Here’s what laypersons need to know: Your ministers may look OK, but they are not. All ministers, even those who thrive on challenges, are by now exhausted, anxious, and at least intermittently depressed. Ministers need affirmation and affection right now, but what they mostly need from you is that you manage expectations.
Over the last twelve months, ministers have moved mountains—taking congregations from minimal technology to fully virtual in a matter of weeks—learning about Zoom, livestreaming, and video-editing—becoming experts on mask quality, air exchange, and disinfection—mastering how to worship outdoors on Christmas Eve when the wind chill is minus 2°—all while being pressured, disrespected or ignored by people who resist their efforts to keep themselves and their members safe.
There’s an entire subgenre of tweets, Facebook posts, and articles offering sympathy with and advice to ministers with Covid exhaustion. My colleague Larry Peers posted an excellent article about how ministers, caught up in their own efforts to power through the pandemic, need to find ways to free ourselves from “mindtraps” that come with trauma.
What Laypeople Can Do
Today’s article, however, is not for ministers. This is for laypeople—all of you who care about ministers, depend on ministers to guide you toward God, and want them to be there for you after the pandemic. The most important way you can help your minister is to manage expectations—yours and one another’s.
“Managing expectations” usually means that Party A prevents Party B’s future disappointment by establishing in advance what Party A can realistically achieve. The Biden White House, for example, has had to manage the country’s expectations for how many vaccinations could be delivered in its first 100 days so that we would feel reassured rather than frustrated as the new administration starts its work.
Manage Your Expectations
What I’m suggesting, though, is slightly different. I want Party A—you—to manage your own expectations for what Party B—your minister—can accomplish in the next few months. I want you to realize that, right now at least, your minister faces enormous pressure and needs a special kind of grace.
The expectation that your minister will be creative, for example, can easily get out of hand. Initially, ministers had to figure out how to do Sunday School on Zoom, then socially-distanced Vacation Bible School, then Advent in a bag, and then a drive-through Longest Night service, complete with socially-distanced communion. And they did it! Working with talented members, they produced amazing programs.
The result, though, is that now they’re expected to do a drive-through Imposition of Ashes, socially distanced Palm Sunday processions, and an outdoor Easter Vigil. Once again, they will deliver. You will truly be moved. But each burst of creativity carries with it too much stress to process effectively before the next burst is needed. Every step forward adds another layer of adrenaline-induced exhaustion, more fear that the pace can’t possibly be sustained, and more symptoms to be managed. There is no time to slow down, or trust God, or just to be.
Creativity is not the only issue. Decision-making has gotten harder, too. Data that the church has always relied on to gauge success—worship attendance, for example, or the number of children in Sunday School—don’t even exist anymore. Budget decisions take longer and feel riskier. Members who’ve known each other for years are suddenly ready to leave the church over disagreements they could previously have worked through.
Even personal relationships feel harder. Ministers with children are managing either the burden of online learning or the possibility of getting infected through in-person school. Ministers with older parents locked down at an assisted living facility are managing their loved ones’ sense of isolation and anxiety. Ministers who spend the day on Zoom may by now be out of shape physically and out of sorts with everyone with whom they share space.
Just for Today, Let’s Wait
Your ministers know that you are under stress, too. They want desperately to help, to heal, to offer wisdom, to bring grace. They have expectations for themselves that you cannot begin to imagine, and they routinely feel that they are letting you down.
So here’s what I suggest:
- Just for today, let’s realize we all are doing our best.
- Just for today, let’s not curse each other—not to our friends or to ourselves or even to our cats.
- Just for today, let’s let go of our disagreements and embrace compromise.
- Let’s send flowers and say thank you.
- Let’s pray.
Just for today, let’s wait. Let’s wait to complain. Let’s wait before we send an impatient email. Let’s wait before expecting the next item on our list. Let’s wait in order to make space for breath and life and the movement of the Spirit. Let’s wait before expecting that we and our ministers always will work harder and go faster and be even more creative—wait for God to act, or for the pendulum of history to swing, or simply for the next snowflake to fall. Let’s slow down, find grace, and wait before expecting one more thing. There will be a better time.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.