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Pastoral burnout in a pandemic: A wise article and biblical promise

Mark Turman and I recorded our latest APV video yesterday (see here and here), offering an update on the pandemic in the context of pastoral leadership. Mark told me about a conversation he had with a mutual friend of ours whose pastor recently resigned. According to our friend, this pastor grew so weary from dealing with congregational conflict over the best response to the pandemic that he could not go on.

It’s not hard to feel for and with this pastor. The pandemic has brought challenges to the church we have not seen in a century. I remember the pain of 9/11, the turmoil of the 2000 election, and natural disasters that shut down our church campus over the years. None, however, comes close to this.

If your church has not been doing in-person worship or programs, you have gone for many months without the physical community so vital to our lives, wellbeing, and ministry. You have probably faced questions from members of the church who feel that your church should open up. Some may claim that staying closed denotes a lack of faith or courage on your part.

If your church has been meeting in-person, you probably fear the possibility of someone contracting the virus and becoming gravely ill or dying as a result. And you likely face questions from those who believe you are risking lives and not loving your neighbor as you should.

Legal issues regarding in-person worship continue to swirl as well. Skeptics claim that churches are dangerous during a pandemic. And there is the constant background stress of dealing with this personally—if you are meeting with people, are you risking yourself and those you love? If you are not, are you fulfilling your ministry?

A wise article

I found an article today that offers practical wisdom and encouragement for these days. It’s by Garrett Kell, lead pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, posted on the 9Marks website.

He suggests first, “discern your souls”, asking, “What are you anxious about? Where is the pressure coming from? Who are you afraid of disappointing? What are you running to for comfort?” His questions remind us that we serve God first and foremost. His will must be our will. Before we try to manage the expectations of others and arbitrate leadership disputes over our response to the pandemic, we need to seek and follow his leading.

The Lord often leads us through the wisdom of others in congregational process. In fact, I’m convinced that managing this crisis in consensus with others is vital to our leadership and long-term effectiveness. But our first calling is to the One who called us.

Second, Kell recommends “embrace your limitations.” He writes: “I can’t make a pandemic stop or visit every lonely member. I can’t be a perfect husband, father, pastor, or friend. Yet God has strength that works through my weakness, so it’s OK (2 Cor. 12:9).” He adds: “God has not called me to be a politically savvy epidemiologist who creatively navigates the unprecedented opportunities of technology in a global pandemic. My knowledge has limits, but God has understanding beyond measure.”

Third, “change your pace.” If you’re working from home, don’t try to husband, parent, and pastor at the same time in the same place. Find a rhythm that works in these unprecedented days.

Fourth, “check your disciplines.” Beware of slothfulness in eating, exercise, and entertainment. Guard time for and with your family. Focus especially on spiritual disciplines during this undisciplined time.

Fifth, “don’t compare yourself with other pastors.” Each church and ministry is unique. Kell notes, “If you live and die upon the expectations of others, you will become exhausted, tempted to compromise, and forgetful of Jesus. Compare yourself only with Jesus. Devote yourself only to his approval. Turn off social media if it invokes envy. Spend time with the Lord in his word and feel free not to follow what everyone else is doing. Fulfill your ministry for God’s pleasure” (his emphasis).

Last, “come to Jesus.” Kell reminds us of our Lord’s invitation, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Spend time with your Lord in his word, knowing that he is working in ways you cannot see. Confess sins and seek accountability and encouragement from others.

Kell concludes: “Do not lose heart. Jesus promises to care for you and give you rest. Hear afresh this promise from God’s Word: ‘They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint’ (Isaiah 40:31).”

An encouraging promise

I would add this word: God knew about the pandemic before we did. He knew you would be facing these days when he called you into ministry. If he could not use you in these days, you would not be facing these days.

It is by his providence that you were not alive a century ago or a century from now if the Lord intends. You are where you are “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). And never forget: “He who calls you is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

This is the promise of God.