When training pastors and chaplains, educators frequently stress the need for boundaries between work and home.
Clergy need — somehow — to find “personal” time, along with face-to-face contact with loved ones. That challenge became more difficult in the age of smartphones, texting and emails, noted Marlon C. Robinson, pastoral care director at AdventHealth in Manchester, Kentucky, and a specialist in marriage and family therapy.
Then came the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the pressures on clergy zoomed to a whole new level.
“Everything came home, all at once,” said Robinson, reached by telephone. “Pastors were spending more and more time with their families — jammed into one space. But this wasn’t quality time. Everyone was at home, but they were staring at their own phones and computer screens. There was no intimacy, and all the pressures of ministry grew even more intense.”
To make matters worse, the usual struggles with church leadership and finances were complicated by political warfare and conspiracy theories that literally began to shape how congregations handled worship, pastoral care, education and even efforts to keep sanctuaries clean and safe.
Meanwhile, many people were sick, and many died, with their pastors and families on the other side of locked hospital or nursing home doors. And it was illegal to have funerals? Attendance dropped, along with offerings. More than a few members vanished.
Ministers “are inundated with phone calls, emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, and communications through a host of other platforms,” wrote Robinson in Ministry Magazine.
While it’s impossible to know how many will flee the ministry, early research indicates pastors are “experiencing intensified stress levels that ... put them at increased risk for developing a mental illness,” Robinson wrote.
The bottom line: Pastors are “not superhumans,” noted Thom Rainer, former leader of LifeWay Christian Resources for the Southern Baptist Convention. “They miss their routines. They miss seeing people as they used to do. They would like the world to return to normal, but they realize the old normal will not return.”
Some pastors have decided that, while they don’t want to leave ministry altogether, the “current state of negativity and apathy in many local churches” has created a poisoned work environment. “So, they are leaving or getting ready to leave,” noted Rainer at his Church Answers blog.
Workloads have increased and changed during this time, he added. Clergy are trying to serve the “way they have in the past, but now they have the added responsibilities that have come with the digital world. ... Can the church continue to support the ministries they need to do? Will the church need to eliminate positions? These issues weigh heavily on pastors.”
There are no easy solutions, stressed Robinson. It’s clear that denominational leaders must seek improved pastoral care — for their clergy. Pastors need to find “ministry buddies” with whom they can privately share advice, feedback and peer-to-peer support.
This isn’t a matter of being selfish, stressed Robinson.
“If I don’t take care of me, then I’ll have none of me left when I try to take care of other people,” he said. “Self-care is super, super, super important for clergy — whether they’re working in churches, hospitals, the military or anywhere else.”