Whether you contracted COVID-19 or not, you are still going to need to heal from it. It has impacted every one of us. I believe in many ways we do not even know yet how it has impacted us. We know from the news that the economy has suffered, thousands have died, and there are ongoing concerns of a new outbreaks. It has impacted us physically, economically, socially, religiously, and emotionally. If the pandemic disappeared tomorrow, we would still be reeling from the effects. We would still be in need of healing.
While scientists scramble to find a cure or vaccine (pray!), what is going to help us all experience healing? I wish I could say that an injection will clear things right up. But as we all know, long after the body heals the scars of the heart remain.
Anyone is welcome to continue reading, but I want to speak to my minister / pastoral friends. I do believe the effect upon ministers will be long-lasting. Recently I wrote a post that received quite a bit of attention (caught me by surprise) that dealt with the Coming Pastoral Crash. Though there were some dissenters who took issue, there was an overwhelming response of support and many who just said ‘me too‘. Dear minister friends, I don’t want any of us to walk into the coming months just waiting for this to be over so we can go back to normal. We are going to have to experience some healing so we can help our churches experience the healing they need as well. What follows is not a plan. It is not a list of ‘steps’. But it is my best effort to spread a little light on the path ahead as we seek healing and strength from the Lord to enable us to do the work of the Lord among the people of the Lord.
Why You Are Particularly At Risk
It’s not because we’re more spiritual than our church members. It’s just that the church is, in a very distinct way, our life. Aside from the bi-and tri-vocational ministers (who are worthy of double honor), most pastors do not have another job. The focus of every day is on the life and work of the church. Associated with that is the need to develop and maintain a rich spiritual life. There is a fair amount of study and preparation that goes into our lessons and classes. We feel a deep need to keep things moving along in the church. These duties and responsibilities did not cease with the ‘stay at home’ order. They just became nearly impossible. And that’s not going to change overnight.
Ministry in the Midst of Tragedy
The new cultural context in which we minister is one of tragedy. In addition to thousands losing their lives, paychecks, and freedoms due to COVID-19, our country is experiencing the sparks of a racial crisis. No matter your perspective, this certainly complicates the recovery from the pandemic. My experiences of ministering in the midst of tragedy are both difficult and rewarding. My family lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Katrina roared ashore on the Mississippi/Louisiana coastline. The next two years of ministry were some of the most heart-breaking I had experienced. In another way, they were heart-mending as well. In 2008 we lost our son, John Robert, at the age of 18. The years following that loss were grueling as we tried to love and minister through our tears. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. I just want to say that being a minister in the midst of tragedy is your ‘climbing Mount Everest’ moment. I want to make sure you come back alive. It is going to beat us up a bit, though. What determines how we come out of this experience? I believe it is how you approach healing.
Initiate Healing Practices
Accept that you may not be your sharpest right now. Expect emotional and intellectual cloudiness. Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but I think it’s true for many of us. Pastors are inundated with books, articles, and conferences on leadership. Maybe for too long we’ve had such high expectations of ourselves. If you are not feeling like the grand visionary leader you’ve expected yourself to be, give yourself some space. As we heal, our experience takes up a segment of our brain. After my son died, I expressed that grief felt like an unwelcomed friend that moved into my heart/mind and wouldn’t leave. This pandemic and all of the resulting chaos is like that. It impacts everything. It’s hard to keep up with. It occupies our thinking. We are simply not at our best and we should expect that.
You Have Never Needed a Friend More Than Now. The loneliness of ministry is well documented. Being the voice calling in the wilderness is not appealing to most people. When we are weary and our heart is just not in this any longer, you will need to talk to a friend. Ministers have a hard time confiding in members of their own church. There are probably exceptions, but we so often wonder if our confidences become table conversation before long. Talking with someone who understands what you are experiencing is a mentally healthy way to work your way through the pandemic and the aftermath.
Find your place of peace. Visit often. For a bereaved person, that might mean trips to the cemetery. For the minister, it may be something else. One of the differences in your life and the life of your congregants is the ability to take weekends off. Some days when we are exhausted and just need a day or two to decompress, we might be tempted to be envious when we see our members’ travel pictures on Facebook. (Not just me, I hope!) By nature, our work centers on the day of assembly. We can fall into a cycle of having to be at the church on weekends and having to be at the church during the week. As we wear ourselves down and out, we are of less service to the church even if we look busier. I wonder if some of you feel as I do – that when we begin meeting again as a church we are entering into that time worn out from nonstop-new-territory-service we didn’t even know we could do? How are we to take some time off to recuperate and renew when we’ve been prohibited from meeting for months? Friend, you will not find healing until you find your place of peace and visit there often. What’s your place of peace? Maybe it will be a literal place, or some mental space you can get to, but find your place of peace. You need to take a break. I’m preaching to myself here. I don’t know who we think we are, but we are certainly not super-ministers. Maybe it’s the prayer closet, or a walk in nature, or working on a project, or reading fiction, or photography, or some other hobby. Whatever brings you peace, you should make that a part of your routine.
Expect some clearer days ahead, and then again. It is my experience that after about six months you are going to have a moment when you experience a new kind of clarity. You will look back and realize just how unclear it has been, as you step out of an almost-literal fog. This will feel revelatory, but hang on. In a few more months it’s going to happen again. As your mind processes the experience, you will gain clarity. It won’t be days. Or weeks. It will be months. Just keep living according to your calling in the mean time and don’t give up. You learned something during the pandemic that you couldn’t have anticipated. You might not know what that is for a few more years.
Healing comes from hope. We know that hope never disappoints us. It remains on the horizon reminding us that there are brighter and better days ahead – even if we only find them in eternity. As long as we have hope, we have something to live for. I am speaking quite literally, having heard of yet another minister who took his own life this week. This is why I write this. Dear friend please do not give up hope – even if you can’t seem to find the next steps forward. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.) I don’t think you’ll find strength in knowing how many are depending on you, but I hope you find hope in knowing how many love you, and none more than our Abba.
I’m not a psychotherapist. Not even a counselor. I’m a preacher – and not always as great as I imagine in my own mind! I’m just a minister friend to ministers. I know enough to know that we need to experience healing so that we can help others find healing. Healing our hearts from the trauma of a pandemic experience will only come as we explore ways to find rest in His hands.
“But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.Micah 4:2, NLT