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"This is when the church learns how to be the church"

"This is when the church learns how to be the church"

COVID-19 Leadership Lifestyle

When COVID-19 threw everyday life into a tailspin, local churches around the Florida Conference looked to their pastors to guide them through the pandemic and into a new world of worship.

But it struck with such suddenness, who could quickly find those answers. And how could those leaders stay strong in the face of a deadly virus while taking care of themselves and their families?

In many cases that can, and has, led to pastoral fatigue, stress, and the potential for burnout.

That's where the Florida Conference Office of Clergy Excellence comes in. It offers multiple programs under the Clergy Care banner to assist pastors in need.

"I think the problem is extraordinarily acute," Director Sara McKinley said. "Pastors have been asked to take on a role for which they were not trained. They didn't have any warning, any training, and the pandemic meant they had to figure out how to do it next Sunday." 

Sara McKinley

"It wasn't enough to transfer what they were doing in the sanctuary. They had to transform it."

Many pastors had to learn skills such as video editing, camera positions for live-streaming, and sound balance. Separated from their congregations and communities, they had to adapt to social distance ministering. Hugs and handshakes gave way to Zoom meetings and phone calls.

When churches began to reopen, pastors had to make sure their sanctuaries and buildings were sterilized. Some had to remind members that masks were required, no matter how uncomfortable they might be about that.
They couldn't have face-to-face visits to comfort the sick and dying. Funeral services had to be delayed or canceled.

Financial pressure from the pandemic forced many to tell staff members with whom they had close relationships that the church could no longer afford to pay them. And in the back of their minds was the thought of what would happen if they or a family member contracted the virus.

Rev. Sidney Tompkins, a retired Deacon and Chair of Clergy Care Team, is a licensed mental health counselor. She noticed early on the potential toll the virus could take on clergy.

Rev. Sidney Tompkins

"There was the sense that in order to stop this virus spreading as best we can, it requires us to, for lack of a better term, self-quarantine. Or wear your mask, stay six feet away, whatever," she said.

"That instantly set up a roadblock. For many pastors, we are noted for hugs, shaking hands, and just greeting each other in ways you wouldn't do in the grocery store. Remember, we're supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. One of the ways we do that is to just to take precautions."

Another way is to simply take a break.

The Conference authorized a reimbursement of up to $1,000 to each pastor in the Florida United Methodist Church for anything that helps release some of the pressure they face.

It could be a gym membership, a short getaway, a kayak, bicycle, anything. The money comes from the Preachers Relief Board, a fund built over the years on contributions.

"Anyone can contribute to that Board," McKinley said. "In the past it has assisted mostly retired clergy who might be having financial challenges. Money over the years has been invested. Those investments paid off."

And they're paying off now in ways that could not have been imagined.

Rev. Heather Harding used the gift to buy a bike and shared what it meant on her blog.

"I go for a ride every morning unless there is lightning and take the days off when my grandchildren are here. I’m riding about 10 miles each day and hope to increase that as my fitness level improves," she wrote.

"I begin the ride by listening to Pray-as-you-go, then switch over to a book on Audible. I am currently listening to Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton (for the 4th time). This has already had a huge impact on my health." 

The Conference Shade and Fresh Water ministry also provides multiple resources to help pastors cope. Dr. Trudy Corry Rankin recalled the strategy it employed in the aftermath of four hurricanes in 2004.

Some churches were destroyed, and many others damaged. After caring for their congregations, pastors and leaders needed someone to care for them.

"Shade and Fresh Water created 12 different retreats to bellyache and cry together. What we did was relieve them from their churches for a weekend," she said.

"We filled the pulpits at their churches with retired ministers. We've been talking about what to do with this situation. I think there is need for something similar. These retreats are not just a vacation, but a place where they can get into their shared experience."

That helps pastors learn that they are not alone.

Rev. Ivan Gonzalez is an extension minister, provisional elder, and a licensed mental health counselor. He is part of the Clergy Care team.

"Speaking with folks I speak with, it's not a matter of how many are hurting. It's the intensity. I believe everyone is experiencing COVID in a stressful way," he said. "Between the COVID crisis and the potential split of the Methodist Church, we're seeing that people are really tired. They're weary and overwhelmed.

"I think we're all trying to figure it out. We all need different things. What I'm finding in a general sense is that we need to find a way to slow down."

Church members can help with that by taking things off their pastor's plate. Some jobs that paid staff used to handle are falling back on pastors because of layoffs. It's a time to be sensitive and volunteer if possible.

"I think ministers have always been expected to be superhuman. Their job is 24-7, and unless they establish clear boundaries it can consume you when something like this virus hits," Rankin said. "This when the church learns how to be the church. Nobody has done this before. Everyone has to go into the deeper resources within themselves to find that well of spiritual resources to feed them at this time.

"Shade and Fresh Water has always felt a need to train the leadership and laity on how to work with the pastor and not have the attitude that the pastor works for them."
It's also time for churches to realize the possibilities. The change that has been forced upon them can be beneficial in the long run. Online viewership in many cases shows the church's reach extends far beyond its walls.

"The church is in some ways more dynamic than it was before this. They're learning new things. They learned they can use Zoom and hold Wednesday night meetings. They're feeling fulfilled. That's really good for the clergy," Rankin said.

"There's an incredible sense that this is the time that change can happen. When we're in our routine, it can be hard for the Holy Spirit to reach us. When we're uncomfortable or trying something new, there is more room for the Holy Spirit to move."

While that is happening, though, the need for pastors to care for themselves is greater than ever. Tompkins urged them to evaluate themselves and look for warning signs telling them it's time to take a break.

"Click on the clergy care link. Reach out and see. What I would say to someone individually is let's talk about where your soft spots are," she said. "What's going on with you? If you were to put together a program, if you will, for healing, what would that look like? Would it be spiritual guidance? Exercise? Stress can be a soft spot that is like a bruise. Where would I be feeling that?

"The biggest mistake pastors make during this time is not taking better care of themselves. They can't do everything, but they feel they at least need to do everything. If we do that, we're not following what Jesus said. He said to love your neighbor as yourself, not love your neighbor but not yourself."

--Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for


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