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COVID Check-in: How Are Pastors Coping?

COVID Check-in: How Are Pastors Coping?
Ongoing clashes over masks, worship practices, and more are wearying pastors and parishioners alike.
Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

Closing in on two years of living in pandemic times, words such as “exhaustion” and “burnout” have replaced “unprecedented” and “global.” Teachers, health care workers, and small business owners are overwhelmed, apathetic, and stressed. The same is true for pastors.

In November of 2021, research firm Barna Group reported that “there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pastors who are thinking about quitting ministry entirely.” At the beginning of that year, 29% of Barna’s polled pastors said they were concerned about their well-being, and are “on the brink of burnout.” Less than a year later, 38% of pastors answered the same way.

In October 2020, The Banner published a story, with interviews from Pastor Church Resources, titled, “Your Pastor is Stressed: Reports of Struggle for Pastors.” Fifteen months later, we’re doing a check-in.

From ‘Crisis-management’ to ‘Residual Fallout’

Pastor Dave Jolman of First Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich., noted the different reasons for burnout and stress from the beginning of the pandemic to now. “A year ago, pastors were in more of a crisis-management mode,” Jolman said. “Today, pastors must deal with the residual fallout of membership decline, fractured relationships, and mistrust. Those realities will not resolve quickly.”

He and Pastor Marc Nelesen are co-regional pastors for Classis Georgetown (a regional group of CRC congregations), and together they encouraged church councils to take note of the wear and tear pastors have experienced the past two years. “That encouragement was, in part, an effort to raise awareness among church leaders of the emotional strain felt by pastors. Our encouragement to councils was that they identify strategies to help pastors restore the margins which the pressures of the past year had squeezed very thin.”

Sabbatical for Spiritual Growth

Pastor Dirk vanEyk, a regional pastor for Classis Thornapple Valley, is talking with different church councils to encourage them to create a sabbatical policy for their pastors. VanEyk, who took a sabbatical in early 2021 after 10 years of ministry work, found it vital for spiritual growth. He focused on three areas during his 12-week break: renewal, relationships, and ministry readiness. He worked with a spiritual director, took a family trip, and worked as an intern at a colleague’s church in order to learn from others’ practices.

“Our job is to equip,” vanEyk said. Delegating to the congregation is equipping them to do God’s work. “I can’t delegate my own spiritual readiness and growth,” he continued. “If I’m not close to Jesus, the church will suffer.”

For so many pastors, preaching to a camera or over Zoom has led to burnout. “All the joy points are taken away because the people are missing,” vanEyk acknowledged. Much of what’s replaced “the joy points” is the conflict over policy and politics.

VanEyk uses the mask debate as an example. He tells the story of two congregants discussing wearing a mask. One said he won’t attend church if he has to wear one; one said he won’t attend church if he can’t wear a mask. “I haven’t seen either of them since.”

Grieving Losses

Grant Vander Hoek, of Mission Hills Community Church in Mission, B.C., grieves the loss of in-person gathering and the invisible lines of division that have now become apparent and have replaced what was once grace. “There’s a certain beauty about not being of one mind and still doing the work of Jesus,” Vander Hoek said. “We were getting people together who’d never do life together, and it worked miraculously. That’s a missed opportunity now.”

Pastor Church Resources, the CRC’s ministry to help equip pastors and their congregations do ministry together, recently created a program of grants for weary pastors. Called Pastor Restoration Grants, money has been provided to fund two to four weeks of leave for 38 different applicants, as of the end of February. Recognizing that “the pandemic has been stressful and exhausting for congregations and church leaders as well,” Pastor Church Resources ministry consultant Zach Olson said, “Congregations can support their pastors and each other through simple things such as regular words of encouragement and consistent prayer. Councils can offer support by growing awareness about their pastor's wellbeing through honest dialogue and mutual accountability to healthy work-life balance and deepening intimacy with Christ.”

Resilience and God’s Grace

Tim Rietkerk, director of the CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care Ministry, recognizes unique stressors for ordained commissioned pastors who have been called by their church into ministry as chaplains in health care settings. What’s unique about their situation in the time of COVID is that they are taking on the grief and frustration of the medical staff in addition to those of the patients and their loved ones. “Chaplains are having to deal with intense grief and hostility from families and staff. Everyone is experiencing tremendous stress,” Rietkerk said.

Rietkerk is working to find and offer ways to cultivate spiritual practices for chaplains, including weekly Zoom gatherings where chaplains from all over can call and check in. “It’s a chance to hear and support each other,” Rietkerk said. “We want to let them know they aren’t on their own in that setting.” For the ministry’s annual training offered in September 2021, Chaplaincy focused on many spiritual practices to help with spiritual resiliency. Rietkerk’s work focuses on how to help chaplains to continue to work in these environments. “It’s a calling,” he said. “Chaplains have the pulse on this system.” (In December 2020, Chris Meehan wrote an article for CRC news looking at CRC Chaplains Ministering During COVID-19.)

Vander Hoek admits that while this might be challenging, none of this can stop us from loving Jesus. “It’s always been tricky to do church. It’s always been tough,” he said.

“Throughout history, the Church has faced deeper challenges than this,” Jolman said. “I am confident that, by God’s grace, we will make it through this challenge as well.”

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