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Pastoring in pandemic: Distress that drives us closer (Pt 1)

The Unspoken Distress of Pastors

A historic number of pastors flood today’s Internet bandwidth in the midst of the global
coronavirus pandemic. It’s a new way to pastor, and that means a new kind of pastoral stress.

Whether we’re in an area limiting public gatherings or in one sheltering in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, U.S. pastors have been working hard the last two weeks to figure out how to speak effectively to our flock when we can’t speak in person to our flock. Many now wear new hats – Virtual/Online Tech Expert and Media Presenter Specialist, for starters – piled on top of the dozens of our congregations’ existing expectations.

Was this on your resume before now? It sure wasn’t on mine, and I’m a Bible college graduate with more than 30 years’ experience of local church pastoral ministry who now counsels pastors. Coronavirus is changing the game; no single Bible college class or lesson could come close to preparing American pastors to shepherd in such a time.

This includes media classes, mind you. And this includes you, whether you’re leery of Facebook or can stream live to YouTube in your sleep.

Much of today’s stress is indeed technical in nature (how can I livestream my sermon
effectively?). We shelter against an outbreak that for most is still theoretical in nature (will anyone in my congregation get COVID-19?). So far, it’s the economic fallout that is anything but theoretical; giving is down 40 percent in some churches, and that’s enough to make many pastors wonder how long they’ll be in a job. However, ultimately, pastoring in pandemic is not a technical skill to be mastered.

From what I’ve seen so far, pastoring in pandemic has meant an explosion of creativity
beyond several years’ worth of combined Christmas and Easter worthiness. The spiritual, mental, emotional and physical energy expended over the last two weeks by the pastors I counsel far exceeds any mere holiday season – and so does their new stress level.

It’s not all bad stress. The creative juices can be a good stress, as long as the level and
prolonged nature of it is well-monitored. With healthy coping mechanisms in place, stress can actually help pastors grow and mature in their own Christ-likeness.

In 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 (MSG), the Apostle Paul wrote:

Distress that drives us to God… turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God?  You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible.

This stress can drive us closer to God. Closer to his goodness. Closer to his rest.

One thing is for certain: pastoring in pandemic can’t be done in your own strength. Sabbath rest is more important, not less important, in crisis.

Along these lines, I have a few suggestions I hope you’ll consider to help you monitor your spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being:

1. Pick up a copy of The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress by Archibald Hart. I can still hear Arch, a prolific author in the world of healthy pastors, preach in his
distinctive South African accent: “Pastor, please don’t confuse the anointing with your
adrenaline!” This cornerstone work of Hart’s is a gold mine.

2. Ponder right now the question: When was your last Sabbath, and when is your next
Sabbath? Remember that you and your family will be stretching in this season. I am an
advocate for every pastor – regardless of full-time, bivocational or covocational status –
having two days off each week from ministry: one for Sabbath, the other for life chores.
Eugene Peterson is famous for calling a Sabbath with life chores crowding it out a
“bastard Sabbath.”

3. Consider attending this very week (or catching the recording if you’re reading this
afterward) Pete Scazerro’s one-hour Live Q&A on Navigating Unprecedented Times. The founder of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, Pete brings a unique perspective to
ministry life and leadership that can be very helpful in seasons such as this.

4. Pay as much attention, and give as much time, to your inner life and your family as you do to figuring out what your pastoral role looks like in our new reality. It’s way too easy to let our pastor hat overrun our personal hat, especially in times like these.
I leave you with my regular prayers, as well as one more oft-spoken quote from Arch Hart:

Pastors don’t get into trouble because they forget that they’re pastors. Pastors get into trouble because they forget that they’re people!

Paul Kuzma is a pastoral counselor serving as Director of Center for Spiritual Renewal, a retreat center for pastors and their families. He also serve as a Course Coach & Director of Coaches for Emotionally Healthy Discipleship.

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