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Josh Jones leads the youth group of the University Church of Christ in Denver through a virtual session of Abilene Christian University’s leadership camp.
Photo by Bailey Douglas

Ministers struggle under weight of pandemic stress

Some church leaders are looking for a way out as the COVID-19 crisis takes a spiritual and emotional toll.

Many ministers are stressed and exhausted.

The profession may be divine, but it takes a toll.

“It’s all consuming,” said Celeste Smith, a licensed marriage and family therapist in East Texas.

That’s not just her professional opinion. It’s personal. Her husband, Steven, serves as the youth minister for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas.

Celeste Smith playfully reacts as her minister husband, Steven, makes yet another video for their congregation in their hot, humid backyard in East Texas.

Celeste Smith playfully reacts as her minister husband, Steven, makes yet another video for their congregation in their hot, humid backyard in East Texas.

“COVID has revealed, to some degree, issues within the church,” she said. “We already have overworked ministers. This pandemic has magnified that.”

Tracy Moore agrees.

“It’s all weighed heavily on me,” said Moore, preaching minister for the Vero Beach Church of Christ in Florida. “I’ve become severely depressed. I have felt every member’s pain deeper than in times past, like I was carrying it with me everywhere.”

He’s not a crier, but Moore said he has wept more for people during 2020 than ever before. Recognizing the stress, his eldership is giving him a month-long sabbatical to finish the year. 

Moore is not alone in his weariness.

Josh Jones

Josh Jones

Josh Jones, youth minister for University Church of Christ in Denver, said the early days of the pandemic were stressful because the congregation had to pivot so quickly.

“Everyone was on board the first few weeks,” said Jones, who has served the University church for 16 years. “It was different and weird, but everyone wanted to make it work. Now, six months later, I’m happy if I can get seven kids on a Zoom call.”

Jones said teens are tired of being online but aren’t engaging in person either. 

“It’s difficult to figure out what will get people back,” he said, admitting he’s drained.

Overworked and underappreciated 

On top of preparing a Sunday youth class for online and in-person attendees, Jones goes to the church building early to get it COVID-ready, wiping things down and putting up cautionary signage. 

He shoulders most of the technical work to get worship online. And he feels unappreciated.

“Youth ministers are getting forgotten in a lot of this,” Jones said. “Preachers and elders are getting a lot of thanks and appreciation, and youth ministers aren’t getting that.”

Adding to the stress, Jones attends church alone without his family. Pre-pandemic, the University church’s attendance ranged from 250 to 300. Now, gatherings are limited to 50. Because of restrictions, the Jones family hasn’t returned to church since it reopened in June.

Their experience is not uncommon. Many ministerial families aren’t worshiping together; some aren’t even living together. 

Summer Lashley

Summer Lashley

Summer Lashley, a licensed professional counselor and mom of two teenagers, is also a minister’s wife. Her husband, Andy, serves as involvement and communications minister for the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. 

For five weeks, Lashley and her kids quarantined away from Andy because, as the minister on call, he wasn’t able to socially distance himself from members of his church and community. 

“We sacrificed seeing him for that long so he could meet the needs of church members,” she said, adding that she will never take her kids away from their father in the name of ministry again. “It was just the best we could do at that time.”

Back in Texas, Celeste Smith also attends church alone.

From the outset, the pandemic increased Steven’s workload. He was always on his computer or shooting videos in his backyard. The couple’s oldest daughter, Lily, 19, shouldered the burden of watching three younger siblings. 

“I’ve got a lot of mom guilt,” Smith said. “She shouldn’t have to watch our kids. That became a huge burden, and we eventually got to a place where one of us just had to quit our job.”

Walking away from ministry

Mike Cope, director of ministry outreach for Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., has heard from a lot of church leaders who intend to leave ministry. He said ministers are experiencing a dramatic drop in their sense of well-being.

The Smiths get it. 

“For us, ministry became such a place of mental and emotional stress,” Celeste said. “My job isn’t like that. I can close my computer and come home. Very rarely do I stress about my clients like we stress about ministry.”

If one of them had to quit, it was going to be Steven, who’s worked in youth ministry for 19 years. Steven recently announced to the congregation that he will be stepping down as of Dec. 31.

“We felt if we didn’t walk away, we’d lose our love for the church,” said Celeste, who is also a certified eating disorder specialist.

The majority of ministers who spoke with The Christian Chronicle aren’t quitting, but all of them agreed they can’t win right now.

“Twenty percent of people with a disorder will lose their life to it,” she added. “The fact that my work is less stressful than ministry is pretty telling.”

The majority of ministers who spoke with The Christian Chronicle aren’t quitting, but all of them agreed they can’t win right now.

“The biggest struggle is trying to work with families that are across the board on the big issues,” said Jones, whose youth group attendance dropped from 48 students to seven during the pandemic. “We have some families that think the restrictions are silly, and we shouldn’t do them. Others think there is no way the restrictions are enough. So they don’t come.”

For youth ministers, planning events where everyone is comfortable is hard.  

Celeste Smith agrees: “Understand that your ministers are trying their very best to take care of you and love you. Nothing we pick is going to be perfect, but if you can account for people’s motivations, how can you be mad at someone who is trying to love you?”

Out and about — but missing church

Danny Dodd, preaching minister for the Levy Church of Christ in North Little Rock, Ark., is less frustrated with restrictions but mourns the loss of personal connections and in-person fellowship.

Since moving back inside the church building, “we require masks, social distancing and individual communion,” Dodd said. “But only about half of the church has returned. Many remain afraid, and some are high risk, but those who I see out and about — posting about their activities on social media yet not back at church — hurt my heart.”

When trying to encourage ministers — like Jones and Dodd — Cope says people respond with, “Everyone has it hard right now.” 

Mike Cope

Mike Cope

“And that’s true,” said Cope, who ministered for decades for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. “If I were in charge of teachers, I’d apply this to them. Ministers don’t have it more difficult. But it is hard to lead in people’s spiritual lives, because it hits so close to the bone.”

So close to the bone, in fact, that the Smiths concluded that once Steven finishes his last day at Glenwood, they will need intense space from the church. 

“A lot of wise people think we shouldn’t do that, but I don’t know how we can heal if we stay,” Celeste Smith said. Her husband was struggling in his ministry role before 2020, but the pandemic finally pushed him over the edge.

Get outside, spend time with God

Cope shared five reasons he believes ministers like Steven are quitting: They are weary, cut off from nurturing relationships, refereeing a political war, grieving over lost members and worried about church finances. 

But, Cope said, ministers can push back against these issues.

First, they need to focus on contemplative spirituality, re-anchor in nurturing relationships and work on emotional security and self-care.

Stress and exhaustion are not unique among Church of Christ leaders — it’s across the board, said Cope, who is part of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, a group of 30 caregivers who assess and improve the health and well-being of ministers.

Randy Harris

Randy Harris

More than ever, ministers need to take charge and live a life centered on God, Cope said.  He and Randy Harris, senior consultant and university fellow with the Siburt Institute at Abilene Christian University, have hosted countless Zoom meetings to support other ministers. 

“Randy says, ‘I know you are so busy, but you’ve got to trust me that for at least 10 minutes a day, you need to sit and dwell in the presence of God,’” Cope said. “He’s telling that to people who already know that, but they forget. Ministers nod and tear up at this reminder.”

After spending time with God, ministers need to carve out time for self care: rest, take days off, spend time with family, eat in a way that fuels the body, pause and breathe deeply and get outside for a walk. And when it’s impossible to get outside, Cope said research proves even looking out a window or at a picture of a nature scene reduces anxiety and blood pressure. 

‘Cut them some slack’

Self-care alone won’t erase stress. More than ever, church leaders need support from church members.

“I would love to see the church take some ownership, be compassionate, pray for ministers. I beg people to cut them some slack,” Cope said. “Ministers didn’t get into this work to undermine people. They did it for the sake of the Gospel.”

“I would love to see the church take some ownership, be compassionate, pray for ministers. I beg people to cut them some slack.”

The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian research and consulting firm, published data from summer 2020 showing that 15 percent of leaders are lonely and do not have anyone to unload on. 

And that’s dangerous.

That’s why Cope’s work — the Harbor Bible Lectures at Pepperdine University — will shift its focus in 2021.

“We are changing the purpose of Harbor to focus solely on minister recovery, refreshment and restoration. I’d love to have therapists available as well. And worship will be fun for ministers because they won’t have to be in charge of it,” he said. Harbor is tentatively set for May 26-28, 2021. Registration opens Feb. 1, with only 400 spots available. 

Cope hopes Harbor can combat predictions of a large minister exodus in the coming five years. 

“If I told you the full details, you’d be shocked,” Cope said. “I’ve got name after name of people looking for a way to step out. What messages are we saying to future men and women who are thinking about going into ministry?”

What can elders and ministers do?

“Alerting people to this anxiety and stress is good,” Cope said. “Let’s courageously call on the church to be more supportive.”

Elders and members can make a difference, he said.

First, they can pray for their ministers daily. They should encourage them to take time off to be with family, offer a short or long-term sabbatical and consider sending ministers to an event such as Harbor weekend.

He encourages members to drop a note in the mail or find small ways to lighten their minister’s load. 

“When a minister gets a well-thought-out note, that goes a long way,” Cope said. “It still won’t be easy, but at least they know they aren’t in this alone.”

Filed under: Church of Christ Coronavirus COVID-19 covid19 minister stress ministers National News pandemic Top Stories

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