By Carl Addison
We’ve all seen the memes and heard the jokes. To say this has been a challenging season is definitely an understatement. Our current reality is sobering to say the least. Over 215,000 Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus. The resulting unemployment and financial insecurities of the pandemic continue to mount. Growing polarization regarding issues related to the pandemic are dividing families, neighborhoods, and churches. Added to that is the incessant lack of civility that has overtaken news media, social media, and relationships. The impact of racism and the subsequent discussions (often ugly) about who is racist and who isn’t dominate our discourse. Violence and the fear of it undermining the upcoming electoral process is unprecedented (don’t we all long for “precedented” times?). And, honestly, it seems that this season is far from over. We all get the picture.
All of this and so much more impacts the way ministry is done in ways we could never have predicted. Stress and fatigue seem to be the norm for even the healthiest of those who serve in ministry. A recent study by Lifeway asked pastors what they consider to be the top pressure points they are currently facing. Of the twelve items considered, interestingly enough, maintaining unity/conflict/dealing with complaints was by far the most frequently identified pressure point. Just to be sure we don’t miss this – in the midst of a global pandemic, church conflict and related issues are pastors most commonly noted pressure point. After that came providing pastoral care from a distance, the safety and well-being of members, being personally exhausted/stressed/isolated, and uncertainty when it comes to wisdom, direction, and strategy. Other studies suggest that conflict surrounding re-gathering is a major stress factor for pastors. Sadly, only 8% of those responding to the Lifeway study identified said that spurring discipleship/evangelism was a current concern.
It cannot be said loudly enough that the perplexing times in which we serve are draining. Pastors are tired, lonely, enduring triangulation among those in their congregations who disagree not only with them but each other and are painfully distracted from the church’s mission. It may well be that for many, survival is the mode in which many pastors are functioning – and understandably so.
In the midst of such conflict, fear, and uncertainty, how can a pastor thrive in 2020? Is that a fair question? Is it even possible? What does it mean to thrive? In scores of conversations with pastors over these past seven months, some common threads seem to emerge. Pastors are fatigued and many are running on empty. Pastors are, like so many others, isolated and lonely. They are concerned about their families and the people in their congregations. The expectations of those they serve seem like impossible-to-hit moving targets. No one was trained to shepherd congregations through a pandemic. And yet, the fact that Jesus came to give life in abundance remains true, even for pastors in the midst of 2020.
It might be said that Jesus’ desire to give abundant life is a desire for us to thrive, even pastors leading churches in these crazy times. To thrive is to flourish, to grow or develop vigorously. The word brings to mind images of lush greenery, of health and vibrancy, and in short, life itself. And yes, it is possible to thrive, to flourish, to experience life in its fullness, even in 2020. But that in no way implies that thriving is the norm, nor does it say we should feel guilt or shame if surviving is more descriptive of where we are than is thriving. Whether we are barely hanging by a thread or finding a strong sense of fulfillment, there are some things that can facilitate and even accelerate our sense of thriving as this challenging time keeps on going:
- Some honest self-evaluation is a great place to start. The demands of ministry in the current environment have left many pastors without the time or energy to do a whole lot of personal reflection. How are you doing? What kinds of emotions are you currently experiencing? How’s your walk with Jesus? On a 1-10 scale, with barely surviving being 1 and thriving joyfully being 10, where are you? Let’s start with an authentic assessment of how we are doing. If you are a 2, there is no shame. Nor is there pride in being at a 9 or 10. We just need to establish a starting point for the journey from surviving to thriving.
- A great second thing to do is to create space to be with Jesus. While that might at first seem like something so obvious that it need not be said, the reality is that for many today’s environment has made it extremely difficult to experience the reality that we are, long before we are pastors, sons and daughters of God. More than a few pastors in these past months have indicated just how difficult this is. The pressure of the times has made it difficult for many to sense God’s presence or to find him with all the noise and confusion. One of the things research regarding the idea of thriving in ministry has revealed is that those who are thriving report a deep connection to God as the core of their lives. How’s that walk with Jesus going? Again, rather that feeling guilt, let’s confess to him where we are and run into our Father’s arms!
- Another powerful step to take here is to recognize that we need others in our lives in order to make headway in this journey toward thriving. Research confirms what we all suspect: those who are thriving in ministry are not doing ministry alone. Instead, they have discovered both mentors and peers with whom to share the journey. In the best of times, pastors often have to fight the tendency to be lone rangers. And, quite frankly, most see themselves as mentors rather that as those who need to be mentored. But when in the past century have we needed wisdom from others more than we do now? No, we won’t find anyone who has navigated times like these to give us a formula to see our way through. But that fact alone indicates just how badly we need each other. Beyond wisdom from others, thriving pastors also need peers who understand the weighty burden of ministry, who know what it is like for half the church to oppose whatever decision we might make when it comes to masks, reopening, talking about race, or many other issues of 2020. Who is there in your life who can share your burdens with you? Sadly, for too many of us, that list is too short. Take the initiative – find someone! And, be that someone for another colleague!
- Discover what replenishes you and do it! Far too often, in many conversations with pastors, there has been a very revealing inability to identify those things that are life-giving to them. But the fact is that we cannot pour from an empty cup. When our tanks are dry, we have little to give. We find joy elusive, hope a distant concept, and a sense of thriving out of reach. What replenishes you? If you don’t know the answer to that question, it’s time to find out. But that is only part of the step. Make it happen – without guilt! We serve a God of great abundance. It’s time to abandon our attitude of scarcity and enjoy life – even in times like these.
- To be realistic, it may well be that we should re-define our expectations when it comes to our desire to thrive. It is, after all, 2020! The opportunities to do those things that once replenished us might not be possible. Finances may present obstacles. The reality of ministry demands change the context in which we live, so we may need to re-examine our whole concept of thriving. Yet, that doesn’t mean we give up on the idea. Rather, we instead develop a new, realistic, and hopeful strategy that is grounded in an awareness of where we live and who we are.
- One last item to consider is that of self-care. For some pastors, that term is one that suggests selfishness or the absence of serving others. After all, aren’t we supposed to think more of others and less of ourselves? It might be argued that we cannot effectively care for and serve others if we are running on empty ourselves. Loving our neighbor as ourselves implies that we care for ourselves well. A thriving pastor is a healthy pastor. How are you caring for yourself? We’ve already mentioned how essential our spiritual journey is. Our self-care begins there, but it surely doesn’t end there. Getting appropriate exercise is a great way to find renewed energy. Eating healthy is, of course, a must (with a little chocolate added in every now and then). A key item here is adequate sleep. In conversations with pastors, many indicate that seems more like a luxury to them than a necessity. However, the dangers of sleep-deprivation are well-documented. Yet, many of us fill our schedules to the point that getting enough sleep isn’t possible. Maybe taking an afternoon nap is the most holy thing you could do today! What should you do to take care of yourself?
So, how are you? Barely surviving? Thriving? Somewhere in between? The list of suggestions above might seem pretty unrealistic to you, or maybe even overwhelming. At the same time, maybe you long for that joyful life of thriving and abundance, even in 2020. What might be the first step, or perhaps the next step, on the journey? Make a choice, take the step, take one step away from survival mode toward a greater experience of thriving. Make you next normal one that pursues abundant life. Don’t settle for less!