A few weeks ago, I offered some reflections on serving as a pastor during a pandemic. I shared about how this season has been odd and difficult. I yearn for the experiences of odd and difficult, now, as we prepare to consider what does it mean to relaunch in-person activities.
I find myself in a place of constant stress, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion as we begin to consider what does it mean to gather back together once more.
Certainly, I never imagined that two months after shutting down in-person activities that we would still be in this place. I never imagined we would go two months without sharing the sacraments together. I never imagined we would go two months without a lot of the essential activities of community. My worst-case scenario began to play out Sunday of being out through Mother’s Day. My ultimate worst-case scenario is becoming a heartbreaking reality of not being together on my last Sunday, which is only a few weeks away.
Churches in the West Virginia Annual Conference, along with churches across the connection of the United Methodist Church, are working through guidelines on how and when to reopen in-person activities. These guidelines were written by conference leadership, in consultation with state and national health experiences and political leadership. I’m part of a district team that is helping churches understand and live through the guidelines.
The guidelines include basic health measures to help us live out the Biblical principle of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It includes recommendations like wearing a mask when gathered for in-person activities, which includes worship, maintaining six feet of distance and separation from one another, refraining from personal contact, and a deep cleaning and sanitation of the facility prior to reopening. There are other aspects of the guidelines that have created some challenges. Those include no singing or sharing in the sacraments for a season, as well as a temporary reduction in the length of worship.
We are also encouraged to ask those who are most vulnerable and over the age of 65 to remain at home. That is the vast majority of my current congregation.
This is where the stress and anxiety come in for me.
I believe fully in doing all that is remotely necessary to care for the most vulnerable in our community. It is my responsibility to care for the spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of my flock and the community I serve. As a result, I intend to live fully within the guidelines, even in the places where I may find disappointment or difficulty. I believe it is important in a time of unknown to do what is necessary to help one another. At the same time, I am yearning for in-person community. I want to look at something other than a camera and my own reflection on a Sunday morning. I want to laugh, pray, and build community with people around me. How do you balance all of those realities?
The truth is you cannot.
You want to make it all a reality, because you know how important in-person activity and connection is for both one’s spiritual and emotional growth. As a pastor, you want to try to find the pathway into the unknown in such a way that it brings together the various concerns to seek the best way forward. In this pandemic season, I recognize that it is a more difficult and challenging task than whether to close the building for a season.
You cannot make it all work, which, just like with much of the ministry activity the last two months, you focus in on what is feasible to be accomplished. In that work, you seek to find where God is leading you to be the church in the midst of what is possible and to dream about what community might look like moving forward.
Perhaps that is why I’m experiencing some grief and sadness, recently, while trying to continue with the routine aspects of life and ministry. Grief over what is lost and sadness over what may not happen. Both of those emotions lead to various responses. For me, my grief and sadness has led to bouts of anger, resentment, and frustration. I find myself staring into space, rushing through things, and wishing I could snap my fingers and make it all go away. Again, I cannot though I wish I could.
Honestly, I’m tired. My colleagues and friends leading other churches are tired. We are all tired. You’re tired, too. I get that.
For my own situation, as a pastor in transition, you desire to find a way to make it end before you leave, so you do not leave the church in a more precarious situation than when you arrived. I take that very seriously, and it is something that I have struggled with as my time with my current appointment nears its conclusion. It is hard to explain the personal and spiritual responsibility pastors feel about the leadership of the church and its mission. While we recognize this was not our creation, we still feel the burden of making sure the church is able to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world.
What also adds to the feelings of anxiety and stress is when you see hear stories about other churches. Other churches and their activities are often brought up to pastors, almost in a “they are doing it better than you are doing it” mentality. People love to compare one church to the other, and always assume it is better elsewhere.
That still occurs during this pandemic. When the activities of other churches are mentioned to you – both how they are leading in this time and, in some cases, reopening without following the guidelines offered from the Center for Disease Control and local health departments – it creates an internal conflict and negativity where you begin to question your every decision and if you are leading well. You begin to doubt yourself. Eventually you remember that what matters most is not what other churches or communities are doing, but where you believe God is leading you and your people in their particular context.
I just hope I always remember that, even as the stress and anxiety continue to build up in the days and weeks to come.