Losing Focus

I’ve been more busy over the past month than I can remember.

I’m not complaining about this, it’s the nature of the calling. Pastoring falls under the moniker of “helping profession” and, while most of us aren’t on the front lines of fighting the CoVid-19 pandemic, we’re functioning in support roles 1. Our work has expanded as we try to serve our communities, both church and neighborhood, in an effort to keep us connected. Everything we do has to be mapped out with even more deliberation than is typical, because forgetfulness in this season means people will be forgotten–and that’s unacceptable.

But after a month of this I’m starting to feel the weight of this new reality. And, more important to me, I’m beginning to see it weigh on other pastors as well. For a few, this sudden heaviness has taken them by surprise–collapsing on them as this new week arose. I was wondering why I’ve seen this sudden weariness in pastors, who up to this point have been doing a great deal of energetic and creative ministry. And then it dawned on me.

Sunday was Easter.

Up to this point pastors have been able to frame this strange reality into chunks which helped orient them and keep them “productive 2.” First, many had to take a week or two to figure out a way to do worship online. Then came the theological problem whether we should be doing Communion while we couldn’t be together in the same space–which extended our adjustment period 3 to the first week in April. And that Sunday also happened to be Palm Sunday, which is the beginning of Holy Week–which afforded pastors a whole slate of targets by which we could keep our orientation. Building community, preparing services for a new and unfolding universe, and looking forward to make something of the highest day on even most low church calendars gave pastors something for which to aim.

And now the target is gone.

So the untethered feelings our congregants and neighbors have felt with growing uncertainty, which we pastors have kept at bey these past few weeks, have now come calling. They’ve crashed on us like a wave. We’ve lost our bearing, and that’s left a good number of pastors feeling listless.

So why bring this up at all? For two reasons.

First, I’m writing for pastors because a good number of us may have begun to feel as though we’re losing our minds. Last week we may have felt stressed, but remained focused and functional. This week, not so much. This is normal, but it may put us in what feels like an uncomfortable space. All the counseling we’ve ever done for people who are grieving a loss now needs to be applied to us. Even if we aren’t the types of pastors who try to fix everyone 4, we all feel the call to be a presence of Jesus for others. And when we are faced with times of grief and sorrow as pastors, such as when a beloved congregant dies, we’re able to find a bearing so we can orient ourselves and move forward. We meet with the family, we plan a service, we share the hope of our faith. It’s only after we pass our markers that we find our own time to grieve. We do this often in quiet, and too often alone, as we seek to reorient our calling in the new world we didn’t want and don’t preach about 5. Usually we’re able to find new bearings in a week or so and begin sailing again. It’s what we do. That’s the call.

But this is different. The grief is all around us, and our bearings are lost. We’ve got no target by which we can reorient, next Sunday the pews are going to still be empty and the abnormality of it all is going to sting. We may feel like we’re adrift, listless, but the truth is different. We’re sailing into uncharted waters. Feel that. Don’t push through, and don’t try to feel “productive 6.” Allow yourself the time for your whole being to become reoriented to this new world we didn’t want. New bearings will appear. Pentecost is on the horizon, after all. It’s OK.

Second, I want to write to church folk. You may be ecstatic with all your pastors have done to keep your congregations connected during this crisis. You may be grateful for phone calls, impressed by the care they’ve shown to the community, touched by letters they’ve sent you, and proud of how your church has picked up new tools during this crisis. And, please understand, I’m happy church folk are happy.

But I also want folks to know the comfort you’ve been shown has come at a cost. Your pastors delayed feeling the complex emotions of this season so that you would be able to do so while holding someone’s figurative hand. And now, for a little while, that hand you’re used to holding may not have the same energy, or provide the same dynamic presence, with which you’ve become accustomed.

This doesn’t mean your pastor has developed a case of laziness 7, nor does it mean they don’t care. All it means is they’re tired, and need time to recharge. Let them have that time. In fact, insist they have that time 8. For a couple of weeks the calls might not be as frequent, the meditations may not be as polished, and the Zoom Bible Study might feel wooden 9. Be gentle with your pastors who are going through this time, maybe even hold their hand for a while as they get their new bearing. At present, there are a good many pastors who need their congregations to care for them. Please be the type of congregation who answers that call 10.

We will all get through this, even though we have no idea what things will look like on the other side. What we do know is the mystery of our faith. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” And when we become reoriented for this new world nobody wanted, may we remember that mystery is our true course. That is the calling of Easter.

  1. The pastors who aren’t being stupid and making things worse by packing their churches are in support roles, anyway. 
  2. For the record, I can’t stand that word. 
  3. For low church schlubs like me, that is. 
  4. I think that’s unhealthy, just for the record. 
  5. To this day there are people whose images I find difficult to see. The loss is deep, even though I worship with these dear ones every Sunday. 
  6. Stupid, unhelpful, word. 
  7. Though there are lazy pastors out there who are treating this like an extended vacation. I don’t get the mind-set. 
  8. At present I’m missing my second scheduled week of vacation. You’d better believe I’m taking it once our social distancing restrictions are lifted. 
  9. I don’t get the whole “Zoom Bible Study” phenomenon, myself, but people seem to be pleased with it. 
  10. And while we’re at it, please remember that pastors are not really the front lines of this struggle–health care professionals and first responders are going to have collective PTSD by the time this is all over. We’re going to all have to do something to help them process. 

One Comment

  1. Eric Hoheisel says:

    Thanks Wes. Your insights are always helpful and you are often able to articulate what others are feeling but can’t find the words to say. May the grace and the space you are wishing for all of us be yours today… and for as long as you need it.

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