By Doug Talley
People are coming back to church. Tony Morgan, in the A12021 Unstuck Report, says that in-person attendance is down 28% but online service views are up 123%. Giving is up almost 2%.
Even though there is encouraging news about vaccinations and areas of the country reopening as people try to establish some semblance of normal, many pastors are exhausted from navigating the last 15 months. That means little to no emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical energy to deal with conflict, respond to people’s needs, adapt to changing times, seize opportunities, lead into a new future, or be spontaneous or creative. Pastors often have the mindset, “Taking care of my emotional, mental, and physical health is God’s responsibility. My role is to give, give, give until there is nothing else to give.”
Of course, not many pastors say that out loud. But as we observe how colleagues disregard self-care and keep overextending themselves, it’s pretty clear that is what some of us believe.
No one has been more self-giving than Jesus. Yet, Jesus took time to get away from the demands of life and the clamoring of people in order to refresh his walk with God, renew His spirit, and recover from life’s demands. If you’ve forgotten this read Luke 4:42. We often use this verse to talk about how Jesus had devotional time. But I think the verse goes much deeper as it reveals Jesus knew you can only be selfless if you practice healthy self-care. I know; it sounds contradictory. But if you don’t take care of yourself, there is nothing left to give away in sacrifice and service.
Many pastors are not very proactive in caring for themselves. Which means if we don’t get a better handle on our self-care, our capacity to help others will be limited – even severely limited. God does take care of us. However, God has also called us to exercise good judgment and not to test him. Ignoring self-care is a form of testing God.
As pastors, we expect ourselves to be able to keep people happy – even when people want the opposite thing. As life returns to some semblance of normal and as people return to church, we are caught in the tension of trying to please the ones who embrace the vaccination and those who are leery of it. We try to please those who want to discard their masks and those who want to keep them. We try to please persons all across the political and social justice spectrums. We try to please those who want the church to do things just like it did before the pandemic and those who realize the times have changed so the church must change if it’s going to be relevant in its ministry approach. At no time in history have pastors had more unrealistic expectations of themselves. And it is probably true that at no time in history have church people had more unrealistic expectations of pastors.
The enemy of our souls tries to seize every opportunity to create havoc in the spirit of those who follow Christ. The pandemic has certainly provided a lot of opportunities. Sometimes it seems like everyone has taken a crazy pill, thus putting the world into chaos. The God who lives in us is greater than disagreement, greater than chaos, greater than tension, and greater than any of the forces that try to drive wedges between people.
I want to remind us that God is still reigning. And the One who reigns is still alive in us. Though things often seem extremely messy, God is able to bring order out of the chaos.
Since God reigns and is supreme, what could be wrong with taking this summer to renew, refresh and recover from the last 15 months? Pastors tend to keep pushing themselves because they feel like people need them and they have to be available. Jesus wasn’t always available. He knew that His Father reigned, so he was able to get away at times to renew, refresh, and recover. If Jesus needed time away, is it so unreasonable to think that pastors do too?
It is not too late to make plans to take not only some summer vacation but also some extra time. Maybe you can take a few days for a personal retreat. Maybe you can reduce your work schedule to three or four days a week for one of the summer months. Be creative with time off. And by all means disconnect from digital media during this time. You don’t have to be available 24-7. It is unhealthy to even try to meet that expectation. Change your voice mail and email to say you are unavailable for a period of time. Identify a couple of people in the church to handle routine and emergency situations. Forward any church texts or emails you get to them.
As I interact with pastors and talk with other regional pastors, it is apparent to me that pastors have done an incredible job during the last 15 months. I would give each of you a medal of valor for the way you have adapted and pivoted. One of the casualties of the pandemic is that very few people are getting any pats on the back or affirmation. Social distancing has caused almost everyone to suffer from an affirmation and hug deficit. Yet pastors probably deserve affirmation more in the last 15 months than any other season of their ministry. Well done, pastors! I am proud of you!
We aren’t done with this pandemic yet, even though every one of us wants to be. We still need to exercise good health judgment. So, let’s take the necessary steps now to position ourselves to finish this worldwide crisis well. It starts with taking care of yourself.
I recently flew for the first time since pre-pandemic days. When flight attendants give their safety talk just before takeoff, they still tell us, “If you are traveling with a child or someone you need to assist, put your oxygen mask on first.” In other words if you are going to care for others, you must care for yourself first. Otherwise, your ability to care for others will be compromised. Pastors, please take care of yourselves.