Pandemic pastoring: lessons learned in the crucible of crisis

A new survey of church leaders details what the pandemic was like and how it changed church leaders. Where do pastors go from here, it asks?

Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a “new era of ministry” — affecting both pastoral leaders and congregations in profound and enduring ways, a just-released study has found.

Many pastors report feeling exhausted from dealing with stress, conflict and grief — grief both from their own personal losses and those in their communities. Juggling responsibilities has been particularly difficult for parents. Some pastors have done the hard work of pushing their White congregations to deal more deeply and honestly with systemic racial and economic injustice — sometimes encountering pushback.

In the midst of these challenges, many church leaders – both pastors and lay leaders – have shown remarkable strength, adaptability and resilience.

Eileen Campbell-Reed

Those are some of the conclusions of “#Pandemic Pastoring,” a report was released Sept. 1 and contains findings from researcher Eileen Campbell-Reed, a visiting associate professor of pastoral theology and care at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and founder and host of Three Minute Ministry Mentor, a podcast and video blog. Between June 2020 and April 2022, Campbell-Reed surveyed more than 100 pastors, chaplains, campus ministers and lay leaders about the impact of the pandemic on their ministry, including some connected with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

As has been reported anecdotally by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mid council leaders, some pastors resigned due to the stresses of the pandemic.

“Some ministers needed to walk away in the season,” Campbell-Reed wrote in a pastoral letter accompanying the report. “Others were remarkably resilient as they stayed. For some, it was their resilience that gave them the courage and determination to step away from church for a season or longer.”

She also wrote that nearly every church leader she spoke with “understands that our expectations for church, and ministry broadly understood, need to be reimagined, and our expectations reset.”

And: “I heard some things that clergywomen want their churches to know: the constant drip of sexism is exhausting and once again women bore the brunt of change and loss.”

On the ground. During a Sept. 1 webinar hosted by Good Faith Media announcing the release of the report, four church leaders described some of what they had seen and experienced during the pandemic.

Sarah McClelland Brown. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Sarah McClelland-Brown, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, was serving a small, rural “red” congregation during the early pandemic, while pregnant with her second child. In May 2020, during her state’s stay-at-home orders, the leadership of her congregation insisted she go back to preaching in person. She resigned instead and later was called as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Warner Robins, Georgia — a congregation she says has been warm and accepting. But the difficulty of being pregnant, the parent of a toddler, and told by her prior congregation to do something she considered unsafe still resonates in her spirit.

Timothy Peoples, senior minister of Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, is a Black minister of a mostly-White congregation. Right before the pandemic, his church was flourishing. But the pandemic and the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 meant “we finally took on hard discussions and challenges that we had been putting off for so long. … I’m a Black pastor in a predominantly White church — and not just any type of White church. You know, our address is on Country Club Drive.”

Timothy-Peoples. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

He told his congregation, “you can’t call me pastor and n***** at the same time” — which offended some of those who had been doing it. He wrote an email to the congregation, including a quotation from Malcom X that “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”

Peoples asked his church to consider the ways it might have been sticking the knife in, causing the wound, or not working for healing. He opened the sanctuary for conversations on issues involving racism and White privilege — asking not just for book studies on anti-racist work but for real change. Some people left.

In the midst of all that pressure and pain, Peoples had a breakdown. Church members found him on the ground and said, “you’re doing too much” — they insisted he take some time off. When he came back, they gathered around the big dining room table he uses as a desk and said, “This is a work we have to do together, and not a work that you have to do alone.”

Now, Peoples sees a therapist and a spiritual director regularly — recognizing that to care for his congregation, he has to care for himself too.

Jake Hall. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Jake Hall, now director of initiatives in faith and culture at the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership at Mercer University, served as pastor of a Baptist church in Macon, Georgia, before taking his current position in 2021. Rather than finding support in the difficulties of the pandemic, he faced criticism.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he was a senior minister at “one of those 1950s-era churches with pristine colonial architecture and pristine colonial sensibilities.” Hall said he has seen how political polarization has broken into the church. At a time of high anxiety, “when we were facing our hardest struggles … in our setting, our church leaders were pointing a finger and saying, ‘So you’re admitting that this has affected your job description and your ability to do your job.’”

Rather than being supportive, “this was a moment in which the shared grief and pain and blame of the entire community felt shifted and transferred over onto leadership.”

That was especially true, Hall said, in churches with an older mentality that valued in-person programming as a way of attracting congregants, and which produced a “real crisis of identity” when everything moved online. In this season of high conflict, “I asked a church leader at the height of the pandemic what success would look like for this congregation … and he said, ‘Butts in the seats and profit at the end of the year.’”

In time, “all of that built-up anxiety, anger and inability to share any … compassion led to a deep fracture within that community between pastor and church and really between the pews, which left that church decimated.”

Teresa-Jefferson-Snorton. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, a bishop in the Christian-Methodist-Episcopal Church who serves in Alabama, said the response of many pastors at the start of the pandemic was to “work harder” — leading in some cases to burnout and exhaustion. She’s tried to help pastors see themselves as part of a team and to give themselves permission to do less, to make space and time for self-care and to connect with clergy colleagues.

“We experienced a lot of death,” she said — with pastors ministering to families grieving that they weren’t able to gather at a bedside or for a funeral, or experiencing loss or illness from COVID in their own families. She met with ministers one-on-one, helped them identify resources for support, and said: “It’s OK to take care of yourself.”

The research. Campbell-Reed presented some details of what the research revealed.

Among them:

  • The financial impact of the pandemic hit congregations unevenly. “The rich got richer, or at least more stable,” and some of those who struggle financially pre-pandemic now have it even harder.
  • During her first round of interviews, in 2020, church leaders talked a lot about responding to racial injustice. By 2022, she heard far less about that.
  • Conflict in churches that got delayed in the early days of the pandemic “has come back like a roaring freight train” in discussions about in-person worship, masking and vaccinations. Conflict is part of the life cycle of churches – often, it goes deeper than presenting issues of the day, Campbell-Reed said.
Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.
  • While the pandemic presented real challenges, some church leaders found the positive in it as well. They spoke of resilience, adaptability to new ways of gathering, deepened faith, a delight in “a church without walls,” as one leader put it.
  • Churches need “embodied rituals for acknowledging and honoring our grief” for what’s been lost.

What did the pandemic teach? “All the usual challenges of life together in a faith community were amplified and made more complex by COVID-19 measures and the multiple pandemics that were revealed in this season,” Campbell-Reed wrote. “We need healing and new future stories.”