By Aaron Earls
While almost all Americans are dealing with issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, pastors face personal issues while also trying to revamp their entire ministry essentially overnight.
On the first Sunday in March, 99% of American Protestant churches gathered as normal. By the end of the month, only 7% met physically. That social separation continued through the month of April.
In addition to highlighting the pressure points afflicting most pastors last month, Lifeway Research’s surveys demonstrate which issues have gotten worse for church leaders.
Comparing March to April, four areas became a problem for more pastors.
1. Pastoral care from a distance
In March, 12% of pastors listed pastoral care from a distance as a pressure point. That grew to 20% in April as pastors entered their second month of trying to serve a socially distanced congregation.
Here’s how some pastors expressed their concerns surrounding this topic.
“It is difficult to be in good contact with my people. I do text, calls, emails, even a gift from my wife and I, but it isn’t the same. It is also difficult when older members want you to come by and come into their home and visit and they don’t really understand or say they are not afraid of the virus. My wife has cancer and I am afraid of taking it home to her because of her immune system being compromised. So, I try to politely explain, but it is difficult, I would love to go and visit, and will again soon I pray.”
“It pains me to know of people who are hurting and need ministry, but due to my own immunosuppressive issues, I am unable to help them in person. I try to stay in touch via telephone. I am having to learn more about technology than I ever thought I would.”
“It is difficult to be aware of all of the needs of the congregation. Pastoral care is especially difficult without being able to touch base on Sundays and visit during the week. Because hospitals are still closed to visitors, all prayer for patients has to be done remotely, and that too is difficult.”
2. Planning for return
As some states and local governments ease restrictions, pastors face difficult decisions on when and how to begin physical services again.
In March, 7% of pastors said they were struggling with the choices concerning meeting. In April, 13% said they were specifically facing pressure about planning for a return.
Pastors explained how this was weighing on them.
“We have been given the okay to begin to have worship on May 3. Although I am excited, I am also worried. Some people will still need to stay away, and what happens if someone gets sick or dies from our return to worship?”
“What will the church look like when things do open back up? A lot of people who are 60 years of age or older still may not feel comfortable physically coming to church. What are the long-term ramifications for church attendance, participation, giving, etc.?”
“Just feeling the burden of being the person making these decisions. I sent the staff and deacons my thoughts on opening for worship and asked for their thoughts, but only received one response.”
3. Personal exhaustion
As the days and weeks wear on, pastors are beginning to feel the weight personally.
From March to April, pastors pointing to personal exhaustion, stress, and isolation increased from 6% to 10%.
Here’s a sample of what some pastors said.
“I’m tired. All the talk is about how people have all this time on their hands, but I’m actually working even harder than usual. I have been lucky to get even my one day off per week, and I’m still going into the office daily (which is both good and bad). I was actually supposed to have a vacation week off in the middle of all this, but I postponed it indefinitely. So I feel personally worn out.”
“Burnout and fatigue as we navigate a new way of doing ministry and balancing safety with the need for human interaction and relationship as a part of healthy worship.”
“Questions of should I look to move on to another church once this virus issue passes? Am I still viable in my ministry here? Feelings of depression and question of whether I truly make a difference to the church as a whole. Questions of is it time to move into the secular work force when jobs start opening and hiring takes place? Am I truly of use in the ministry, as a pastor, any longer?”
4. Disagreements and conflicts
At the end of March, the social-distancing guidelines had only recently been enacted widely. Now as restrictions stretch into a third month, some are frustrated, and pastors are noticing.
Previously, there wasn’t a significant number of pastors who said they were dealing with disagreements, conflicts, and complaints, but that’s now a pressure point for 8% of Protestant pastors.
Here’s some of what they said.
“Our folks have mostly gone along with restrictions and all that to this point. But we’re starting to get push back from a few who want us to expand what we’re doing, and I anticipate there will be sharply different opinions of how we should proceed when restrictions do begin to lift, with some wanting an ‘all-systems go’ approach and others wanting us to stick with the online-only offerings of the last six weeks.”
“I’m going to lose my job as pastor when this is over because the appearance of financial shortfall (we still have six months in the bank) is already being used to attack my leadership, so I will be unemployed.”
“Being compared to others as people are shopping and comparing. Since we were not used to livestreaming … there’s inevitably some glitches and things that are less than perfect. People are complaining each week that something wasn’t perfect.”
What problems have gotten worse for you as the pandemic has stretched on? What pressure points are you feeling now more than before?
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.
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