Pastoral appreciation in COVID-19 times
Rev. Jerrod Hugenot
October 6, 2020
October is designated as “Pastor Appreciation Month,” encouraging congregations to take a moment to offer thanks to their pastors. For many ministers, it is an annual opportunity to receive a good word or a small gift that signifies the faithful service of a pastor to the congregation. Or, in the case of non-pulpit clergy, they are recognized for the work they do in the community with various institutional settings or non-profits.
(One year for Pastor Appreciation Month, a church offered a cake with my photo on it. At first, the sight was a bit disconcerting, but admittedly, I was delicious.)
A healthy congregation/pastor relationship lends itself quite easily to expressions of thanks. A good season of ministry can be an affirming time for all parties year-round. Offering an annual word of thanks for faithful service and pastoral presence is hopefully part of an ongoing relationship where thanks is given and offered back between pastor and people.
Yet, in the reality of some congregations, the minister can be a complicated figure in the minds of congregants, who may assess clergy by many standards more unwritten than written. Sometimes, pastors share with me feeling thanked sparingly and more often receiving what feels like “a poke with a sharp stick,” a term for those times when a pastor feels at their wit’s end or at a mountaintop moment in their vocational life and gets nothing but crickets or grief from congregations or lay leaders.
In 2020, we enter October with a particularly challenging year with COVID-19 forcing congregants and church leaders to deal with complications and disruptions in abundance. This year, Lent turned into a long season that some jokingly wonder is still going on, yearning for a happy resolution that lingers achingly out of reach.
Churches have shifted worship habits, giving, and church meetings and programming to online platforms, all with their strange newness for many. Other pastors have weathered conflict and grief in the debate about how to resume some form of in-person worship, where the best practices given by the federal and state authorities are just as politicized in local churches as they are at the school board meetings, governmental and public health press conferences, and any other place where people are accustomed to going and gathering.
Frankly, by now, pastors are beat. Just like their congregants, they have dealt with many challenges. They too have kids and youth at home, now in their second semester of “virtual” or “hybrid” learning underway in many states. Many pastors worry about present and future employment issues. Community needs are increased, with food pantries being accessed by greater numbers of people. The challenges of the pandemic, and the political and social issues driving and dividing our country, make for a volatile context for pastors serving in churches everywhere.
Celebrating may seem an odd practice in times where there is much to lament and navigate. I am hopeful congregants will consider offering a word of thanks to their pastors this month. Gratitude and acknowledgment for ministry may be infrequently expressed, but certainly, for your pastor, it will be gratefully received—especially right now.
In the midst of this grief and uncertainty, expectations and disappointments in a clergy person can be processed in the minds of congregants with opinions going unspoken at best and passive-aggressively acted out at worst. And, yes, clergy can be poor stewards of their own emotions and choices, deepening conflict and becoming enmeshed in unhealthy systems to the point they lose their ability to keep things in perspective.
Further, pastors and their families live in the “stained glass fishbowl” as a one-time denominational resource called it.[i] The life of a clergy family can be hard as late nights give way to early morning meetings. Scheduled time off gets left aside and never reclaimed. And there are often hard to process stressors that linger in one’s mind (and are often accompanied with some lower back pain, in my experience). More than a few pastors find themselves burned out, if not departing local church ministry and other fields of pastoral work, within the first five years of ministerial service.
Clergy are strongly encouraged to work on these matters, particularly with regard to the quite reasonable, yet often hard to follow Code of Ethics of a given denomination.[ii] Many judicatories, including ABCUSA Regions, offer courses in professional boundaries, clergy ethics, and continuing education for pastors wishing to refresh their well or realign their wearied selves with new learning. A recent Judson Press title Health, Holiness and Wholeness for Ministry Leaders offers “practical wisdom for developing healthy patterns of behavior in all areas of personal and vocational life.”[iii] Pastors also find help through collegiality groups, coaching, spiritual direction, or with a therapist or pastoral counselor. Yet for all this effort to help provide lifelines for clergy, the greatest contributor to this effort is the clergy person themselves when they choose to find such nourishing and clarifying resources and utilize them intentionally.
I suggest churches take this month of October to plan some way to say “thank you” to their pastors. Offer some grace (if you have not done so already), as ministers have become inadvertent video/social media producers. Clergy have learned under duress about e-giving and managing Zoom and Facebook Live feeds. And after this week’s latest tech complication, they must have the organic bandwidth to be present to the worries and fears, spoken and unspoken, of the congregants coming each week to the virtual or physical space of worship, looking for a word that redeems, heals and imparts God’s abundant grace in a time of scarcity and uncertainty.
A pastoral mentor told me years ago that ministry often happens in the interruptions. I would agree with this wisdom, however, I would add that pastoral work also happens in the disruptions, in the times when ministry feels more like one is astride tectonic plates shifting with no rhyme or reason. Interruptions are one thing. Those are daily. This time, we’re in the midst of a lingering disruption that really humbles our sense of self, society and yes, even faith.
Celebrating may seem an odd practice in times when there is much to lament and navigate. I am hopeful congregants will consider offering a word of thanks this month. Gratitude and acknowledgment for ministry may be infrequently expressed, but certainly, for your pastor, it will be gratefully received—especially right now.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
[i] Hunt, Harley D. The Stained Glass Fishbowl: Strengthening Clergy Marriages. (Valley Forge, PA: Ministers Council, 1990).
[ii] The ABC Ministers Council offers a very helpful Code of Ethics for pastors and congregations. While under revision at present, the current document can be accessed via: http://ministerscouncil.com/resources/covenant/covenant_english.pdf. I strongly recommend any lay leader in the church be referred to it as well as any pastor. It helps set the right balance and tone for what can be reasonably expected in the practice of ministry.
[iii] Matthew, John R. with Kristina R. Gutierrez and Ross D. Peterson. Health, Holiness and Wholeness for Ministry Leaders. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2020).