Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
Recently I published an article on the CBFblog about the biggest challenges for ministers right now. That data was pulled from a survey I distributed in late August. There was a lot of food for thought in the numbers. But the news is not all sobering! There were many aspects of ministry that are life-giving for leaders right now, and it is just as important to lift up what we can celebrate as it is to consider what is hard.
Here are the survey tallies marked by at least 40 percent of the 152 respondents:
Sixty-one percent – Pastors who are delighted that church people are so happy to be in person together again.
Fifty-five percent – Pastors who aren’t sure what the future holds, but who feel God’s Spirit at work.
Fifty-two percent – Pastors who can again do parts of ministry that the pandemic prevented.
Forty-eight percent – Pastors who celebrate that new people have found their churches because of their online presence during the pandemic.
Forty-seven percent – Pastors who rejoice that their churches have weathered the pandemic well financially.
Forty-seven percent – Pastors who feel appreciated by their congregations.
Forty-five percent – Pastors who have groups of peers/colleagues who have helped sustain them during a tough stretch.
Forty-one percent – Pastors who have discovered new gifts because of the adaptations required by the pandemic.
Forty-one percent – Pastors whose churches are open to experimenting because it’s unclear what church needs to look like pre-post-Covid.
First of all, I’d like to note that nine positives were marked by at least 40 percent of survey takers versus seven negatives. Also, the top three joys rated higher (at 52-61 percent) than the number one drawback (51 percent). That’s good news for pastors and for the people they minister alongside.
Part of what feels so good to these pastors is the sense of possibility. In one sense, the opportunities are about reclaiming. Ministers’ job descriptions changed in significant ways during the pandemic, and some of what they loved doing most was no longer possible, at least in familiar ways. Specifically, making pastoral care visits and interacting formally and informally with parishioners during in-person gatherings were replaced with “producing” worship online, checking in on people from a distance, and working harder to glean the information about church members’ well-being that previously emerged organically from in-person gatherings.
In another sense, the prospects are forward-looking. Congregations and their leaders have realized they can try new-to-them ministries in previously unconsidered ways. New people who might never have walked onto a church’s physical campus have joined the online side of congregations. Clergy got to discover and flex some new skills, often related to moving community online, that their previous duties didn’t call forth. All of this newness is data as your church discerns where it is headed next.
Running through almost all of the celebrations, though, is the theme of relationship. Pastors delight when they see their people reconnect in the same physical space after time apart, and they too are so glad to be able to talk with and hug parishioners without the barriers of screens and distance.
At the same time, those same screens have brought together people who might not have ever met otherwise, strengthening all parties’ webs of support in the process. Clergy have found support from key colleagues, and research has shown that these professional peer relationships are one of the best means of preventing burnout. That’s in addition to the appreciation ministers feel from their churches, which strengthens the pastor-parishioner bond. And most importantly, over half of ministers remain rooted in their connection to the Holy Spirit, trusting that the Spirit is maneuvering in ways we can’t yet fully understand.
How, then, can we continue to build on the good?
Judicatories (state and regional organizations in the CBF world)
Notice and publicly name all that pastors and churches have done and are doing. A bit of appreciation goes a long way toward encouraging and emboldening those in your care.
Check in with your pastors and ask what they and their churches need right now. This is a strange season. We are no longer at the height of the pandemic – thanks be to God – and we are not totally out of it either. They are building the playbook for what to do from here. Inquire how you can help them do that.
Encourage congregations to give clergy more space for physical, emotional, spiritual and mental renewal. That will help these pastors be at their best when guiding their churches through this time of transition between what church was and what it will be.
Connect pastors with support and the funding for that support. Help from the outside – not just outside the congregation, but also outside the small world of your judicatory – will provide space for clergy to process what they’ve been through and what they want to carry forward from that experience. Therapists, spiritual directors and coaches are great resources.
Listen to what your body and soul are telling you. Both are wise beyond what we can comprehend. If they are telling you to slow down, heed that message. If they are telling you that you need help, reach out.
Continue to lean into your relationships. This is the bottom line of what we are to be about. Simply be with people (both those in your context and your loved ones) and with God.
Know that your well-being contributes to your church’s health. You are not being selfish by taking care of yourself. You are honoring the life God gave you, and you are doing what you need to be able to love well.
Observe what your pastor is doing and say thanks. Words are powerful and lasting. See and value the effort your leader is putting in. The same goes for your lay leaders.
Show up (in whatever form). Your engagement matters. Your pastor notices and gives thanks. Your fellow church members notice and make a decision about whether to come back next week in part by how full (of energy, if not people) gatherings feel.
Extend patience and grace. You want the pandemic to be over. You want things to be normal. That is completely understandable. And, at this point, it’s just beyond reach. For now, we can just do the next right thing. Let that be enough.
An encouragement from one wise survey respondent says it best: “If churches can be creative, adaptive, and open to the Holy Spirit as they go forward, God will use us for beautiful things.”
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama