A Journal Entry for Pastors in Pandemic Times
12 thoughts for staying healthy while leading congregations during the COVID19 Pandemic
By Rev. David Robertson
For me, the energy surrounding the pandemic has some familiar echoes from the floods we experienced here in High River back in 2013. Of course, today’s situation is quite different. Back then we are all forced out of our homes. Now, we’re all forced into our homes. It’s the virus we’re trying to keep homeless.
Here are 12 things I think might be helpful to bring into your awareness during the pandemic as we work hard to preserve our pastoral connections and stay in the lead with our congregations as they cope with all the health and safety measures that are in place right now. What follows is in no particular order of importance. I would say they are all equal value.
- Human beings don’t like to be apart. COVID19 counts on us being together for it to survive. Being apart—facing separation—is very difficult emotionally. Consider concentrating your pastoral care on nurturing contact and closeness by focusing on human relationships. In any disaster, humans yearn for togetherness. It’s instinctual.
- Give yourself permission to not have to do everything right now. There is time. After all, we are going to be in this mode of being for quite a while. So… think marathon, not a sprint. At the end of the day, while on your pillow and before you fall asleep, you can simply say, “I did enough today, I don’t need to problem-solve through the night. I will have time tomorrow.” Pace yourself.
- More than likely you will be experiencing some short-term memory issues or having a hard time concentrating or staying focused. For the most part, these are alarm-based symptoms. The brain is preoccupied with survival and safety which puts higher brain functioning on the back burner for now.
- Therefore, be mindful about how you can bring down the alarm in your life right now. Watch less news, refrain from alarming movies and especially Facebook posts. Consider scrolling less and strolling more—go outside. Walk. Sit in the sun.
- Anxiety is a product of alarm. Anxiety can lead to addictions as we try to numb the losses, lacks and sadness or, any other discomfort we wish would just go away. Anxiety is also often at the root of compulsions which is just another way of trying to control things. So, what can you control—realistically speaking? Physical distancing is a way to help control the virus spread, right? We can control our preventative measures. In addition, can you establish a daily routine? Can you get dressed up for work, even though you are home? Turf the bathrobe by noon, at least!
- In four out of four conversations, I heard clergy say they were not sleeping well at night. Or, waking up with a jolt between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. Again, this is alarm-based. Our nerves are jangled. Can you simply acknowledge that this is the case? “I’m feeling alarmed. I am safe right now. I have done all I can do. I will have another swing at things when I wake tomorrow. For now, it’s enough.”
- It’s OK and valid to recognize you may not be functioning at your normal capacity. You may feel fatigued or have the sense that your resilience or ability to bounce back is not what it usually is. This is also our body’s way of coping with alarm and the frayed energy of disaster. It takes energy to keep our shields up under normal circumstances. But now, we need our shields up all the time! Normally, we need shields up when dealing with difficult parishioners, or when we need to tend our professional boundaries and borders, but not usually during mundane daily routines like going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or wherever we can usually be without undue energy going to our defences. Living in pandemic times requires us to divert more energy to our shields. This is fatiguing.
- Pray, meditate, be quiet… every day, even twice a day. We are spiritual leaders. Be spiritual! Stay connected with the Holy.
- Allow time and space for the safe expression of your tears—for the things we cannot change, fix or make better. Having our tears for the futilities we face will deliver us to joy and resilience. There is so much grief around the world right now. We need to cry.
- Slow yourself down. Do what you can and don’t worry about what you can’t.
- We may be clever wordsmiths, great preachers, and feel compelled to get the “word” out there. But honestly, we would do well if we said less and listened more.
- It is not all up to us. We are not all there is. Working more does not generate better results Neither does clergy guilt about how we should be doing more. Working more coupled with guilt is a sure-fire recipe for burn out. Just a reminder… “Normal” work habits and patterns went out the window over a month ago. There is no point trying to replicate what was because it doesn’t exist anymore. More tears… but these tears are what lead us to adaptation.
13—A baker’s dozen. Bring play into your life. Laugh. We have a 10-year-old in our congregation who created a Coronavirus Board Game! Dress up. Dance. Make music. Remember… Play is not work—it is not outcome-based. It is not for real. It has a beginning and an end. Listen to that amazing child in you and let them lead you into play.
We are blessed and privileged to be ministers in The United Church of Canada. We are an amazing cohort of diverse leaders who are under a great number of demands right now. It is both challenging and inspiring to be shaped by our faith during these pandemic times. May God’s love be sustaining and surrounding you as we foster and nourish our togetherness while apart.
Rev. David Robertson OM, Hon.BA, MDiv, High River, AB.
David is a member, mentor and facilitator with the Neufeld Institute based in Vancouver, B.C. which teaches an insight-based paradigm grounded in the principles of developmental psychology and attachment theory. He is also in team ministry at High River United Church and a chaplain for Chinook Winds Region.