience because online can be a bit fickle and unreliable. Almost every aspect of pastoral ministry has changed in six months. At no point in history is being a pastor more taxing and challenging than today.
And, it’s not over yet. Not only will it be months before we emerge from the pandemic, but national church leaders are telling us that the post-COVID church will be very different than the pre-COVID church. What do pastors do with that? What does that even mean? Many were already struggling to adjust to the changing world and do ministry pre-COVID. Now it’s like pastors are pivoting so rapidly they are spinning in circles with only one toe on the ground.
I’ve found that pastors do not generally do a good job of self-care. They take care of others, but rarely do they take good care of themselves. I often talk to church boards about the need to regularly ask their pastors how they are doing and how they are taking care of themselves. I fear most church boards don’t take me up on that challenge. Maybe they are afraid they won’t know what to do with the answer.
I am fortunate that every quarter when the Indiana Ministries Board meets, they ask me point blank how I am doing. During the Pandemic, many of them have called, emailed or texted me with a variation of that question. Talking with peers about the demands of this season has been a life saver for me. I’m wired in such a way that I am pretty good with the self-care piece. And I’ve had a great mentor in Al Ells who has pushed me again and again in this area. (By the way, Al’s new book – The Resilient Leader – was released September 2020. Get a copy for your pastor.) Yet, I struggled for the first three months of the year. And at times I am still struggling with how to navigate this season. Thank the Lord for ministry friends who check up on me!
Board Members and church members, October is Pastor Appreciation Month. And I cannot think of a better time to honor and express appreciation for your pastor than right now. It will be a lifeline to many pastors. The last six months have taken a huge toll. So seize the opportunity during October to love on your pastor and her/his family. Flood them with cards, gift cards, affirmation, and gratitude.
I think one of the best gifts you can give your pastor and church staff right now is a break from ministry so God can revive, renew, and refresh them. At a recent Indiana Ministries Board meeting, we were going around the room doing the 1-10 exercise. One of the Board members said she realized she needs more frequent breaks from ministry than ever before. She said that her husband’s employer, a company from Germany, was giving all employees multiple extra vacation weeks this year in order to refresh from the pandemic. I think a lot of people are going to need that to survive this season.
I am finding that most pastors aren’t taking enough time off right now. They feel like too much at church depends on them. How much would it encourage your pastor if the church gave her/him some extra vacation time and maybe some extra money to get away? Don’t let them use the excuse, “There’s a pandemic! I can’t be gone from the church. Besides, isn’t home the safest place to be?” If your church can’t make it a week or two without the pastor being on the job, then you’ve got big problems that need to be addressed. And, yes, there are relatively safe places to drive to during the pandemic. This kind of appreciation gesture can make a huge difference in the life of your pastor and his/her family.
If you are a leader in your congregation, make sure your board chair sees this. And then urge the board to do something significant for your pastor(s) this year. Even insist on it.
I began hearing predictions in April that a record number of pastors will leave the ministry by the time the pandemic is over. I fear they might be right. I’m seeing fatigue, frustration, exasperation, and discouragement like never before. While you cannot encourage every pastor, you can encourage yours! Your support and encouragement can make a difference!