Ministry after 2020? The year when COVID-19 caused clergy stress to zoom to a new level

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When training pastors and chaplains, educators frequently stress the need for “boundaries” between work and home.

Clergy need — somehow — to find “personal” time, along with face-to-face contact with loved ones. That challenge became more difficult in the age of smartphones, texting and emails, noted Marlon C. Robinson, pastoral care director at AdventHealth in Manchester, Ky., and a specialist in marriage and family therapy.

Then came the COVID-19 lockdowns and the pressures on clergy zoomed to a whole new level.

 “Everything came home, all at once,” said Robinson, reached by telephone. “Pastors were spending more and more time with their families — jammed into one space. But this wasn’t quality time. Everyone was at home, but they were staring at their own phones and computer screens. There was no intimacy, and all the pressures of ministry grew even more intense.”

To make matters worse, the usual struggles with church leadership and finances were complicated by political warfare and conspiracy theories that, literally, began to shape how congregations handled worship, pastoral care, education and even efforts to keep sanctuaries clean and safe.

Instead of arguing — to cite church clichés — about the color of new carpet or outdated hymnals, the faithful were fighting about whether masks were necessary to save lives or merely “politically correct” virtue signals. 

Meanwhile, people were sick, and some died, with their pastors and families on the other side of locked hospital or nursing-home doors. And it was illegal to have funerals? Attendance dropped, along with offerings. More than a few members vanished.

Ministers “are inundated with phone calls, emails, text and WhatsApp messages, and communications through a host of other platforms,” wrote Robinson, in Ministry Magazine

While it’s impossible to know how many will flee the ministry, early research indicates pastors are “experiencing intensified stress levels that … put them at increased risk for developing a mental illness. … The current crisis makes pastors even more vulnerable to illness on account of traumatic events arising from within their personal and family situations. Clergy members are also at increased risk because of their repeated exposure to the traumatic information shared by their parishioners.”

The bottom line: Pastors are “not super humans,” noted Thom Rainer, former leader of LifeWay Christian Resources for the Southern Baptist Convention. “They miss their routines. They miss seeing people as they used to do so. They would like the world to return to normal, but they realize the old normal will not return.”

 Some pastors have decided that, while they don’t want to leave ministry altogether, the “current state of negativity and apathy in many local churches” has created a poisoned work environment. “So, they are leaving or getting ready to leave,” noted Rainer, at his Church Answers weblog.

“Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.”

Workloads have increased and changed during this time, he added. Clergy are trying to serve the “way they have in the past, but now they have the added responsibilities that have come with the digital world. … Can the church continue to support the ministries they need to do? Will the church need to eliminate positions? These issues weigh heavily on pastors.”

There are no easy solutions, stressed Robinson. It’s clear that denominational leaders must seek improved pastoral care — for their clergy. Pastors need to find “ministry buddies” with whom they can privately share advice, feedback and peer-to-peer support. Also, studies indicate that exercising three times a week can lessen the risk of emotional exhaustion for clergy. It wouldn’t hurt for them to take long, smartphone-free walks with their spouses.

This isn’t a matter of being selfish, stressed Robinson.

“If I don’t take care of me, then I’ll have none of me left when I try to take care of other people,” he said. “Self-care is super, super, super important for clergy — whether they’re working in churches, hospitals, the military or anywhere else. … It’s about taking care of yourself. You have to build that into your life, so that you can do the work that God has called you to do.”

MAIN PHOTO: Illustration at Grace and Judgment website.

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