I will never forget the emotional weight of suspending worship services and shutting down our church building when COVID came to Oklahoma. While I had little doubt we would get back to normal eventually, we were clearly stepping into an experience for which we had no context, no training and little-to-no preparation. Now, years later, we find ourselves in another moment of transition. “Vax and relax” is now the prevailing practice regardless of our personal or ecclesial opinions, and this presents a new challenge for me as a congregational leader. I am finding it difficult to recapture the imaginative energy that was at the heart of my ministry before the pandemic. In short, I’m struggling to find my “pastoral mojo.”
I suspect this challenge is one that is shared by other pastors, elders and dedicated church folk. Now that the world is leaning into a “normal” rhythm, I am struggling to orient both my identity as a pastor and my practice of ministry after all that we have been through during the pandemic. I can do the basics with relative ease: I preach, teach, visit and console, but mustering the creative energy and motivation to lead a church into the next chapter has proven much more difficult than I imagined.
One of the unexpected blessings of those first weeks of the pandemic was that we largely experienced it together. The week we closed our buildings in Oklahoma, General Presbyter of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery Tim Blodgett, gathered church leaders across the presbytery onto what became a weekly meeting during which we shared, consoled and resourced one another. It was heartening to see the faces and hear the voices of people who were concurrently wrestling with the same challenges, fears and uncertainties. We were wandering in the wilderness with no end in sight, but at least we were together.
That unity of experience and timing, though, is not the norm as we begin our emergence from pandemic church. Unlike the beginning of the pandemic, each region, presbytery and congregation finds itself transitioning at its own pace and in its own way. In Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery alone, we have churches that have been mask-optional for over a year and some that have hardly begun meeting in person again. Where once church leaders were unified in pandemic trauma, now we largely find ourselves emerging in our own timing and way. Though we wandered in the wilderness together, we are now staggering across the Jordan at different times and with very different resources and needs.
One of the joys of practicing the Christian faith is marking life’s transitions in community through rites of passage. Religion professor Gail Ramshaw defines rites of passage in Christian Worship: 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals as “communal observances of an individual’s change of status.” We enter the church with water and the invocation of the Triune God. We mark marriage with words of promise and rings to symbolize commitment and prayer. We commend our beloved dead to Almighty God and commit their bodies to the ground. When the pandemic hit, the extraordinary changes in our rituals served as their own rites of passage. We set aside vestments and sanctuaries in favor of homemade masks and streaming software. Now that we are emerging from two years of pandemic, churches and mid councils would be wise and gracious to encourage or provide a ritual transition into post-pandemic ministry for church leaders.
I can think of dozens of ways this might be accomplished. Perhaps churches with means might provide weary pandemic pastors with mini-sabbaticals for rest and study and welcome them back to leadership with some intentional words and prayer in corporate worship. A presbytery could gather for a special service of worship and celebration that would help recharge spiritual batteries and stir creative energy in church leaders. I find myself desiring some sort of pilgrimage, a solitary journey to a sacred place that might clear my distracted brain and tired heart and make space for some Spirit-inspired “pastoral mojo” that brings out my best work.
Potential solutions are many and should be tailored to the specific needs of pastoral leaders, their commitments outside of their ministry context and the resources available. I believe, though, the need is clear and significant. Many church leaders, myself included, feel as if they are stumbling out of two years of pandemic ministry. We have done difficult, disorienting, and holy work. It is no surprise that (mostly) normal feels a little strange as we try it on again. The good news here is that grace abounds, yes, even for church leaders, and community is a great context for healing.