By Brett Hetherington*
As the world prepares to enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic next month, we continue to discover new ways life has been altered by our global connectivity. Among those discoveries is the toll that ministry can take on the pastor of a church physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Across East Ohio many clergy have felt, more than ever, the weight of being thrust into ministering in new and different ways – and the toll has been great.
“What happens in some situations, what people don’t realize is that from one day to the next is that everything except for a pastor’s personal devotional life changed in how that pastor functioned in ministry,” shared the Rev. Doug Lewis, superintendent of the Firelands District. “You have the heightened intensity from the pandemic going on and now you have added more responsibility on the plate of the pastor, and it would just increase the stress level and they could not get away from it.”
Serving as a district superintendent Lewis has the unique perspective of seeing how this pandemic has impacted over 70 different churches. He was quick to share some of the basic changes that came in the early days of the pandemic. “Sunday morning worship was going to be different. If you could continue small group ministries or Bible studies, how that was done was going to look different. Pastoral care was going to look radically different. Everything changed in how the pastor had to function. And that’s not taking away anything from other professions and how people had to adapt and adjust how they did their jobs as well.”
Initially we all were hoping for a short life for the disease and its effects. However, that has not been the case, and the role of pastors and how they function has had to change radically from one minute to the next.
“Most of us get called into pastoral ministry because we want to help people, not because we have a desire to be precise administratively about all this stuff, so it’s been really draining for people,” shared the Rev. Jon Priebe, lead pastor of Cuyahoga Falls First UMC (Canal District).
“When they (churches) came to worship – and especially when they were trying to do online worship experiences – in some cases a great deal if not all of that responsibility fell on the pastors. We were having pastors who couldn’t even get a Sunday away because they were the tech person from the church,” said Lewis.
The Rev. Kimberly Arbaugh, pastor of Carrollton First United Methodist Church (Ohio Valley District), shared some of the ways that she has adapted her ministry over the past two months.
“It got to a point where the pandemic hit me like it did for everyone else. You’re tired and trying to figure out what the next new and innovative way of engaging with people will be and figuring out how you are going to engage with people online. And how do you discern who is staying home because they want to stay home or because they are worried about their health? It’s a chasing your tail thing.”
Prior to this past August Arbaugh has never taken two weeks of vacation at a time, but the weariness of ministering throughout this ever-lengthening season was taking its toll.
“I told my Staff Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) chair I was planning on taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. I said what I really need is just two weeks off, but that will take up all my remaining vacation time for the year.”
The SPRC chair told Arbaugh to take the extra time. After discussion amongst its members, the committee granted their pastor the additional vacation time for rest and renewal.
“The bishop (Bishop Tracy S. Malone) has been really, really encouraging pastors to take care of themselves in the midst of this, to take the necessary leave they need,” shared Lewis. “She herself models taking time away with family. She has been an excellent model to our clergy and an advocate for self-care.”
Arbaugh said that the Bishop’s words and her modeling proper self-care send important messages to the laity of the East Ohio Conference, many of whom do not realize the incredible responsibilities their pastor has in shepherding their congregation.
“Some people in the church are involved in leadership and see what the pastor does daily. Others are fine as long as there is a good worship service each week. A lot of people are simply not in the know, who do not see all the work that pastors and even other leaders do. Even our laity staff are getting tired and burned out as much as the executive staff,” she said. “My conversation with the SPRC wasn’t just what about the pastoral staff, but what about the support staff? My administrative assistant is the face of the church when people call in who are upset. It is just as important to care for the support staff as it is for the pastoral staff. Youth leaders have had to reinvent ministry.”
It would not be a stretch to say the churches of East Ohio have come to accept the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be here long-term. Some churches have been able to adjust well, sharing some of the responsibilities on their pastors’ plates with others who are gifted in certain areas. But stress can still be cumulative, and leaders still need time for rest and self-care. There is still the constant debate over hosting worship in-person versus online. And though pastors often have teams to help them make these decisions, they still must be the ones who take the flak for those decisions.
“Everyone is feeling it,” said Arbaugh. “We were told this pandemic would be a short-lived thing, and here we are two years in, and we are struggling with figuring out how to continually innovate and these situations are foreign to so many of our people.”
In all this Lewis is hopeful, and he has seen much to be positive about in the churches to whom he ministers.
“We are seeing the church understand that this is the body of Christ and living into this mission of caring for one another and upholding one another. Their response has been we are going to do what is best for the people in our congregation. The acceptance of safety protocols – even when individuals do not necessarily agree with them – they are observing them for the safety of others. When you see that kind of an understanding it makes you rejoice. The church understands its responsibility is about what is for the well-being of the whole. When a church lives into that that’s exciting to see, and many of our churches are doing that,” Lewis said.
Caring for clergy was on the mind of Annual Conference voting members in June as they approved proposed updates to the clergy vacation and time away policy. The Board of Ministry worked with Bishop Malone and the Cabinet to create the new language that was adopted during Annual Conference 2021.
“I think it is paramount right now for the church to be healthy and optimistic,” said Priebe, who is also chair of the Board of Ministry. “We see that as a vital need at the present. The benefit of that time is that it grants permission and space for the clergyperson to just be a human for a while. To just be God’s child, a spouse, a child of an aging parent, or whatever the relationships that they have that are often put behind the relationship that we have with our vows and our ministry – to lift those up and not have to be useful to the church for a season. And it gives us that mental and spiritual break to attend to those other relationships – and of course the most important relationship as God’s child. That is one of the most healing things we can do any time, but especially in the current circumstances we are in.”
To other churches in the East Ohio Conference wondering how they might best minister to their staff during this season, Arbaugh offered this advice. “Find ways to come alongside and share the burden of ministry. Ask, ‘Hey, can I take communion to the shut-ins?’ ‘Can I offer you support?’ ‘How can I pray for you?’ ‘How is your family?’ Or even offer to treat them to lunch. Oftentimes our congregations don’t get to see things behind the scenes and these sorts of ideas – though simple when you think about it – are not easy to realize.”
She also points out one very important item about self-care to all pastoral staff in the Conference.
“Figure out what works best in your context. In my context I needed a couple of extra weeks away. It might look different in your church. What will make you be able to rest and be rejuvenated for ministry?”
What will help the leadership of your church be rested and rejuvenated to lead your church?
A good way to start the conversation is by encouraging the pastor of your local church to participate in the Bishop’s Clergy Day Apart on Saturday, April 2. Bishop Tracy S. Malone invites all East Ohio Conference clergy actively serving in ministry to come together for a day of rest and renewal from 9:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 2 at Faith UMC in North Canton. This Clergy Day Apart, designed by a team of active clergy, is an opportunity for clergy to feed their soul through reinvigorating worship, fellowship, self-care, and conversation. Clergy will hear a validating and empowering message from featured speaker the Rev. Twanda Prioleau, pastor of Christ UMC in East Baltimore, MD, and will participate in engaging breakout sessions designed to help them reflect, reconnect, re-center, and revel in their ministry.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.