Early one recent morning – after another long, restless, sleepless night – I read two Tweets, almost back to back, written by two unrelated, obviously-concerned pastors, asking if other clergy were having difficulties staying motivated in our current crisis. Coincidence? Maybe. But, I could have easily added a similar Tweet, and almost did.
I, like these two pastoral colleagues, feel drained, unmotivated, stretched too thin. I feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins, “…thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I, too, have wondered, “Is it just me.”
Just this week, someone complimented one of my past blog posts, which was kind and encouraging. But, I haven’t written anything new in many, many months. (Thus, here I am today)
I love to preach, and prepare sermons. But, more often than not, my recent sermon prep is a mad scramble to toss something, anything together, just in time for recording on Thursday mornings, for our pre-produced online services. I haven’t had time for thoughtful research, creative crafting, thorough editing, prayerful reflection, or sufficient rehearsal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m offering the best I can, and refuse to do less. But, my best, these days, isn’t my best. And, for someone who cares about the craft of preaching, that is hard to accept, and disappointing.
As a leader, I believe in the importance of clear vision – but my vision is blurry, like the way my glasses fog when I wear a face mask. Ironic in the year 2020, my vision is sorely impaired.
I’ve even lost interest in beloved hobbies. My motorcycle is collecting dust. I’ve only read about half as many books as last year. As I already mentioned, I love to write, but haven’t blogged in months. Other creative pursuits lay in disorganized heaps and piles.
Ironically, in the early days of the pandemic, I was actually energized, stimulated by the need to adapt, learn new skills, and try new things. Though the crisis was alarming, I was motivated to create and innovate. But, the thrill is gone – long gone. My adaptability is waning.
So what’s going on? Why am I, and other pastors, struggling to find our footing in the midst of this strange season?
(BTW: I’m not alone. A growing body of research indicates a high percentage of clergy are struggling through this pandemic, and will likely leave the ministry as a result)
I don’t claim to have any answers or profound insights. I can only speak for myself. I haven’t conducted interviews or formal research. These thoughts are mine, and mine alone, and I’ve already confessed my thinking is cloudy at best. That I’ve managed to write what you’ve read thus far, with any semblance of coherence, is a minor miracle!
So, for whatever they’re worth, here are a few thoughts from my muddled ponderings. Perhaps they’re less than thoughts. Perhaps, they’d be more accurately categorized as “curious reflections”…
Distress: Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Stress. These are stressful times, for everyone, not just pastors. But, pastors are carrying uniquely, ministry-related stresses: “How do we offer adequate socially-distanced care to our members? How and when do we offer in-person ministry? What if members get infected at church events? Who is angry that we aren’t ‘back to normal?’ How will the pandemic impact the budget? How do I manage my own fears and concerns, and not impose them on others? How do I balance the needs and desires of the more cautious with the less cautious? Will members come back, after the pandemic? Am I doing the right things? Am I doing enough? How do I know? Will the church survive this?” And, of course, pastors are attempting to manage the fears and anxieties of others, as well as their own. It’s a lot.
Disappointment: Pastors are “Good News” people, theologically speaking. And, everyone desperately needs to hear “Good News” these days. But, I suspect, many pastors are communicating more bad news than usual – cutting programs, reducing expenses, furloughing or firing staff, announcing deaths, enforcing pandemic-related precautions, delaying ministry initiatives. And, as this pandemic wears on, with dramatically increased infection and death rates, how do we communicate hope about future plans and programming? “When will we be ‘back to normal?’ When will members return for in-person ministries? Will we make budget? Can we schedule future mission trips, retreats, Vacation Bible School, camps?” Not knowing is exhausting, and heart-wrenching! And, pastors, I think, are simultaneously carrying the collective congregational disappointment, as well as their own.
Disorientation: I’m guessing most pastors didn’t take seminary courses in “How to be an Effective Pastor in a Pandemic.” To the best of my knowledge, no one has written a book on the topic either. To the contrary, much of what I learned in seminary, reading books, and thirty years of ministry did not adequately prepare me for this. More than that. Everything is so disorienting. Preaching to a camera. Attempting to covey or read facial expressions through a mask. Worshipping outdoors. Constantly adapting, never sure what will or won’t work, or what has or hasn’t worked.
Disconnection: Pastors are people-oriented. Even for introverts like me, pastors become pastors for people. To a large extent, human connection is what feeds pastors. And, right now, pastors feel disconnected, and feel the congregation’s collective disconnection. Preaching to a camera, or to a diminished, face mask wearing, socially distanced congregation is unsatisfying. Not being able to hug or shake hands is hard. Zoom meetings have been life-saving, somewhat, but certainly not the same as gathering in-person. Being at church, with our empty halls, empty classrooms, and empty sanctuary, just feels so damned lonely. What does ministry mean, without human contact and touch?
Disapproval: Everyone has personal opinions, and few hesitate to share them. Often those stated opinions express frustration, disappointment and criticism – sometimes to the pastor, sometimes about the pastor. In the best of circumstances, ministry is a bit like herding cats. But, these aren’t the best of circumstances, and the cats are increasingly grumpy. Some have become feral, or even rabid! While every pastor deals with criticism, it never gets easier. And, there’s so much these days. Under normal conditions, a pastor takes some comfort in knowing they’re doing the right things. But, these days, the criticisms cut more deeply, because pastors are trying as hard as they can, while feeling so little confidence about anything.
Distractions: Only dealing with the pandemic would be challenging enough. But, as though a pandemic isn’t sufficiently occupying, we’ve also had a contentious election with an uncertain outcome, record-breaking natural disasters, civil unrest, economic instability, a murder hornet invasion and toilet paper shortages. Enough is enough! I can’t provide sufficient attention to anything, before the next crisis erupts.
Well, that’s certainly more than enough for now. Perhaps I’ll say more in future posts. But, for now, I’ll simply conclude with two closing comments.
Pastors and ministry colleagues: Hang in there. You’re doing good work – better than you probably realize! And, don’t be TOO hard on yourself – there’s more than enough of that coming from other places. We’ll get through this.
Concerned Readers (including family, friends, colleagues, and congregants): I’m ok. Really. I am. I don’t need rescue or intervention. This isn’t a complaint, or cry for help. I’m just being honest, and hoping my reflections might help other pastors not feel so defeated or alone.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d especially love to hear from ministry colleagues. Is this what you’re feeling, thinking, experiencing? What did I miss?