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April 30, 2020
Churches are looking toward re-opening buildings and resuming in-person worship. What can pastors expect to encounter as they lead their churches in the weeks and months to come?
Everyone is traumatized
The people that come back to your church will not be the same as when they left. We are all dealing with a range of emotions and experiences during this time. For virtually everyone, this includes grief. Grief can be for the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of experiences, and more. Some of these traumas you will be aware of; some you may not. The challenging part is that human beings are all different. We have different personalities. We have different life experiences; some will find themselves revisiting previous life traumas. Some people have better resources for support than others.
People are unpredictable
This is the challenging thing: knowing these realities does not make the time to come any more predictable. After a trauma, we often experience that persons we are expecting to be crushed, do better than we expect. Conversely, people we experience as strong and resilient may seem overwhelmed. Other people will lurch back and forth from days of able coping to days of total meltdown. You will have to practice being a “non-anxious presence” through it all. You will also need to be prepared to make referrals for those whose responses are consistently outside of the normal range.
As a pastoral leader, you are already dealing with “decision fatigue” from all of the considerations that are going into the re-opening process. But here is a truth: no matter what you decide, or how you involve your leadership in those decisions, someone is going to disagree with them. This is unavoidable. You will experience people minimizing the impact of this crisis; others will embrace a worst-case scenario at every turn. Try not to let any of this this surprise or overwhelm you. Stand firm on the decisions that are important for the health and safety of your people. Sadly, many of the restrictions around this pandemic have become politicized. Conspiracy theories and snake-oil cures abound. Sometimes it is helpful to point to guidelines provided by the government or your denomination to deflect some of this. But you will be the focus of resistance at times, as people defy the guidelines you attempt to set in direct and covert ways.
The recipient of their feelings might be… you
Traumatized people sometimes lash out, and sometimes the person on the receiving end will be you. They are feeling angry or sad or helpless or anxious, and they dump it on the pastor. Ironically, this can be a reflection of their trust of you, as a “safe” person to receive their negative feelings. There will be some who are experiencing faith struggles and anger at God during this crisis. They may feel unable to express negative feelings toward God, so they direct those feelings at their pastor. It is difficult to be on the receiving end at these moments, but we can be prepared and respond in healthy ways.
Do not take it personally
Some days you will be the recipient of emotions, words, and actions that you do not deserve. Take a deep breath, and repeat these words to yourself: “This is not about me.” All of this challenges us as pastors to practice not responding with anxiety even when everyone around us is fairly vibrating with emotion. We will want to avoid validating inappropriate behavior; but we CAN validate the feelings behind the behavior. (“I sense that you are feeling anxious/angry/afraid…”) When things begin to escalate, the pastor needs to be the calmest person in the room.
Take care of yourself… for the long haul
I have described some of what we can expect in the days to come. But during these weeks we have experienced many unexpected outcomes, and there will undoubtedly be more. None of us knows how to pastor during a pandemic; this is unlike other crises as we still have no idea how or when it will end.
That is why self-care is critically important. It will be more necessary than ever to attend to our own walk with God, to take days off (and yes, vacations), to faithfully do the things that nourish us in body, mind, and spirit. Every study of pastoral endurance has identified the key role of collegial relationships in the health of persons in ministry. Stay connected with those who can provide support, collaboration, and accountability for you.
Finally, show yourself the grace that we proclaim. We are not going to do this perfectly. Each of us is carrying traumas of our own, and none of us is going to be at our best. Indeed, we can admit this to ourselves and to those we serve, and model self-awareness and humility as we minister within our own limitations. May we be found faithful and hopeful in the service of the One who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Mary Day Miller is the Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts