By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
In my coaching, I often hear themes across clergy about what is hard and what is delightful about their work. But in late August, I decided I wanted something more than anecdotal information about this season in ministry.
I sent out a three-question, anonymous survey to my newsletter lists and posted it in clergy groups on social media. I am grateful that 152 people took the time to share their experiences. I thought the results might be illuminating for both ministers and laypeople; so here are the issues that at least 40 percent of respondents are facing:
Fifty-one percent – Pastors who can’t find enough lay leaders to come alongside them in ministry.
Forty-nine percent – Lay leaders who are burned out.
Forty-eight percent – Pastors and lay leaders who are trying to discern the long-term financial stability of the congregation.
Forty-five percent – Pastors who are so tired in body and spirit.
Forty- three percent – Those who say it’s hard for pastors to know what the church should try to go back to and what it should let go of.
Forty-two percent – Pastors who want to do more, but who have hit their limit.
Forty-one percent – Those who say it is unclear who still claims this congregation as their own, because many people who stopped attending during the pandemic have not yet returned.
As you can see, the biggest issues are fatigue and uncertainty. Everyone is tired, because the pandemic demanded so much of our energy simply to keep moving forward. No one can sustain that level of exertion indefinitely.
At the same time, our pandemic experiences have shown us that congregations, individually and collectively, are in the midst of a huge shift. We are not sure what resources we have, what people still want to be part of our communities, and what ministries from pre-Covid times we need to jettison permanently in favor of new initiatives.
Even the infrastructures of our churches are in flux, as 32 percent of pastors said that their governance no longer fits their worshiping community. Unfortunately, being tired and being unclear are two realties that don’t play nicely with one another. When we’re running on fumes, it’s hard to work up the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energy to envision the future. When we are stretched too thin by trying to do all things until we make some decisions about where our congregation is headed, we only wear ourselves out more. (Interestingly, only two percent of pastors were unsure about whether to go back to all in-person worship or to stay hybrid. It seems that most churches have already made that choice, and those that have leaned into both virtual and in-person church are no doubt working through ways to make that way forward sustainable in the longer term.)
So, what does all this mean for how we are church together in this time?
Take time to breathe. We all need this – pastors and laypeople. We need to inhale deeply and exhale from the depths of our bellies. In scripture, the Holy Spirit is often described as wind, as breath. Let yourself be filled by God’s Spirit. You will feel the difference in every aspect of your being.
Tend to your soul. A quarter of survey respondents noted that they feel spiritually dry. I suspect that number reflects what is true for the larger church. Scripture provides us with tools to nurture our inmost beings. Pray your way through the psalms, which contain the full range of raw conversations with God. Spend time in the latter books of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God’s people are sent into exile in an unfamiliar land and then have to find their way back to a home that looks different than they remember. Use the Epistles as outlines for writing an honest letter to your church, even if this is just an exercise for yourself.
Think small. When exhaustion is high, it is not the time to go big. Pastors and churches can try some low-preparation experiments and see what happens. Maybe you’ll learn something that will give you one piece of the puzzle that is your congregation’s future. Maybe you’ll garner momentum to do the experiment again or try something else.
Focus on relationships. After a time of intense isolation, we are all re-learning how to be with one another. Whatever we can do to strengthen bonds and establish new ones is worth the effort we put into it. God’s own self is relationship, being three persons and yet one. We can build from here.
Look for where God is at work. God does not leave us. No matter what is happening or how we are feeling, God is in our midst, often in barely perceptible ways. So, what are the God sightings in your congregation and community? Cultivating this noticing and giving thanks for what we perceive is an act of worship that both encourages and animates us individually and collectively.
These recommendations are intentionally embodied. They speak to our physicality, the soul that enlivens us, and the interactions between beings. They are things we can see and hear, feel and do. That’s because we are the body of Christ as described by Paul in I Corinthians. Each one of us is part of that body, contributing our own gifts to its effective functioning. Just like our own physical beings, the body of Christ needs breath and sacred rest to return to itself after demanding stretches. The body slowly increases muscle and capacity by starting with small actions and building from there. The body is dysfunctional unless its parts appreciate each other’s roles and work in concert. And the body requires direction, attentiveness to signs that it is moving ahead with God’s accompaniment and encouragement.
May you love this corporate body of Christ and your own body as an essential part of it, giving both what they need so that they can show up as the love of God in a hurting world.
In my next article, I look forward to sharing survey results about and reflections on the joys of ministry in this season.
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama