Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Clergy after a Year of Pandemic Adaptation: Innovation, Creativity, and Burn Out

By Allison Norton, PhD

A photograph of the Pastoral Innovation Network

In August 2019, Hartford Seminary launched the Pastoral Innovation Network, a two-year cohort of 20 Mainline clergy across New England. The primary purpose was to gather the most innovative, early-career clergy in New England and provide them with the cross-denominational space and mentorship to create a network of energized creativity that will further enhance their efforts to innovate no matter what the challenge or context. About 7 months into the program, things shifted dramatically as these church leaders grappled with a huge challenge: the immediate, yet durable, changes brought about as they adapted all-things-church to the realities of Covid-19. In March 2021, a year into the pandemic, I interviewed each of the pastors to get a sense of how they were processing and making sense of the last year – focusing on how they had adapted and responded to Covid-19 and how they were negotiating their professional and personal challenges in ministry. 

Several insights emerged related to the pandemic-related transitional moment. First, many approached the forced changes wrought by the pandemic as an opportunity to think about ministry in new ways, and to adapt quickly. As one pastor noted, “As much as I didn’t want disruption, for the most part, I have framed this season as an opportunity, mentally: An opportunity to test out things we needed to be doing all along.” Another started off his interview with the statement, “I feel like, as a church, we have won the pandemic.” This opportunity mentality was evident in ways they embraced quick change around internet technologies and virtual church. Many of the smaller New England congregations started live streaming their services for the first time. Small groups and committees shifted to meeting via Zoom. Virtual Christmas pageants and Christmas Eve productions moved online for the first time. Overall, these churches moved primarily online in historic ways. “We definitely upped our technology game, out of necessity,” one pastor stated, and another affirmed, “In a certain way the virtual experience gave the church a new sense of what [it] means to be the church in this century, in this fluid perspective.” It was also evident in the speed with which they responded. As one minister reflected, “As a church, we got everything done much faster than ever – due to [the] pandemic. Not time to talk about it, had to just do it.” The sentiment that religious leaders have been willing, able, and excited about innovation during pandemic-induced change is also demonstrated in the work of those who study religion and digital culture. In this transition period, as many congregations are beginning to meet face-to-face, pastors continue to wrestle with questions around the resources and support needed to have a strong online presence alongside face-to-face community.  

Second, the program participants have noted opportunities for increased collaboration and lay leadership responsibility as they have faced this period of transition. Many have seen folks on the margins of their congregations rise to meet the moment, as those with expertise in technology or the health professions have shared their gifts as congregations have shifted toward virtual spaces and made decisions about how and when to return to in-person gatherings. As one pastor observed, “We have put a ton of collaborative energy into worship. We are collaborating in ways we didn’t, especially among the staff team…we almost were forced to go to the next level with that.” She also discussed new opportunities for collaborative preaching, as she partnered with two colleagues from other denominations to have a weekly rotation of pre-recorded sermons shared with all three of their congregations. This allowed her to have the time and effort to focus her energy on the new demands required by the pandemic changes. Also, new opportunities for volunteering have emerged as churches have rapidly shifted online and into digital spaces. At one church, a single family had stepped up to run all of the sound and technology for the past year, leading the pastor to comment on the “massive amount of energy and care” demonstrated by lay leaders.

Additionally, half of the PINNE pastors noted the importance of relying on lay leaders to provide community, connection and care during the pandemic: “We divided the congregation amongst spiritually mature individuals, [and said] if you hear anything bad let us know. These are your people now; you are in charge.” Instead of trying to do it all on their own, the pastors in this group often sought to bring members into new, meaningful roles that allowed them to engage in ministry in creative ways. As one minister noted, in the early days she was personally calling every member of the church to check in and see how they were doing. She quickly realized it would take her 3 months to get through the list. As such, she shifted to a collaborative, lay-driven approach, organizing church members within groups that allowed them to “stay in touch a lot better” than if she was doing it alone. Clergy were proud of church members who have “shown up” during the past year, leaning into their faith and the church as a place of strength and motivation, while committing time and energy to doing church in new ways.  

Third, as the pandemic months dragged on, pastors faced exhaustion and burnout. Many were simply tired, others were burnt out to the stage they were considering alternative careers. One of the PINNE ministers who abruptly shifted from an associate to interim pastor role when his church’s lead pastor was forced to resign captured this feeling well: “I feel myself in recovery in a lot of ways from the layers of trauma…the trauma of the betrayal of our pastor, overworking for months in the wake of that, Covid, and racial injustice.” For some, feelings of burnout were anticipated: “When I graduated from seminary, a senior level professor said ‘Five years out from ordination you will feel like you are in a spiritual wasteland.’ I thought that was silly. But it is true, around the 4-5 year mark it really does feel like ‘What am I doing anymore, people are awful, my job is not what I thought it would be.’” Another demonstrated the fatigue that emerges after a full year of innovation in response to the pandemic: “This right now, feels like more work than it did last March [2020]. Last March, people had more grace. At the beginning, they were grateful for anything you could do. Now they are saying ‘Why aren’t you continuing to up the game?’” These pastors have also had to deal with church members leaving due to conflict related to the congregations’ plans for re-opening; many felt caught in the middle between strongly conflicting statements, as some members pushed for opportunities to meet in-person while others strongly resisted. Many expressed their concerns of not having any break or vacation time over the past year, yet overall, in spite of the exhaustion and fatigue, expressed their appreciation for the “good work going on” in their churches.  

As we have observed in these New England pastors’ reflections and stories, congregations have changed and continue to change in response to the pandemic. Their leaders have responded with creativity, in ways that have often brought increased collaboration across denominational spaces and enhanced reliance on members old and new to “do church,” create spaces of belonging, and build community in new ways. Going into the next year, these pastors require spaces where they have permission to be creative and permission to prioritize self-care. They will need continued support, bridges and networks across denominations, and even ample vacation time and opportunities for enhancing their mental and physical health as they continue to face questions regarding what a post-pandemic church should look like.