Updated: Apr 8
I don’t know about your social circle, but mine seems hopeful for the Spring. New cases of COVID-19 are going down, and the weather is warming up. The days are getting longer, and the time for quarantining, social distancing, and sheltering in place is getting shorter. So why are many pastors feeling anxious?
I’ve heard pastor friends say that the past year has been the most challenging of their ministry thus far. So much time and energy has been spent seeking new ways to worship and care for their church members, and despite their best efforts, worship attendance online (or in person, for those returning to church buildings) continually falls short of pre-pandemic numbers. Even for churches with massive digital audiences, pastors don’t feel the same energy preaching to near-empty rooms. People they used to see every week have dropped off, stopped giving, or sought new places of worship altogether.
Leaders gearing up to get their churches “back to normal” are worried that there may be no “normal” to go back to. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. This year may be the time to invest in a new reality and build a new culture.
But before we rush to reinvention, emotionally healthy leaders must take a critical pause.
People have changed. The church has changed. If we don’t stop to grieve what has been lost, we will never find the new thing we’re seeking.
Last March, most pastors experienced an abrupt and unexpected loss. While the loss of in-person worship is certainly not the same as the death of a loved one, it is something to be grieved. Even if we’ve returned to corporate worship, we need to acknowledge that something was lost when the Body of Christ could not gather as such. Despite the truth that “the church is not a building,” there is a reason we grieve the loss of worship as we knew it.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.”
It is not just church potlucks or the passing of the peace we’ve been missing. It’s the physical reminders of Emmanuel, God with Us.
Grieving this loss requires pastors to take these five steps:
1. Acknowledge the loss.
In order to grieve, we have to name what has been lost. Although the physical presence of other believers is something we will get back one day, the truth is that we missed out on God’s vision for Christian fellowship for a while. Church members have died. Weddings and funerals happened over Zoom. We couldn’t visit our sick brothers and sisters in the hospital. Discipleship no longer happened over coffee or a shared meal, but through emails and FaceTime.
The macro issues of public health, racial injustice, and political upheaval in the last year may have visited your churches on a micro level. Maybe you’re grieving the view you had of your congregation, or even of God. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of your own sense of control.
We spend so much time avoiding negativity that it’s tempting to gloss over these losses. But the more we deny or ignore them, the more power they actually hold. I believe that getting real before God about our circumstances actually pleases God. (See every Psalm ever!) As we open our hearts through prayer, we discover that God is faithful to walk with us through grief. It’s when we name the losses we’ve experienced that we expose them to the light of God’s grace.
So ask yourself, “What are the losses I’ve experienced in this season?”
2. Acknowledge your feelings.
After acknowledging the situation comes naming your feelings. Yes, I mean actually naming them! When you’re able to label or describe what you’re feeling, it actually gives your brain a sense of mastery over those feelings. Some Christians believe that “naming and claiming” a negative feeling will only intensify it, but this psychological phenomenon is known as “name it to tame it.”
I could nerd out with you about why this works, but I think of it this way: My one-year-old is really fond of throwing balls, knocking down block towers, and creating all sorts of chaos, but doesn’t yet have the skills to put it all back together neatly. When I put him down for a nap and survey the damage, I feel overwhelmed. But there’s something about putting everything in a box that calms me. Our brains work the same way. When we label our feelings, we’re mentally putting them in a box and picking them up off the floor. They hold a lot less power contained on the shelf than they do living rent-free on the floor of our minds.
Using a tool like the feelings wheel or these mixed emotions cards to label your feelings can be really helpful. Be as specific as you can, and write them down in a journal or on a white board. You may find as you write that you have more than one feeling, or even seemingly contradictory feelings. This is totally normal and psychologically healthy, so write down as many as you like.
3. Let go.
After acknowledging your circumstances and feelings, surrender them to the Lord. Don’t rush through those first two steps! But once you’ve felt your feelings and expressed them authentically, you can let them pass. (The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at it.)
This doesn’t mean quickly getting over something that has hurt you, as our culture is constantly pushing us to do. As Gail Caldwell put it, “we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures.” This means letting go of the church you once knew so that you can faithfully lead the church you have now.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” In other words, God has not entrusted you with the church that lives in your past or in your mind, but the church you have in front of you right now.
4. Seek support.
I won’t add another Zoom webinar on self-care to your schedule. You’ll find plenty of those out there, but I'll just give you one critical piece of advice. This step is simple, but it’s not easy: You need support. We know from Genesis that we weren’t created to do life alone, and it’s not good to lead alone either. You are in a singular position as the leader of your church body, but take care that you are not facing the challenges of ministry by yourself.
If you’re reading this, you have probably heard someone say that pastors need support. You may have even preached it! But if peer support and therapy are not part of your regular routines, they are absolutely worth taking on. Pastors are, by default, in a caregiving role. So much of their lives are being poured out for the sake of others that they sometimes forget that they need to be filled--not just spiritually, but emotionally as well.
You may remember that back in the good old days when we flew on airplanes, flight attendants would instruct caregivers to “put on your own mask first before assisting others” in the event of a change in pressure. It’s the same for you. It may feel counterintuitive to help ourselves before we help those who cannot, but the life-and-death subtext of that announcement is this: You’re no good to anybody if you’re not getting what you need first.
So what do you need? Meet regularly with other clergy for both accountability and encouragement, and find a licensed therapist to walk with you through the inevitable emotional roller coasters of ministry.
5. Reinvest in your new reality.
Once you have processed your own grief, it’s time to tend to your flock. The final step of healthy grieving involves making meaning of the loss. For pastors, this means using the lessons of your own healing journey as well as the wisdom of Lamentations, Psalms, and the life of Jesus to walk with your church through their own losses. Once you have walked through the muck of grief together, you can create a new culture and realign your mission together.
For more on how to do this effectively, stay tuned for Parts II and III in our Life Together Again series.