Pastors, church leaders dealing with tough decisions, high stress levels during pandemic
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Though a large number of Christians may feel their pastors and ministers have easy jobs (after all they only have to work on Sunday and Wednesdays, right?), research findings indicate the opposite is true.
In 2015 LifeWay Research revealed some of the stress pastors face:
- 84 percent say they’re on call 24 hours a day.
- 80 percent expect conflict in their church.
- 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.
- 53 percent are often concerned about their family’s financial security.
- 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.
- 21 percent say their church has unrealistic expectations of them.
And, that was five years before a pandemic that has turned the world upside down.
“Pastors and their families have been under increased stress since the beginning of the pandemic — as have all families,” observed Steve Holt, church services director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“However, in the last few months there has been an increase in the number of ministry families that have been infected by the virus. I am hearing from pastors every week who have either had the virus themselves, had at least one immediate family member who has been infected, or has had a staff member who has been infected” Holt said.
According to data collected from Baptist associations in Tennessee, 895 pastors, staff and their family members have been infected by COVID-19 with 41 deaths among that group. “I’m sure there have been more infections from the virus, but these are the numbers we received,” Holt said.
Added to this fact is the reality that almost every church has had members who have been infected now, Holt continued.
“Many have had church members who have died with the virus. Limited contact with church members due to the pandemic is another stressor for pastors as well,” he added.
Holt noted that “pressure” is the key word to describe what pastors have been feeling during the last few months.
The pressure of trying to navigate when to meet in person or virtually, how to gather safely, mask or no mask, etc. has made it difficult to lead, love, disciple, and mobilize congregations for the gospel.
“No decisions seem to be unanimously accepted and the particular passions of church members regarding these issues can be the source of conflict and pain,” he said.
A clinical therapist’s view
Tony Rankin, a clinical therapist and minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church, Nashville, observed that “pastors have become the easy target for persons that expect the church to open up during the pandemic while the rest of the congregation expresses their displeasure with not staying socially isolated and masked up. The pastor is incapable of pleasing everybody.”
Rankin added that most pastors “are driven by the need to meet the needs of the congregation, but the pandemic has created emotional struggles that the majority of pastors are not trained to address. This results in ministerial frustration or poor insights in addressing the mental health needs of those who are vulnerable enough to ask for help,” he said.
“Pastors excel with ‘amens,’ people in the pews, compliments following a good sermon, increased giving, successful outreach activities, personal presence in the hospitals and at funeral homes and looking at known ministry horizons. The pandemic has robbed them of what they thrive on, look forward to and use to measure their effectiveness and security,” he continued.
The pandemic has provided at least one benefit for pastors, Rankin opined. “The pastor will benefit from using the strange days of isolation, decreased time of in-person worship and meetings, and a break in the action to assess what the ministry needs really are in the community, what new approaches should be used and what emotional, familial and relational needs could be addressed in order to know each other’s stories.”
Ministers are ‘worn out’
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB, observed that “pastors and ministry leaders are worn out.”
“They are tired. The political landscape that has been so divisive, the culture that has been so angry has spilled over into the churches instead of the church spilling over into the culture.
“There are pastors and congregations still having discussions and arguments over masks or no masks or shutting down or not shutting down,” he noted.
Phil Mitchell, director of missions for Weakley County Baptist Association, based in Dresden, agreed that COVID has added to the stress levels of ministers. And, he continued, some churches believe masks are needed and others do not.
“I can go into a church one week and everyone is wearing masks. The next week I can go to another church and no one is wearing masks,” he said.
When members of the same church have strong feelings on both sides of the issue, that is especially stressful, the DOM said.
Another stressor for many Weakley County pastors has been that they are unable to make hospital, nursing home or even home visits. “Not being able to visit is especially stressful for some pastors because that is what they do,” he observed. “I know that when I was a pastor, not being able to visit would have driven me crazy. I loved to visit my folks.”
Despite the obstacles, Mitchell is proud of the fact that the association’s pastors “have made the best of it.” They know they are limited in what they can do and they have to be cautious, but they are finding ways to minister to their members, he added.
Mark Puckett, director of missions for Duck River Baptist Association, based in Tullahoma, said his pastors are facing similar experiences. “We have had at least one pastor who has dealt with threats of members to leave the church regarding decisions they made related to the COVID crisis. That is obviously stressful on a pastor,” he said.
Puckett noted that pastors are struggling over decisions to cancel services or to continue to meet as COVID numbers rise across the state. “No matter which side of the issue they take, there will be people unhappy with them.”
Despite the added stress, however, God has continued to work in His churches and through His people,” leaders agreed.
“Thankfully, in the midst of it all, God continues to bless His church in phenomenal ways,” Holt said.
“I have heard multiple reports of people being saved, record offerings and prayers answered. We are people of faith, hope and anticipation. Romans 8:37 says ‘we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.’ I am grateful to be a part of a faith family that can have that kind of promise in a world full of chaos,” Holt said.
Davis agreed. “Tennessee pastors are my heroes. They have done an incredible work under the strength of the Lord,” he affirmed.