Church, Your Pastors Are Tired

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We didn’t plan for this. We’ve all been suddenly forced to adapt almost everything about our lives to respond to the pandemic. Some people revel in some of the changes, like working from home. For others, the changes chafe more than comfort.

I think it’s safe to assume that all of us, to some degree, have experienced negative consequences from pandemic living: stress, anxiety, job loss or insecurity, financial strain, or tension at home in constant close-quarters. All this seems to shake out through our systems and drag us into fatigue. My friend Karen calls it “Pandemic malaise.”

We are tired. We are desperate to stop adapting, stop isolating, stop worrying. We are all ready for this period of our lives to be finished. To become history. We want better days and we want them to begin tomorrow. We want to regain our energy and our lives as we knew them before the pandemic.

And if that wasn’t enough…

If you are an American like me, you’ve had the added weight of seeing the modern lynchings of black citizens unfold on your TV screens and social media feed. You see the action and inaction of our civic leaders. You see the protests and how our law enforcement responds — some movements are peaceful and peace-seeking, and some are chaotic and violent. You see the looting and destruction of big business and family businesses. And you likely have strong feelings about some or all of these things. (That is, if you have any emotional energy left.)

We are exhausted. We are undone. We’ve unraveled. The worst of who we are is exposed.

What we are seeing and experiencing is, at the very least, unpleasant. I imagine that many of us see or experience this ever-evolving situation in America as abhorrent. Unconscionable. A tragedy. We are all desperate for something better.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors have been doing the hard work of shifting the life of the church — an organism whose very nature is to gather publicly and then be sent out into the world — to alternative platforms like Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live. Some pastors in our churches do not have a degree in Bible or theology. Very few of them have a degree or training in information technology. A fraction of them have an understanding of what it takes to broadcast a virtual worship service. That is, until a few months ago when the pandemic halted our in-person gatherings.

Most pastors have learned on-the-fly, and are now quite competent at streaming your worship services. But the hour of worship you participated in on-line this week took much more than an hour to produce. Your pastors have zoomed for hours and hours behind the scenes.

They’ve zoomed with other staff, with leaders and volunteers, working hard to plan your worship service. Plus, they’ve creatively re-purposed ministries to function virtually. They’ve asked, what can children’s ministry look like now? How do we keep our senior congregants connected and engaged if they don’t have, or are uncomfortable with, technology? They’ve brainstormed new best-practices, done some trail-and-error, and worried about what they may have missed.

Your pastors have done the hard work of scrutinizing the budget and cutting back spending so your church can stay afloat during lean times. They know their congregants have or will experience financial strain, so they are being careful and proactive with resources. (Your pastors may also be worried about their own livelihood — since the church budget is also the source of their income.)

Your pastors are trying to care for you and stay in touch with you, but it’s harder when they can’t meet with you or at least see you in person each week. How long would it take to call through your church directory and check in on every congregant or family? How do they set up a manageable system for this? They wonder, would congregants be satisfied with a short, personal email?

And if that wasn’t enough…

Your pastors are expected to be strong leaders. To be examples. To help you navigate challenging times with wisdom gleaned from scripture. Right now, you might even hope they can be like the prophets of the Bible, boldly speaking God’s truth in the midst of unprecedented calamity.

And so here we are in a global pandemic. What truth, or hope, or prophetic encouragement do you expect from your pastor this Sunday?

And here we are in an America whose deep-seated racism has been re-exposed and the emotional outrage has erupted onto our streets. Some pastors were alive to see, experience, and learn from the civil rights movement. Some weren’t. Some pastors are awake to the systemic racial injustices in our nation. Others aren’t. Some white pastors can name their privilege and are doing the difficult work to learn and live as allies with their neighbors of color. Some can’t, some won’t, and some don’t know how to get started. And yet, despite where your pastors are as individuals, they are still expected to have a prophetic voice.

And if that wasn’t enough…

Pastors of color face these expectations exponentially, while simultaneously bearing the weight of their own pain and exhaustion.

ALL of that to say, church, your pastors are TIRED. They might be running on fumes. They might be struggling personally, but are keeping that quiet so they can keep on ministering to you. They are just about done adjusting and adapting. They are straining under the complex needs, and often conflicting desires of their congregants. And they are navigating all of this in an ever-evolving pandemic in a world that is literally and figuratively on fire.

Maybe they need you to minister to them.

Capacity

There is a global pandemic going on and I’m seeing a lot of comparison and judgment on social media. Friends are judging themselves for a lack of productivity. They are criticizing family members for not getting enough done. Or they are bemoaning the unrealistic expectations of schools and employers.

Can we pause for a moment and dig into this problem calmly and compassionately?

We have all been subjected to a mega-shift in our lives. Most of us have had to adjust all that we do — be it work, parenting, eating, and schooling — to be done 100% at home. That is a fundamental shift in our habits and routines. That is a lot of togetherness if you live with family or roommates, and a lot of alone time if you live alone. And unless you are well-suited for monastic life, you’re also grieving lost connections to a lot of the activities and the being-out-in-the-world things that nourish you.

I imagine that if this shift to our lives were measured like an earthquake, it would be a pretty solid 7 on the Richter scale. Social distancing and isolation isn’t killing us, but it is shaking up our lives in a jarring way. With the tectonic plates of our daily lives shifted so greatly, you can bet there are cracks showing on each of us.

One friend told me that she thought she was doing pretty well with all of this isolation. She and her husband and son had been “living it up” at home enjoying their favorite home-bound hobbies like video games, gardening, and movie nights. But my friend suddenly broke out in hives for no apparent reason. She now suspects that the isolation has affected her more than she noticed or was willing to accept.

On social media, friends are lamenting their lack of energy. They are mentioning all the projects they think they or their spouse should be able to tackle since they are at home all the time. But these same people don’t seem to realize that fatigue is such a potent side-effect of stay-at-home orders.

I’d like to ask that you take a few minutes to think about capacity. Before my knee surgery last fall, I was exercising 5-6 days a week and averaging 12,000 steps a day. Then I had surgery and I couldn’t bear weight on my leg for a month. Dependent on crutches, I had to change everything about my daily routine. Every task that I was used to doing without thinking about it, suddenly required me to think first. How must I do X differently in order to accomplish X and be safe?

The fundamental adjustments to my life were both physically and emotionally exhausting. I simply didn’t have the same capacity that I had before my surgery. To be well during recovery, I had to learn to let myself:

  • accomplish less (and subsequently…)
  • attempt less (and therefore…)
  • set aside unnecessary tasks
  • pause longer between tasks
  • laugh about stupid mistakes
  • not sweat the small stuff (and subsequently…)
  • put more things in the “small stuff” category
  • go to bed at times suited for a small child

Before my surgery, I was a strong, active, capable woman. After my surgery, I was still a strong, active, capable woman, but one who had to make adjustments. I had less capacity to be active the way I was used to. Instead of relying on my legs to carry me through the day, I had to schlep through my days using crutches and my upper body strength — and that’s some workout!

Some days, accepting the change in my capacity was very frustrating, even maddening. I’d have fits of temper when I dropped things (and I dropped so many things!) and it seemed nearly impossible to retrieve them with an immobilized leg. I was annoyed that I was ready for bed by 7pm. At 39-years-old, I felt silly needing a shower chair in order to take a 10 minute shower. But everything in that season came down to capacity. Was I willing to accept and work with the capacity that I had on any given day?

And that’s the question I offer you during this pandemic and period of social isolation. Almost everything about your daily routine has likely changed. The shift is affecting you, whether or not you see or accept its impact. So, what is your capacity today? What is your capacity physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually? What is your capacity at 10am? At 3pm? Or at 7pm?

To be well in times of change, we have to realize and accept that our capacity can fluctuate greatly day-to-day and hour-by-hour. To be well we also have to adjust our expectations of ourselves (and our loved ones). What looks or feels like laziness when we don’t tackle those special projects around the house could in fact be mild depression, numbness, or emotional fatigue — all situational and very understandable.

One of the opportunities of this weird isolation season is to become more emotionally flexible. And generous. Out of an abundance of love and kindness, we can offer ourselves (and others) heaping amounts of grace when we feel like we are failing or when we don’t measure up. Instead of seeing ourselves as slackers, we might consider that we are doing the best we can with the resources that we have at any given moment. Please hear that again…

You are doing the best that you can with the resources you have at any given moment.

I once interviewed a college student who was reapplying for a second year in the same job. He liked the job and was good at it, but he had concerns. The following year he would be a senior preparing to graduate and looking to launch his career. He wasn’t sure he should do the job again or even how to evaluate his readiness to return to the job in light of his different circumstances.

Randomly, I asked him if he was familiar with scuba diving. He said he was. So I asked him to imagine another year on the job like a scuba dive. And then I asked him to evaluate how much air he had left in his tanks. (Because who would go on an extended dive without full or nearly full tanks?) The student later told me that after pondering that question over the next few days, he was able to confidently turn down our job offer. He decided that saying no was the healthiest choice for him and those he would have served through the job.

This is the simple question I offer you in an uncommon time — what is your capacity right now? (Or, what is your loved one’s capacity right now given their unique circumstances?) No matter the answer, you will never regret responding to that question with an overly-generous dose of kindness.

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Wave Upon Wave

Anyone else feeling fragile these days? I’m with you. If you’d like, why don’t you come into my living room and settle onto the other end of my couch. No need to change out of your comfy clothes — I’m in sweats. The soft, stretchy cotton seems like the perfect hammock for a fragile soul.

So, as you know, I’m a pastor and a spiritual leader in my community. I imagine people expect me to offer words of assurance and encouragement in a season of hardship like a pandemic. It’s not that I don’t have any of those words these days, but I also don’t want to pretend to be more than I am.

I believe it’s very important for leaders to remember they are human and to be honest in every circumstance. Being genuine and open about who we are and how we are at any given moment can be the most assuring and encouraging thing. So today I offer you my weary, droopy self.

How should we be during a global pandemic? Is there a “should” for this kind of thing? No one gave me playbook for this in seminary. I suppose there are some parallels I could draw from scripture for us, but today I’d rather offer the story of my own life, my body, and my heart. Maybe you will find solidarity and comfort there.

I’ve never experienced a compounded season of stress like this in my life. I imagine you haven’t either. Sure, I’ve been through difficult things in my life and I consider myself a fairly resilient person. I’ve matured through the grind of hardship and squalls of grief. But these days, instead of feeling mature and capable of navigating this new challenge, I feel weak and unstable.

Maybe this is what a car accident victim feels like walking for the first time after days in bed. Something as ordinary as walking — something you’ve been doing everyday without thinking about it since you were three-years-old — now feels strange and Herculean. In a bruised and weakened body, even the idea of standing and moving your legs forward and of carrying your own weight, is overwhelming and exhausting.

Everyone will have their own unique pandemic story. Someday we will tell these stories to the younger generations and they will listen, captivated and half-believing, as though the way we lived in these days was more fantasy than reality. And yet we live these strange days — with face masks and gloves, social distancing and stay-at-home orders — as our reality.

My pandemic story starts with a hospital and a wedding. On February 20th in America, news of the coronavirus was still playing in the category of world news. There was a mysterious virus wreaking havoc in a region of China I’d never heard of. I didn’t give it too much thought because my mind was focused on getting married.

Dennis and I had planned an elopement for Saturday, February 22nd. On the night of the 20th, he herniated a disc in his back while standing up from the kitchen table. He spent the next 24 hours in the hospital as the doctors tried to get his pain under control. It took six hours and lots of IV morphine, but they finally got his pain and blood pressure stabilized. (His BP was 199/100 when we arrived at the ER!) Reluctantly, the doctor discharged him Friday night so we could get married the next day. Dennis was adamant that we would have our wedding as planned. I would have married him in his hospital room and drab hospital gown.

Other than Dennis being injured, our wedding was everything we’d hoped it would be. With it being simple and tiny compared to the average wedding, there was no stress. We spent the weekend resting at a beautiful bed and breakfast at the beach. By Tuesday we were both back to work as usual.

Except nothing has been “as usual” since February 20th. Dennis continued to struggle with debilitating back pain as he waited for his surgery scheduled for April. That virus in Wuhan, China spread quickly across the globe. The retirement community where I work quickly phased into a full lock-down in early March. Wearing masks and armed with thermometers, we now daily screen every staff member, essential vendors, and resident for Covid symptoms. All of our in-person programming has been canceled and we’ve had to adapt everything for our in-house broadcast system. My job, which was once vibrantly full of human contact and pastoral care, is now reduced to ministering through live broadcasts of daily morning prayer and Sunday morning chapel.

As the virus covered the globe and grew into a pandemic, Dennis and I had to cancel our full honeymoon that was scheduled for late March. Soon after, we also canceled both our Florida and California wedding receptions planned for May and June. We have no idea if and when we will be able to reschedule those. Though that seems like such a small loss in the midst of such world-wide suffering and grief, it is still a loss for us. It feels like we haven’t had the chance to celebrate our marriage.

Around the time my workplace had a few cases of Covid-19, I started feeling unwell. Knowing my cycle and the symptoms, I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. I took three tests over the course of that week, but my husband wouldn’t believe it was true until it was confirmed by a doctor. I hadn’t found a GP since moving to Florida and no one was taking new patients with the pandemic going on. A local OB agreed to see me when I explained the situation. She confirmed the pregnancy with an ultrasound.

We were so happy to be pregnant. We’d hoped and prayed we would be able to get pregnant one day, but were cautiously optimistic because of our advanced ages. And so there we were, newlyweds, pregnant right away in the middle of a global pandemic, both essential workers (and thankful to be employed), but both exposed to the public everyday, and with Dennis still enduring vicious chronic pain. That is a unique set of stressors in an extraordinarily stressful time.

Dennis has asthma so is in “at risk” category if he were to get the coronavirus. Since it’s a novel virus, almost nothing is known about the risks to pregnant women and their babies. Though healthy and strong, I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. I love my job and the people I serve, but I didn’t want to go into work and potentially expose myself to the virus and put my husband or baby at risk. It’s been over a decade since I’ve struggled with anxiety, but it was suddenly back again on a totally new level. All I wanted to do was burrow into our safe home and spend time caring for my family.

Dennis assured me everything would be okay. A realist, I knew he couldn’t possible know what the future held, but “everything will be okay” was exactly what I needed to hear every day, several times a day. He held me close every time I felt scared and reminded me of what I already knew — God loves us, God is good, and God is in control of everything, big and small.

So, like the rest of the world, we continued living each day as best we could. We’ve battled the strange fatigue that comes with living the reduced life forced upon us by a pandemic. Thankfully, Dennis was able to transfer to working from home, which brought him some relief from back pain. His surgery was scheduled for April 13th, the day after Easter.

Easter is meant to be the high point of the year for Christians. On Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the fact that his resurrection signals our freedom from slavery to sin and freedom to live eternally in intimate relationship with God. Easter is usually full of extra light and color, flowers and song. But the pandemic made it’s mark on our celebrations too. Our chapel service was still broadcast-only. There was no choir, no lilies, no joyful hugs, and no congregation shouting, “He is risen, indeed!” Though the message of the service and sermon were as hopeful and joyful as ever, it still felt odd. Even Easter was reduced from it’s fullest, brightest expression.

Personally, Easter was full of worry and blood. I got home from our Easter chapel and discovered that I was spotting. That afternoon, as we ate a special Easter dinner, prepared Dennis’ hospital bag for his surgery the next day, and played some games, I continued bleeding. Some spotting is normal in early pregnancy, but mine increased as the day went on, going from a dull brown to a bright red. I knew that at 7 weeks, I was likely miscarrying. Dennis held me as I cried. He slept fitfully that night, as it was hard for him to find a comfortable sleeping position. I didn’t sleep at all. I was in too much pain to sleep, so I spent the night on the couch holding a heating pad to my abdomen.

On Easter Monday we got dressed and headed for the hospital. I was still bleeding. I dropped my husband off at the hospital entrance. Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t go in with him or visit him after surgery. I drove home and called to make an appointment with my OB. Just before the doctor examined me, as I lay on the table in the ultrasound room, I got the call from the hospital that Dennis was out of surgery and doing well. Moments later, the ultrasound confirmed what I already knew — I was having a miscarriage.

I went home to an empty house where I wept and cried out for my husband. Though there are many people I could have called to come be with me, Dennis was the only person I wanted. I wept with relief that he was okay, and I wept with grief knowing that when we spoke on the phone that afternoon, I would have to tell him that we’d lost our baby.

We were separated for about 32 hours. I picked Dennis up from the hospital and drove us toward the pharmacy where we would get his prescriptions. He took off his gloves and used sanitizer so he could hold my hand. I drove and wept and managed to stay on the road only because my husband was finally holding my hand and telling me how much he loved me. We got home and just held each other and cried.

The past two weeks have been difficult. Dennis’ physical recovery is slow and painful. I’m doing the best I can to care for him even as I am recovering myself. I’ve had many friends who have told me about their own miscarriages, but no one told me how physically painful and depleting a miscarriage could be. I took a few days off of work to care for Dennis and to let my own body heal. I’ve since returned to work, but have yet to regain my energy or even the desire to do the job I love.

The past two months have brought stress upon stress upon stress. And the pandemic has brought wave upon wave of loss — big and small. I never thought much about what our newlywed story would be, but never in any daydream did it contain a herniated disc, 2 hospitalizations, a major surgery, a pregnancy and a miscarriage — all in the middle of a global pandemic. So, understandably, I’m feeling fragile.

My experiences have woken me up to the reality that though we are all enduring the large-scale losses and grief of the pandemic, we are all still living our individual lives and potentially enduring personal losses and grief, big and small. We’ve lost happy plans, jobs, time with friends and family, graduations, businesses, financial security… It seems like that list could go on forever and cover such a broad range of losses, and that’s heartbreaking.

I’m sure many of you have suffered losses that have been eclipsed by the constantly grating news of the pandemic. You might be keeping your losses private and I understand your need or desire to do that. I considered keeping our miscarriage private, but ultimately, I thought I would share about it so others who are suffering right now might not feel so alone.

Whatever thoughts and feelings are plaguing you, my friend, you aren’t alone. Your suffering is real. It doesn’t matter how your loss compares to the pandemic or to someone else’s loss. Comparison is fruitless in the midst of grief. Big or small, your loss is real and it hurts you and that matters. Please, please know that what you are feeling is okay to feel, and please take care of yourself.

I hope you have someone who will hold you like my Dennis holds me. Even when I feel like I could shatter in moments of acute grief, his arms and words remind me that I will be okay.

We will be okay. That doesn’t mean that we won’t experience hardship or illness, loss or grief. It just means that we will not lose everything. We have not lost everything even when a single loss is so overwhelming that it makes us feel like we’ve lost everything.

I need to remember that there is still so much life to my life. I may not feel very good physically or emotionally. Each day feels tethered to a new, unpredictable tide. But I am still living. I am still deeply loved. I know that the frayed pieces of my life will mend, my body will heal, the pandemic will end, and I will be okay.

We will be okay.

I get up and meet each day as it is. Some days, like today, have been filled with tears and exhaustion, despite getting a full night of sleep. Other days seem normal — so normal that I forget there is a global pandemic and that I lost a baby — because the sun is shining so beautifully and my husband can always make me laugh. I’m doing my best to give myself heaping doses of grace when I feel overwhelmed emotionally, and when I feel guilty because I feel good. (That’s going to make sense to some of you.)

So if you are feeling fragile these days, you are in good company. It’s not just me sitting with you on The Couch of Pandemic Loss and Weariness. There’s probably a million sisters and brothers in this club. We are all just one story away from finding each other and from getting through one more day.

Please, if you need to, reach out to someone who loves you and share your story. I pray you will be met with wave upon wave of understanding, love, and grace.

You are not alone. You are loved.

Love,
Corrie