COVID-19 is creating significant adversity in ministry and leadership. As I talk with pastors, there are 10 ways in which this impact is being felt.
Pastoral load is significantly increasing because of the pandemic
Many church members are anxious and stressed. They are isolated, fearful and some may be ill and even dying. At times like this people usually turn to the church for solace and at present the lack of physical church support is very challenging for them and for us who minister. In the last few weeks, I have heard of ministers making around 20 calls a day to members of their churches.
Personal pastoral access is restricted, and conventional collective responses are not possible
The normal leadership reflex in serious shared adversity is to call people together, to comfort and lead them in collective prayer before God. With the COVID19 pandemic, the standard means of care and support have all gone and pastors need to re-create processes of pastoral ministry on the run. The fact that many under their care might be suffering without adequate support is a stress on pastors.
The most vulnerable are the most challenging to connect with and to care for
Those most physically vulnerable to COVID19 are older congregational members. Most Christian churches have a disproportionately high demographic of older members. These also are least likely to have the means and capacity to adapt to online or mobile phone-based connections. Some are in lock-down in nursing homes with no visitors including family members allowed. Some of these individuals are in deep distress and some do not fully comprehend what is happening in the world around them.
Ministers potentially face more than the usual number of emotionally draining officiating services
Some ministers will be engaged with significant numbers of very difficult pastoral tasks like ministering to those who have very ill or dying family members. Caring for people who are unable to be with their family members in their last hours or even attend a family member’s funeral is a challenging task. Some may be taking funerals with limited numbers permitted to attend in person and larger numbers present online. These are very high-pressure situations which are spiritually and emotionally draining.
There are increasing family pressures in parishioners’ households
While people are isolated, house-bound, under financial pressure and also fearful and anxious around their own wellbeing, there is a household pressure cooker effect. Under these circumstances there is potentially an increase in family relational issues like conflict, marriage and parent-child breakdown, alcohol and substance abuse and even increased likelihood of domestic violence. Pastors are often made aware of these issues but again may be limited in the help that they can offer in current circumstances.
Pastoral ministry and team leadership is having to be re-invented
The isolation required by this crisis is unique. Some professions are not greatly impacted, and staff can simply move home and continue without major change to how their work is conducted. This is much more challenging for people in ministry who have to negotiate a range of major changes to the way leadership of a now scattered faith community is engaged. Those who have centred their ministry in preaching find that this is in now completely in a different space. A monologue in front of a camera is not the same as opening the word of God in the presence of others who respond and engage. A ‘zoom’, ‘teams’, ‘hangout meet’ or ‘skype’ meeting has to be facilitated very differently than a staff meeting with everyone around the table.
One of the subtle but significant changes related to COVID19 isolation is the emotional and spiritual impact of the profound loss of human connection, affirmation and partnership in ministry. While pastors do not minister tor the affirmation they receive, the loss of human connection with their own church family is significant and will be felt in increasing measure over coming weeks.
Video and social networking technology is demanding
Most ministers are on very steep learning curves when it comes to both the hardware technology and using software like skype, zoom, audio recording and video editing software. Not many clergy (although I know a few) began life as video producers. Managing social media comes with its own issues around privacy, access, and managing a range of different accounts and platforms.
For pastors, one of the most significant stresses being felt at the moment is that keeping their own position is not certain as churches struggle even more than usual around finances. Normal parish income is no longer reliable as services are not being held and income from other sources may have ceased (rentals of parish halls). Not all church members give or are comfortable giving via online banking services (particularly a rural church issue). Many regular givers may also have lost jobs and now have significantly decreased income (more common in urban and suburban environments).
Dislocation from minister’s extended family
Many clergy lived dislocated from their own extended family as part of their vocational calling. At times of adversity this can be very difficult if travel is limited and family members e.g. parents, siblings or children become ill.
Pastors have their own personal family life and health needs
There may be personal and family health concerns around COVID19 and pastor’s own immediate family relatives. Some may have spouses who work in current high-risk areas like nursing, community services, or teaching and childcare. Some of these may need to be in isolation from immediate family while they work. It is not uncommon for pastors themselves have pre-existing health conditions which place them at risk of more severe symptoms associated with COVID-19.
All of the above mean that what we are experiencing not just higher than normal stress, it is unusual adversity. This requires more than simply upscaling normal self-care practices. Self-care is critical and remains needed, however in times of adversity a different capacity we refer to as resilience is required for the length of time the adversity impacts us.
In the next post we will explore 10 strategies for developing resilience.