Lonely the Boat: The Urgency of Caring Well for Weary and Isolated Church Leaders

Many occupations have borne particularly heavy weight througout the pandemic.

Medical professionals were in harm’s way every single day.

Educators and educational staff had to accommodate the risks and challenges of maintaining the work of education in new and unusually demanding settings.

Restaurant owners, staff, and employees faced uncertainties and, in many cases, financial crisis. 

Political leaders had to deal with the insults and accusations of those who often assumed the very worst about their motives.

Workers in many different professions who were not given the option of working from home had to deal with the stress and struggle of managing a work schedule while worrying daily about their exposure to the pandemic.

Even as I type these words, I pray for those I know (and those I do not know) who, for the last 16 months, have carried the heavy vocational weight that I am describing. I hope that my prayers, and the prayers of many others, become conduits by which God’s healing and sustaining grace might enter their lives.

An often overlooked segment of the workforce in the conversation about pandemic-related burdens is the segment composed of those who work in faith communities—clergy leaders and staff members—many of whom are weary with the challenges of caring for the people they serve, protecting the most vulnerable in their communities, and processing the anger of those who disagree with their leadership decisions or their faith community’s response to the pandemic. Leaders in all faith communities (Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, to name the primary American religious affiliations) have faced unique and painful struggles over this last year-and-a half. As a Christian pastor myself, and a United Methodist pastor in particular, I see and hear evidence every day of this struggle and its significant impact.

I am what my denomination calls a District Superintendent, meaning that I am not currently serving a local church. Instead, I provide oversight to the 77 churches and 61 clergy (active and retired) of the district that I superintend. As I tell my clergy frequently, I still do not know what it means to pastor a local church during a time of pandemic, since I have never had to do that. Throughout the last 16 months, however, I have listened attentively to the stories of the clergy alongside whom I serve. I have heard them describe the anguish of not being able to pray at the hospital bedside of someone who was dying; of not being able to visit their homebound parishioners who have felt isolated and afraid; of having to deal with the rage of those who believed that the church was either overreacting or underreacting to the pandemic; and of having to steward the pressures of an expanded online ministry while, at the same time, adjusting to a substantial reduction in congregational giving. 

Said one of my clergy recently, “these last 16 months have been the longest decade I have ever experienced.”

In a recent article written by Bob Smietana for “Religion News Service” (May 7, 2021), Smietana describes the experience of several clergy, including Jeff Weddle and Brandon Cox:

Jeff Weddle, a 46-year-old, wise-cracking, self-deprecating, Bible-loving, self-described ‘failing pastor’ from Wisconsin, was already thinking of leaving the ministry before COVID and the 2020 election. He was, as he put it, fed up with church life after two decades as a pastor.

Then, what he called ‘the stupid’—feuds about politics and the pandemic—put him over the edge. People at church seemed more concerned about the latest social media dustup and online conspiracy theories—one church member called him the antichrist for his views on COVID—than in learning about the Bible. Sunday mornings had become filled with dread over what could go wrong next. He eventually decided, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ Weddle stepped down as pastor, walked out the door and hasn’t looked back…

For Brandon Cox, serving as a pastor had been a joy until last year. In 2011, Cox and his wife, Angie, had started a new church in Bentonville, Arkansas, called Grace Hills. ‘Up until 2020, we had a fantastic time,’ Cox, 46, told Religion News Service in a phone interview. The trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election and the racial reckoning in response to the death of George Floyd hit like a ‘wrecking ball.’ Grace Hills shut down in-person worship at the beginning of the pandemic, which prompted people to leave. More left when the church reopened and required masks. When Cox and a Black pastor preached a Sunday sermon together after Floyd’s death and said that yes, Black lives matter, that caused more turmoil. No matter what Cox did, someone was angry. ‘It was sort of relentless,’ said Cox, who stepped down as pastor at Grace Hill at the end of April. ‘My wife and I just found ourselves in the place of exhaustion.’ Cox talked to RNS nine days after his last Sunday as a pastor and said he hasn’t given up on Christianity—he hopes to find a new church to attend in the coming months—but pastoral ministry is no longer for him.

While neither Weddle or Cox is United Methodist, their vocational struggles compare to many that I have heard described by my United Methodist colleagues in recent months. As clergy have attempted to speak words about racial justice as it relates to the Gospel, they have often faced the angry accusation of being too “political.” As clergy have committed themselves to helping their churches adhere to CDC guidelines, they have often dealt with the harsh resistance—and even departure—of those who believe that that the pandemic is nothing more than an exaggerated flu undergirded by a political narrative. Add to these dynamics the ongoing conversation about the possibility of a denominational split over human sexuality, along with the continuing demands of everyday ministry (which never go away), and the end result is a pervasive weariness among church leaders (lay and clergy) who, on some days, struggle to find their voice and place in a setting that may no longer feel hospitable to them.

Perhaps some of you can relate to what I have described. I know that I can.

I am not suggesting, of course, that clergy and church leaders do not make their share of mistakes—talking when they need to be listening; pushing when they need to be collaborating; weaponizing the pulpit instead of speaking the truth in love. Books could be written about the mistakes I have made over the course of 32 years of ministry. 

Still, mistakes and all, my heart is all in for clergy and church leaders and for the ministry they offer. They are my mentors and guides—my devoted colleagues and my spiritual heroes. Most often, they are the ones who remind me of what it means to be a pastor—and a Christian—when I am tempted to forget. They stand with their congregations in good times and bad, helping their people to know that the grace of Jesus covers all of it and that none of it goes wasted. 

I believe in them.

I trust them.

I pray for them.

I love them.

And, I know that many of them are hurting—hurting in the way that many church leaders are hurting. In fact, according to a recent survey of Protestant pastors by the Barna Group, 29 percent of those clergy surveyed said they gave serious consideration to quitting full time ministry within the last year.

Given this reality, what might be done? How can those of us who are part of the church better the situation?

While there are no formulaic or definitive responses to such questions, I feel compelled to offer these words of encouragement to congregations in the hope that they will be instructive:

  • Be sensitive to the fact that your clergy and church staff (if you have a church staff) have been carrying particularly heavy burdens during this past year, and allow that sensitivity to soften your spirit toward their leadership.
  • Offer spoken, written, personal, and public words of affirmation and support to your clergy and church leaders, especially since such words are nothing short of life-giving to the hurting spirits of weary leaders.
  • Make certain that your support of your clergy and church leaders is vocal and consistent, since the frequent criticisms and resistance they face are also vocal and consistent.
  • Resist all temptations to sabotage or undermine the leadership of your clergy and church leaders. Instead, do all in your power to help them to be the best leaders they can be.
  • Exhort your clergy and church leaders to practice good self-care, encouraging them to devote substantial energy to their primary relationships, to nurture their own spiritual and physical health, and to guard their time away from the church.
  • Bless your clergy and church leaders with tangible expressions of your gratitude and support. For example, consider providing a night out at a nearby restaurant; or a weekend at an area hotel or retreat center; or an extra Sunday off.
  • If your pastor and church leaders ever make a decision or share a heartfelt conviction that challenges your perspective or with which you disagree, allow the energy of that disagreement to inspire dialogue instead of rebellion, relationship instead of rancor, and a spirit of “moving toward” instead of a spirit of “turning away.” 
  • Listen to the hearts of your church’s leaders, just as you expect them to listen to your heart. Take the relational risk of asking them questions that move the conversation beyond the sharing of information and into the sacred territory of soul care. Come alongside them in a way that honors their personhood and their struggle and not simply their function.
  • Pray for your pastor and church leaders, believing that your prayer will become an instrument through which God will both encourage your leaders and soften your own heart toward them.
  • And, finally, be intentional about reminding your clergy and church leaders that the church, the precious Bride of Christ, is worth the struggle, since there will be many things that tempt them to believe that it might not be.

A pastor emailed this to me recently: “Eric, one of my parishioners took me out to lunch last week—not to complain; not to chastise me for all the mistakes I’ve made; not to rebuke me for my wrong opinions…But just to pray for me over some good food, to tell me that he loved me and appreciated my ministry, and to ask me how it is with my soul…To tell you the truth, it felt like Communion.”

I am inviting you to experience a more frequent “Communion” with your clergy and church leaders. They are hungering for it, probably more than you—or they—even realize.

2 thoughts on “Lonely the Boat: The Urgency of Caring Well for Weary and Isolated Church Leaders

  1. Amen, Eric! Thank you… I may be retired but my heart is heavy for all those serving in ministry in this turbulent time. Blessings, Lota

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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