As the months of the pandemic have dragged on, we’ve heard a lot of stories about how people are coping, or not. There have been guidelines published about how to deal with depression or anxiety.

But something we haven’t heard about very much is the toll this is taking on clergy.

And it is considerable: 

A recent LifeWay research study also found that pastors are now experiencing some intensified pressure points connected with their congregation’s needs. Among those: 26 percent of pastors reported worry over finances; 16 percent feel pressure over technological challenges and 12 percent felt pressure offering pastoral care through a socially distanced format.

Intensified stress is not unique to pastors as a recent poll, conducted by Monmouth University, found that 55 percent of people said their stress levels have increased since the pandemic began.

Ray Ortlund, president of Renewal Ministries and pastor to pastors at Immanuel Nashville, said this is a time when pastors must honestly and humbly admit their needs.

“The Lord is giving us pastors a gift during this time of difficulty and limitation,” Ortlund said. “He is giving us the gift of humility. The joy we so often felt during active ministry — yes, there was stress and disappointment, but there was joy too. And that joy we felt — was it a function of character and faith, or was it a function of activity and adrenaline?”

Ortlund added that having the humility to recognize that needs may be greater than previously realized is also a pathway to revival for pastors.

Frank Lewis, pastor of First Baptist Church Nashville, said the effort of making a daily routine in the midst of so much uncertainty has brought frustrations, new levels of irritation and stress.

“It’s a stress that’s just off the charts right now for me,” Lewis said. “That’s usually not me.”

Lewis said generally he is able to handle normal levels of stress well by handling his diet and exercise routine and practicing patience. But with the current events and increased personal demands, he has noticed in himself the temptation to respond to individuals with frustration and curt speech.

Another LifeWay research study gathered responses from pastors in relation to the difficulty of connecting with their congregation and keeping up with needs in a manageable way. One response noted that with the rapid change of job description and needs, there is a constant demand for communication and pastoral care. Another said the work can become tedious, and the avenues that would support the pastoral experience are all blocked.

Geremy Keeton, senior director of counseling at Focus on the Family, said habits of personal, spiritual self-care that were already necessary for pastors are being revealed and amplified during the pandemic.

“A pastor’s ability to know how to gauge his need for self-care is essential every week of his ministry,” Keeton said. “… Those who had that in place and do that well are having to buckle down and make more effort in doing it and are probably thriving because they’ve practiced, before coming into this, what self-care is. But if that [self-care] was not in place, and you came into this with a deficit, it was probably going to push you to a place of realizing you need to do that, or to a breaking point.”

Keeton said pastors must care for their body, their mind and their spirit. They must be filled with the Spirit, in order to pour out to others.

“Pastors are holistically ministering to their flock, and so they have to holistically minister to themselves,” Keeton said.

A survey in Ireland several weeks ago noted:

Faith leaders have continued in their traditional roles of burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, and facilitating the provision of social services in the wider community. These roles are of such societal importance that clergy and religious staff have been designated as “key workers” by both the Irish and UK governments.

The survey revealed that 74% of faith communities of the largest denominations were providing social services to the wider community during the pandemic. Just 25% of faith communities had decreased their services during the pandemic. A remarkable 82% of faith leaders who are cocooning for age or underlying health reasons have continued their ministry. It is not surprising therefore that 46% said their ministry had been more stressful than usual, with 33% saying stress had been “about the same.” As a Presbyterian put it, “it has been exhausting”.

The experiences that faith leaders rated the most stressful were comforting those bereaved by Covid-19, comforting those bereaved of other causes, conducting funerals, “feeling guilty that I am not doing enough to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic” and learning new skills for online ministry. There are added financial pressures as churches, along with other charitable organisations, experience declines in donations. It seems likely that the pandemic will result in the closure of church buildings.

And people with certain personality types and mindsets can be more susceptible to stress and anxiety — and that might include clergy:

People who are used to being in control are among those most affected by the stress of the coronavirus lockdown: they can feel helpless in the face of a problem that they cannot deal with, a psychotherapist and studies have said.

One priest who works as a group analytic psychotherapist, the Rev. Dr. Anne Holmes, said that the “underlying angst is a very hard thing for people who are normally high-functioning. Adjusting puts a strain on them.” Describing the virus as the “unknown enemy”, she continued: “Because everyone is aware this is a unique situation and unknown to our usual living experiences, people with important positions have tended to downgrade themselves and might not be asking for help for themselves because it is not important in the great range of things.

“Those whose identity is tied up with being the one in charge are at risk of grandiosity and are likely to falter when faced with a situation over which they have no control.”

St Luke’s Healthcare, the charity that seeks to promote health and wellness among the Anglican clergy, is offering dioceses a weekly virtual well-being program. The first, issued last week, was created by Mrs Ison, who is one of its trustees. She advises people to take time off during the day, and to set boundaries about what is work time and what is family time. “Tend to your own self-care; listen to what our bodies are telling us about ourselves. Remember you have coped in the past and this won’t last for ever.”

In her program, she warns that trauma can be a shock event like an accident or attack, “but it can also be a slowly unfolding situation over a period of time, as in the current crisis that we are all facing personally and professionally. Our normal capacities to cope become overwhelmed, and we feel that we can’t handle all that’s coming at us.”

Additionally, the breaking of physical connections means that there can be no consoling touch or hug. “In parishes, families are distressed not only by the loss of a family member, but also by not being able to have the funeral they would have liked to celebrate and honor the deceased. Our understanding of who we are and how we connect as ministers is being shaken, and how we understand the world and God is being challenged.”

Clergy: care for yourselves, however you can. These are stressful, fraught times, and bishops, priests and deacons are feeling it as much as everyone else. We need to continue to pray for all the victims of this plague, in all walks of life, and remember that not all symptoms are measured with a thermometer and not all scars are visible.

Henri Nouwen wrote:

Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.

Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.

Let us continue to hold one another in prayer.

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