to stress, fatigue and fear brought on by pandemic
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
But what happens when the pastors and church leaders themselves are struggling with mental health challenges?
It’s an important question at any time, but especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing and other restrictions have created an added level of mental hardships for so many.
“I think most church leaders in our area — and probably across the board — are really struggling with the isolation and the shutdown of services,” said Chuck Hannaford, president of HeartLife Professional Soul Care in Germantown. “There is a lot of additional stress associated with (the pandemic). It’s sort of thrown a curveball to everybody. Church leaders and pastors, specifically, are trying to reorient themselves to this new normal, whatever that may be.”
Hannaford made this observation while serving as a panelist for a recent webinar, hosted by the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, entitled “Flourishing Amid the Chaos.” The webinar focused on maintaining strong mental health during the pandemic. Other panelists included Art Webb, counselor for the Watauga Baptist Association, Elizabethton; Stephanie Evans, clinic manager at Centerstone in Springfield; and Sing Oldham, pastor engagement specialist for the TBMB.
Bill Choate, collegiate ministries director for the TBMB, served as moderator for the event. Choate said the primary purpose of the webinar was to “encourage church leaders to find fresh, healthy life choices for themselves and those around them, and to know how to find mental and emotional health resources in their communities.”
The webinar focused on two primary questions — “how can church leaders keep themselves emotionally healthy?” and “how can church leaders assist the community members in being emotionally healthy?” Choate noted that answering these questions is especially challenging “in the midst of change, grief, illness and stress” created by the pandemic.
Hannaford said some of the stress and anxiety that pastors and church leaders are presently facing has been caused by the disruption of their normal schedules and the adjustments they’ve had to make to their customary practices. With social distancing and other restrictions in place, many of the most basic elements of “shepherding the flock” have taken on a drastically different look and feel.
Attempting to minister to families who have recently lost a loved one, for instance, has been incredibly challenging for pastors in the past few weeks. How can a pastor or church leader show that they care when they aren’t even allowed to visit the family, much less give a hug or even a handshake?
“I’ve been in touch with several pastors in recent weeks who really have been thrown out of their typical role and even out of their personal interactions with their staff,” said Hannaford. “So, they’re feeling somewhat fragmented. Certainly they’re feeling isolated and I’m sure that’s impacting their families as well. I don’t think we’ve really seen the medium-term or the long-term impact of this yet.”
Oldham said he has spoken with a large number of pastors and church leaders from across the state in recent weeks. He said some pastors have expressed anxiety and concerns about leading the church during their difficult time, and have also expressed concerns about their own families in terms of the potential of exposing them to the virus.
“There’s a lot of concern out there,” Oldham said. “A pastor is not immune from the same issues that everybody else deals with.”
One of the most prevalent ramifications of the pandemic has been the increase in the level of stress and worry across the nation.
For some, it has been an intense concern about catching the virus or seeing a loved one get sick. For others, the worry has revolved around not being able to provide for their family. In both instances, the fear is real.
“With all the changes that have taken place, a lot of people are being isolated from the resources,” said Evans. “And they’re having an even more difficult time getting access to things that are basic needs, such as electricity, food, things of that nature. … A lot of (families) are really struggling.”
In Tennessee — and across much of America — life has taken on a much slower pace in the past two months. Sports have stopped. Schools have closed. Restaurants are offering take-out only. Traffic is light, even during rush hour.
People have been, for the most part, staying home, which has generated an increase in quality time for families to spend together, but has also led to an increase in tension, Hannaford noted.
“When people aren’t used to staying together, then underlying issues (in a marriage and in a family) tend to surface; things that they’ve not dealt with for a long time,” he said. “So, we’re seeing a lot more marital issues, we’re seeing conflicts related to parenting increase just because the parents are being forced to deal with these conflicts.”
Hannaford noted the increase of stress among church members can amplify the amount of stress that a pastor is feeling.
“Many (churches) operate from a professional ministry model, which is to say that the pastor and the staff are responsible for all of the counseling,” he said. “So, the pastors are to be the equippers. The saints are to do the work of ministry. What that has created is a lot of burnout among pastors.”
And the pastor’s family is affected, too, he said.
“The pastor’s wife is often the silent, injured one,” he said, “and I think a lot of this is because she is ignored when the demands of the church become so great. So, I think this is a time when pastors would benefit from training members of their church, staff members who have the gift to disciple and to counsel people, to come in and work alongside them, to take some of the burden off.”
Webb said the implementation of social distancing has created mental hardships for pastors and church leaders, who desperately desire to support their members.
“How do you reach out to people?” he said. “How do you keep in contact with the people? How do you (minister to someone in) the hospital when they don’t allow any visitors? It’s very difficult.”
Evans, the wife of Springfield Baptist Church pastor and former TBMB evangelism specialist David Evans, sees and understands both sides of the situation. She noted that pastors aren’t “able to engage in the same way” as they’ve typically done in the past — in regard to funeral services and visitation and so forth — and that has forced both the pastors and the families to adjust.
“I think this season is really going to greatly impact those who are battling grief and working through grief because they’re not able to do the things they had (previously) learned to do to help them cope with their grief,” she said. “So, they’re going to have to learn a new way to do that now.”
So, where does that leave pastors and church leaders?
“Helping people know that they’re not alone in their grief — that’s where the church really can be a huge support,” she said, “because a lot of times when we’re battling grief, we tend to become more isolated. So, I think this is where pastors and church congregants can really come in … and do all they can to reach out and to send messages of love and support their way. We may not be able to physically come in contact as often as we like, but reaching out by phone, sending mail that they can open and letting them know that you’re thinking about them (is helpful), and then also finding a different way to celebrate.”
Evans says that principle applies to many different situations.
“Whether it’s losing a loved one or losing moments in time — such as a senior graduating from high school or college — it’s about finding a way to still celebrate those occasions or celebrate those lives that have touched us so much,” she said. “Doing that can be very helpful in the grieving process.”
Although pastors and staff members are usually experienced counselors, the pandemic has created some situations that go beyond the scope of “regular” counseling. In those instances, seeking outside help is the best bet, the panelists said.
“Becoming more aware of the resources that are available is the first step,” said Evans. “Finding out what mental health agencies are out there for your community and creating a list so that if a congregant does come to you or a pastor friend comes to you, you can say, hey, here are these resources.”
Evans noted that while most people feel relatively comfortable about talking to friends and family about their physical issues, they are far less open when they are hurting mentally. She said this is especially true for “people like pastors, who are in a position of leadership.”
“It’s very hard for them to be vulnerable and say, hey, I’m kind of struggling right now,” she said. “And so, we need to really encourage them to recognize when they, too, need a little bit of extra support and (we need to make) it okay for them to say, hey, I need help right now.”
Evans said the church, as well as communities at large, are often guilty of attaching a stigma to those who might be dealing with mental health issues. Breaking that cycle is a huge part of the solution, Evans said.
“Anything the church can do to educate people about mental wellness — and to give them access to resources — is really important,” she said.
SELF-CARE AND EXERCISE
In regard to good mental health, some of the most important practices are also some of the most simple, the panelists said. Diet and exercise, for example, are at the top of the list.
“I would say that a key component to being healthy mentally is to be healthy physically because we can’t really separate one sphere of our functioning from the other,” Hannaford said. “We know that if we feel good emotionally, we tend to feel better physically and so on and so forth.”
Pastors and church leaders can sometimes struggle with these things because of their schedules.
“For years, I was involved in the health screening at the Southern Baptist Convention for pastors,” said Hannaford. “And what we discovered was that 57 percent of all the pastors who we screened were at moderate to high risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Hannaford said those trends can be reversed, but only if pastors and church leaders make exercise a high priority in their lives.
“I think that you need to find some activity,” he said. “And I always encourage people to do that as a family or as a couple. I think that you begin to look at the food that you eat … and make small, moderate changes over a period of time.”
Webb agreed, saying that “going for a walk” is something that he commonly suggests to those he is counseling.
“Exercise — walking, running or whatever it may be — will help to reduce anxiety and depression,” he said.
Webb said an individual’s physical health can often be linked to his spiritual well-being. He noted that famed pastor Adrian Rogers, a three-time Southern Baptist Convention president, had a sermon in which he emphasized that “when we’re out of kilter in our happiness and out of kilter in our healthiness, then we get out of kilter in our holiness.”
Evans added that maintaining a healthy attitude is one element that cannot be undervalued, and that pastors and church leaders should “make sure that we communicate a message of hope.”
“No matter how dark the days get, there is hope,” she said. “You can be healthy, you can be happy.”