Sunday, January 09, 2022

Building Up Clergy in Challenging Times


                                                             Illustration by Neil Webb

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

                                          Ephesians 4: 29-32

The headline from a December Broadview magazine article by Rev. Christopher White certainly caught my eye:

United Church ministers are burning out: Clergy were already facing a mental health crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made it worse.

This may appear to be dire, but I suspect that while pastors in our denomination are all along the spectrum of stress during the pandemic, it has taken its toll on virtually everyone. I know that some clergy went into a verson of the witness protection program at the outset, deeply concerned about their personal health, the wellbeing of their loved ones, and of the health and safety on their flocks.

Lots of others were trying to figure out when to open for in-person worship, how to navigate virtual worship and meetings, how to provide pastoral care when actual visits were not allowed. The United Church emphasizes the Word but it is also a sacramental denomination. How does that happen when the elements of life could transmit sickness? And what about funerals? 

White's article notes that the issues of mental health for UCC clergy preceded the pandemic:

 In 2018, a University of Notre Dame study asked 520 of the denomination’s ministers how they were feeling. Almost all of them said they enjoy their work and find it deeply meaningful, but 86 percent said they experience work-related stress, only 62 percent were optimistic about their future in ministry, and 41 percent said they feel little or no support from their denomination.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic started two years later, things got worse. “There is a lot of grief in congregations right now as they are aging and feeling real anxiety about the future, and so clergy are becoming the lightning rods,” says Rev. Adam Hanley, the program co-ordinator for ministry personnel vitality at the United Church’s General Council Office. He adds that COVID has magnified these trends. “Pandemic-related stress has been huge….Clergy are spending a lot of time putting out fires.”

Our son Isaac is our minister and before the pandemic the number of younger families and children in the congregation was growing but they haven't been inclined to attend in-person worship because there hasn't been program for kids with COVID protocols, except when we gathered outdoors. The same is true for our nephew, who is also a UCC minister. Both are younger, by United Church standards, and have their own primary school-age children. 

The Council and Ministry and Personnel committee at Trenton UC have done their best to be practically supportive, and I commend them. But the demands for them have been exhausting as well. More than once I have offered words of encouragement and gratitude to the Council chair as the pandemic flings monkey wrenches into the delicate machinery of congregational life. 

Still, I have been impressed that Trenton UC has worshipped in-person about half of the past 21 months, has installed a lift to connect floors, opened a community warming centre, and secured funding to renovate the kitchen for its meal program. 

Currently, clergy who are young enough to have families are onced again trying to figure out how to do ministry, often from home, while also connecting their children with on-line learning because they aren't heading off to school. 

As we worship virtually today (a skill church staffs have learned on the fly)  we can all ask how we are supporting our pastors and other congregational staff members in these challenging times. Do we include them in our prayers, offer words of encouragement, refrain from expressing impatience when we are frustrated about circumstances beyond their control? 

We are realizing that COVID-19 is persistent and so we can build one another up in kindness and the forgiving love of Christ. 

Here is the link to the Broadview article: 

No comments: