There is a photo that I took of myself early in the pandemic.
I was in my former office at my last church. I believe I was getting ready to record a worship service. Life was crazy. My eldest son was having constant meltdowns, often aggressive towards me, due to his life being turned upside down, which was especially hard for him due to his autism. We had a new child enter the world earlier than we expected. On top of it all, right before the pandemic began we announced we were moving to a new church just up the road.
I had the look of someone who had been in more than his fair share of fights. I looked tired. I looked worn down. I looked stressed. I looked overwhelmed.
That was in April.
I’ve had that same look on my face every day since then.
Serving as a pastor during the current pandemic has been both challenging and rewarding. It has also been the most physically, spiritually, and emotionally draining experience of my life.
The work of a pastor is stressful, even in the calmest of seasons, which is why my mother-in-law often reminds me to take some time off. It is demanding of your time, even when you are off, to respond to urgent needs. You are placed in situations where one moment you are dealing with the death of a church member to the next dealing with the complaints that someone’s feelings were hurt when the church didn’t use their decorations. You are a preacher, priest, theologian, chaplain, administrator, community advocate, teacher, counselor, and friend all roll into one. And, yes, you work more than one hour a day. (I really do not like that joke.)
So, what has made this season both challenging and rewarding?
It has been challenging, because you are responding to multiple crisis points at once, while also trying to care for your own family needs. There is the most obvious crisis point of the pandemic. This has required learning about epidemiology, learning from public health officials on best practices, and put systems into place that seek to respond faithfully and compassionately to the situation at hand. That has meant you are, more often than not, saying no to good and necessary things. This is because you are responsible for the entire community, and not just the people who show up at your church on a Sunday morning.
There has also been the financial crisis that many churches, and other non-profit organizations, have experienced this year. When giving is down, it means you have to find a way to lessen the financial hurt and ease the budget. That has meant conversations about what we can cut or not do. You also feel denominational pressures to maintain giving, so that you can help fun important ministries and missions, which are also feeling the financial strain that the church is experiencing. You feel the weight of it all, and stress over how much longer the church can continue in this in-between state before having to make harder decisions than you’ve already made.
A challenge unique to me has been transitioning in the pandemic, which has created a momentary crisis of trust. It is not easy to transition from one pastor to another in normal times. In a pandemic, it creates a distrust of the new pastor that is hard to overcome, especially if that church is not meeting in person. You cannot get to know the very people you are called to lead. You are, really, a substitute pastor, which has been a painful reality for me to experience this year. I am thankful, though, that my current church has been as encouraging as possible, and recognizes the unique challenges that are before us in this time.
That is not to mention the other challenges that a pastor feels each week. Challenges from the adaptive nature of worship, of making sure the social media streams are working, of trying to keep the connection alive, and of trying to help the church grow in the midst of the separation. It’s been, well, a season of stress.
All while you, yourself, are anxious for your family and their needs. For my family, it has meant that we stayed together as much as possible. I’m a severe asthmatic (COPD) and susceptible to the coronavirus. W’eve tried to do what we can to protect my health, which has meant that we have not left the Tristate (Huntington-Charleston, West Virginia and Ashland, Kentucky) area since the pandemic began. We’ve limited family interactions, and have stayed within our bubble. Even then, I recognize I have put myself into situations that, if I was not a pastor, I would not enter into because of my asthma. As well, it has also meant fighting harder for my son’s autism therapy, especially when it was taken away at the beginning of the pandemic. There have been times I have left one stressful situation in the church only to go right into another one at home.
It’s been a tiring and challenging experience.
Yet, it has been rewarding.
It’s been empowering to think of new ways to worship. We have quickly adapted to new ways of sharing the gospel. This has included parking lot worship, online services, Zoom worship, and outdoor services. The church is learning how to be adaptive to reach new people, which is exciting to see and participate in, especially since I have yearned for a more adaptive approach to worship for some time now.
There have been moments of joy that have been rewarding to the soul. I’ll never forget standing in a graveyard, alone, on Easter Sunday to deliver the Sunrise message. The sounds of car horns blasting throughout our parking lot at the start of worship has become music to my ears. Baptizing my son in a parking lot was holy. As was seeing our parking lot full with cars on Christmas Eve. Those moments have helped to sustain me, even as I am exhausted, worn down, and, yes, overwhelmed by the season.
I know moving into 2021 that the realities we have faced this year are not going away anytime soon. I suspect that we will worship in our parking lot through the first two months of 2020. I suspect it will not be until the fall that the full congregation will be back together in one setting.
My only hope and prayer is that 2021 will be less exhausting than 2020. One can only hope.