Every once in a while, I’m asked to submit photos of me being a pastor. I always choose photos of me with the precious people in the church I serve. When I think about what it means to be a pastor, people are the first thing that come to mind. From every vantage point, pastoring is about people!
From the preacher’s vantage point, sermons are a conversation because I’m looking for the feedback of facial expression and body language. I watch faces that leave the sanctuary after worship, noticing heavy loads and smiles that are lighter. For me, preaching truly goes both ways.
From the leader’s vantage point, meetings are as much the conversations you have with those in the room while waiting to get started as what happens after we are called to order. I counted on lunch or breakfast together to talk things through with leaders. I used the table in my office as a space to dream with folks, both lay and staff, about where we were going. Many know of my love for the whiteboard on the wall next to that table because we’ve used it to dream together.
From the shepherd’s vantage point, those precious conversations of care happen when we are face-to-face. Whether folks are in a hospital bed or sitting at the table in my office, we look each other in the eye as we seek God’s blessing together. I reach for a hand as we pray. We hug at the end of a conversation to solidify what God accomplishes through relationships.
All of this is missing for your pastor right now. The feedback we get from a hallway conversation? Missing. The smile we see when you appreciate what we’ve offered to you? Missing. The gift of Holy Spirit goodness that happens when God’s people gather for worship? Missing. Your pastor is grieving right now. Our job just doesn’t feel the same. No wonder we question our call. No wonder your pastor thinks, “This is not what I signed up for.”
It isn’t what anyone signed up for – and I get that. I know that pastors aren’t on the frontlines (like many essential workers) risking exposure to a virus that might take their life just to keep the health care system running, food on the shelves of grocery stores, and medicine available at a pharmacy. Still, the losses pastors face are deep and deserve to be named. We vow to faithfully serve you when you lose a loved one, when you encounter a crisis, when you doubt your faith in God. How do we that from a safe social distance? We have our doubts too.
It is from that place of doubt that I chose to write this post. Yes, a pastor has doubts too. I really doubt that the number of people who sat in sanctuaries on Sunday morning will ever return to the levels they were before COVID. And, we should acknowledge, even those numbers were in steep decline. I doubt that the model of full-time, professional clergy whose only source of income is a salary from their congregation (which also includes a hefty benefit package) will be sustainable after COVID. I doubt that a top-heavy, denominational leadership structure can function to resource congregations in a quickly changing reality. I doubt that what my congregation wants, “to go back to normal,” will ever happen.
This is the conversation I wish we were having. What do those doubts really mean for all the pastors out there? Who does your pastor talk to when these doubts get the better of her? What does your pastor do when people choose to leave the church because she is too cautious and others won’t return because she is not cautious enough? Where does your pastor find the safe space that grief requires to run its course? Your pastor will tell you that you can’t avoid grief…that unfinished grief just shows up somewhere else. But, where is your pastor finding safe space, restful space, space to grieve?
I wrote this post to create conversation among the laity of our church. It is for you that I took my vows of ordination and continue to renew them every year. I love you. I believe in you. You are the most amazing part of my job and vocation. You are the reason that I keep getting up every morning with at least a spark of excitement. I pinch myself, sometimes, remembering how blessed I am to serve as your set apart leader – what an honor and privilege that is. I bet your pastor feels the same way. I hope you will be intentionally praying for your pastor right now. I hope you will tell her how her efforts to learn five new computer programs in less than a month is appreciated. I hope you will remind her that you still need her gifts, even if you have to receive them at a safe social distance. Support her while she grieves. Notice when she smiles and smile back at her – even through your mask. Your pastor really needs you to believe in her because pandemic pastoring is hard. On behalf of all the pastors out there…we appreciate any little step you make toward supporting us.
One thought on “Pandemic Pastoring”
This blog post echoes everything I’ve been hearing the Professional Holy Man in my life worrying about for most of the year. He’s deeply concerned about people not returning to the church building/sanctuary after the virus all-clear has been sounded. He’s deeply concerned about that leading to financial problems and smaller churches closing altogether.
My husband is a Presbyterian pastor who does intentional interim ministry. In a nutshell, he helps congregations figure out who they’ve become during their previous installed pastor’s tenure so that they can then accurately represent themselves on the job listing they’ll post on the denomination’s job board.
Social distancing is making this important aspect of the job exceptionally difficult. Those hallway “meetings” you refer to are doubly important for interims, as are all the other opportunities a non-virus time offers for informal conversation, because they have only a short period of time to figure out a congregation. It’s amazing the hidden backstories and secrets that come to light when the pastor is helping with the cleanup after a potluck or talking with a parishioner about restroom plumbing problems. Something will come up in those conversations that will make all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place so that the pastor suddenly understands why this or that is so important to the congregation or why they’re dragging their feet on something the pastor thinks shouldn’t be taking that long to decide or accomplish.
It’s a lot harder to have those Aha! moments via a Zoom or FaceTime conversation, and without them, it’s harder to help a congregation through the Congregational Mission Study our denomination requires before they’re allowed to circulate their job listing. So much important nonverbal stuff gets lost in e-mails and phone calls and even Zoom conversations. My husband is finding this is really hampering his ability to get to know his current church well and help it along its way, which then feeds into his doubts and worries about the impact of all this social distancing on the greater church. I will be sharing this blog post with him.
May a viable, effective vaccine or cure be found soon so all pastors can get back to doing the work of the church unbound by social distancing!