As the Council of Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church met Oct. 14-16 by video conference, it reviewed several reports that noted concerns of tension, stress, and struggle for pastors.
These kinds of concerns were included in reports from Canadian Ministries director Darren Roorda; CRCNA executive director Colin P. Watson Sr.; the church’s mission agency, Resonate Global Mission; and from congregational service ministries such as Pastor Church Resources.
Comments on the state of pastors’ health in Watson’s report were gathered from the denomination’s check-in calls with churches. “As a result of the outreach to pastors during the COVID–19 effort, we remain concerned about the state of some churches and the stresses being felt by leaders and pastors,” Watson’s report read.
Delegate Drew Sweetman, Classis Muskegon, remarked that “the issues were there before COVID, and we should be mindful they won’t go away after COVID.”
Lis Van Harten, director of Pastor Church Resources, also expressed that opinion in her report. “COVID has a way of exposing underlying dysfunction,” the report reads. It notes, “PCR has seen an uptick in the number of consultations with churches. A few of the consults are directly related to COVID. Many are indirectly related.”
Dave Den Haan is one of two ministry consultants with Pastor Church Resources and says he has “a front-row seat” to pastors and churches sorting through issues. Den Haan told The Banner that in many recent consultations he’s seen the backdrop of COVID-19 “generating anxiety and making people less capable of disagreeing with one another in love.”
A season of ministering while living through a public health crisis, racial and political conflicts, and economic pressures has tapped pastors’ energy.
“Pastors are getting tech fatigue, they’re getting decision fatigue, they’ve been wrestling with ambiguity fatigue, they’ve got relationship fatigue,” Den Haan said. “They are fatigued.”
What’s the solution?
Suggestions from Pastor Church Resources and other ministries designed to help churches face change, like Vibrant Congregations, a co-ministry of the CRC and the Reformed Church in America, are more prevention-focused than reactive.
Larry Doornbos, director of Vibrant Congregations, said it’s become apparent that “whatever discipleship preparation that we’ve put into people’s lives (were) probably not robust enough for this particular moment.” Creating a more robust discipleship that is able to deal with these moments will need to be a focus, he said. Den Haan said, “How do we lead folks to fix their eyes on Jesus rather than the institutional health of their church or other items that are in disarray today?”
Al Postma, who works for Pastor Church Resources in Classis Renewal, wants to see those regional networks strengthened to be supportive communities for pastors. He’s focused some attention on regional pastors—ministers given the task of pastoring pastors—“as people who can cultivate that supportive presence.” Part of that is through Thriving Together, a mentoring program, funded by a grant of the Lilly Endowment Inc., that supports and encourages pastors in times of transition.
Overall the hope is to have classis be “the sort of space where it can be a rich exploration of (questions such as) ‘How can we grow through this?’ ‘What does innovation look like at this time?’ ‘How do we hold on to the good things and try new things?’” Postma said.
Outside of pastors directly connected by their regions, Van Harten said she’s seen a small increase in the number of pastors applying for peer learning grants, which “allow for a group of pastors to gather for a year and just be in community together.” They’ve been offered by Pastor Church Resources since 2003.
“The focus of those groups is really well-being and caring for one another,” Van Harten said. The increase in applications ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline could be a reflection of pastors’ current need for more community, she said. (See Our Shared Ministry: Peer Learning Grant Helps Pastors Share Their Challenges.)
In some situations a pastor’s experience goes beyond fatigue. “One of the dynamics that we’re seeing is pastors observing members of their congregation behaving badly and despairing that all of their years of ministry have been for naught,” said Den Haan. “I wish these pastors understood that the picture is larger—much larger—than just their ministry function over a season of a church’s life.”
“Pastors who are wondering, ‘Have I had any effect in my congregation?’—I think they should hear a message of hope somehow in this, that if they weren’t there being faithful, their churches would be in worse shape,” Den Haan said.
Den Haan pastored two congregations, one in Minnesota and one in Michigan, before joining Pastor Church Resources in 2018. He would also like to direct pastors to the Pastors' Spiritual Vitality Toolkit, a resource from the CRC available in English, Spanish, and Korean.