In Praise of Pastors Who “Dare Greatly” by Staying Put
The year 2020 was quite a year, the best summary I saw being a meme of five adjacent portable toilets, all of them on fire. The caption read, “If 2020 Were a Scented Candle … ” For many, it kept going. As one pastor friend said to me earlier this year, “I can’t wait for 2020 to end, even if that doesn’t happen until 2030.”
The cumulative trauma of a global pandemic, escalating unemployment, record rates of loneliness, depression, domestic abuse, and death, empty arenas and churches, shuttered doors on once bustling restaurants and places of business, rioting in the streets, discord in our homes, prejudice in our hearts, and the most troubling political campaign in modern history took a toll. For many, it felt like earth’s foundations have been shaken.
My own foundations were also shaken as I lost contact with sixty percent of the congregation I serve. People’s retreat from church life in 2020 was understandable, given the raging effect of a microscopic, fiercely contagious, and sometimes deadly virus called COVID-19. Nevertheless, losing touch with so many of our people because of the virus made being a pastor even harder and lonelier than it had ever been otherwise.
Before the pandemic began, a well-known church research expert released an essay called “How Many Hours Must a Pastor Work to Satisfy the Congregation?” Based on research in which those surveyed were asked how much time they expect their pastors to spend on prayer, sermon preparation, outreach, counseling, visitation, administrative functions, etc., the total number of hours expected was 114 per week.
During the pandemic, pastors’ workload increased with fewer volunteers and even more work to be done as everything also went virtual. 2020 was an election year, which added to the madness. As the pandemic raged on, so did our raging. Petty politics replaced more life-giving pursuits like faith, hope, and love. Many Christians let themselves get drawn into the abyss of turning party platforms into their doctrine, pundits into their prophets, and politicians into their Jesus. Outrage was at an all-time high, and some people came to the end of their wits.
In such a climate, criticism toward pastors increased, perhaps because people felt they had no other non-retaliating place to go with their stress. On one particular day I received an anonymous letter in which a disgruntled member invited me to quit my job and find something to do elsewhere. The upset member signed off by saying that if I didn’t leave the church, then they most certainly would.
Sheep can bite hard sometimes, especially the anonymous ones. People say that we pastors shouldn’t read anonymous letters. But when you’re in the isolation of a pandemic and lockdowns and “social distancing,” sometimes you just can’t help yourself because even hurtful contact can feel more welcome than no contact at all.
The same church expert also wrote an article called “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit.” In addition to reasons given above, others included personal weariness from the pandemic, financial stress, discouragement about losing members, members bickering with one another about how to respond to the virus, and above all, feelings of loneliness and abandonment. “Imagine your own mindset if one-half or more of your friends stopped engaging with you,” the church expert said. “Pastors are burned out, beaten up, and downtrodden. Many are about to quit.”
That’s how we pastors see our congregants. Not as our customers, pupils, ego boosters, donors, or anything of the sort. We view our congregants as our friends, our people, even our family. In 2020, most church life went virtual, which meant we pastors spent more time staring into video cameras than we did into people’s faces. While our people could see us as they worshiped and received teaching at home, it was easy for them to forget that we could not see them. We pastors missed our people, and some of us still do. There is a loneliness that accompanies one-way talking, one-way body language, and one-way expressions of love.
Personally, I never thought about quitting my job like many other pastors apparently did. In my case, there were about fifty warm gestures sent in my direction for every ugly one. The anonymous letter writers were few and far between compared to the encouragers. I also received hundreds of cards and thank you letters from grateful members who were eager to return to our life in community together. Most of our people are the kind who speak words that make souls stronger. These are also the ones who sign their letters.
If you are a pastor (or an educator or administrator, a healthcare worker, or are in food services or in some other essential work) who has felt or still feels weary from serving on the frontlines, discouraged about this or that, and are perhaps receiving letters with words aimed at injuring you, I hope that these words from Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 will be as helpful to you as they have been to me:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
This is an adapted excerpt from Scott’s latest book, Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans