How do you pastor in a pandemic when the usual anxieties of your church are amplified by an ever-changing response to a national crisis? As many leaders have quipped online and lamented over phone calls and texts, there was no pastoring in a pandemic course in seminary.
Yet, that is not the end of the story. You do have the resources you need to draw on from your own experiences in life and even from your seminary days. It is just you have probably forgotten what those resources are at this moment as you are hit with the anxieties of countless people in your care, your own family, and your own inner worries. It’s tough being a pastor at any time, but right now it may feel nearly impossible.
Now is the time, then, to remember or learn anew how to lead and calm yourself to be able to have the steady inner resilience you need to lead your people.
Don’t Try to Manage the Anxiety Around You
Texts, phone calls, and e-mails come in from people in your parish who pour out their worries, fears, and concerns. Meanwhile, other members of your church vocally dismiss the current crisis as overreacting. Your lay leadership challenges you on the recommendations you give about what to do about worship and gatherings. At home, your family has their own worries. You visit social media and are bombarded with the stream of conscious opinions of hundreds or even thousands of people.
Stop. Take a deep breath. This is not yours to manage.
The first thing to do in a crisis is to remember and internalize that you cannot manage the anxiety of another person, let alone a group. It is tempting to immediately start trying to manage other people’s feelings in a crisis by redirecting them, telling them what to do, or even beginning to match their anxiety level in tone. Watch out if you start responding to their worries by responding back with your own.
You cannot control the anxiety of the church you are called to pastor. This is the time to gently face that truth, accept it, and give it back to God.
Manage the Anxiety Within You
You can be a calm, non-anxious presence and lead by example through the careful attention to your own inner state of being. This will become a daily habit for you during this time in which a day of news feels like an entire month or more packed into one 24-hour news cycle. Leading yourself is something that you have probably learned before from a pastoral care course or from being in ministry. Now is the time to renew that knowledge and let it become wisdom by putting it into action.
The path to managing your own anxiety can start by recognizing and letting go of the fact that you cannot control what is going on around you and worrying about all of it is giving you an illusion of control that is actually hurting your mental wellness.
Then, spend some time gently evaluating how and what you have been doing since this crisis started. Talk this out with a trusted friend, journal, chat with a therapist online, whatever works for your personality type, reflect on your recent pastoral work. Have you been responding to the chaos by over-functioning? Are you tempted to appear heroic? Have been matching the tone of anxiety in your messages and conversations with your church?
However you have been responding, give yourself grace and forgiveness. Tell yourself you have been doing your best. Because managing your own inner turmoil can be done effectively by changing your self-talk. If you have been ruminating on worries, find yourself scrolling endlessly through social media, have the news going in the background, stop. Replace those habits with simple, reassuring statement to calm your soul, as the Psalmist points us to in Psalm 131:2. Talk back to your own fears and change your inner landscape to a more peaceful place that you can lead out of.
Now is the time to be careful and kind with yourself and seek out the things that help you feel calm. Pray for God’s peace that surpasses all understanding and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in learning and remembering how to lead yourself. You can be the non-anxious presence that doesn’t react to or try to control the chaos going on.
Nurturing and maintaining your inner calm will help you to care for and sustain yourself as you lead from a place of God’s peace. Because, Pastor, the beautiful truth is, you as a Christian are part of God’s plan for peace for the world.
Photo by Alice Castro