Question of the Week: Are pastors up for the challenges of shepherding an anxious and scattered flock?

No matter what great plans your church had for 2020, chances are they didn’t include much of what’s been on your to-do list for the past three months. Who could have imagined churches across the country closing their doors to in-person worship and ministry? How many times have you faced anger from those who object to safety measures taken or reassured those who are fearful about their safety? How often have you struggled with knowing how to nurture a spiritually vibrant community—virtually? How often have you addressed new needs or had to change how you meet them?

If you feel overwhelmed, ill-equipped, or exhausted from navigating your role in shepherding the church during COVID-19, you are not alone. The isolation of social distancing, disruptions of working from home while educating children at home, financial pressure and anxiety of losing one’s job, and concerns about COVID-19 illness for family and friends have had an impact on everyone’s spiritual and psychological well-being. In fact, in the COVID-19 environment, anxiety and depression have become significantly more prevalent than normal, as are behaviors of alcohol and domestic abuse.

The National Center for Health StatisticsHousehold Pulse Survey indicates increases in both anxiety and depression symptoms in adults over age 18:

  • current anxiety 29.4% vs. 8.2% in 2019;
  • current depressive disorder 24.9% vs. 6.6% in 2019;
  • current anxiety or depressive disorder 34.3% vs. 11% in 2019.

In this environment, pastors are under pressure to minister God’s mercy and grace to a scattered and stressed flock. While most remain optimistic about their spiritual and emotional well-being, only 21% describe their spiritual well-being today as “excellent” compared with 37% in 2016. Pastoral mental and emotional health has taken a hit, too, with 17% describing their current state as “excellent” compared with 39% in 2016. Overall, the majority of pastors (64%) feel “somewhat equipped” to help people deal with their present mental and emotional burdens, but only one in 10 (30%) say they feel “very well equipped” to do so.

Compounding the challenge, many church attendees are not maintaining close contact with their church. While nearly all churches (96%) report streaming worship services, nearly half (48%) of adults who have attended church during the past six months have not streamed an online service during the past month. Even among Christians who normally attend church at least monthly, nearly one-third (32%) have not streamed a service during this time. Furthermore, only 30% of practicing Christians say they have had contact with their church leader during the past month.

Where does a pastor start in reconnecting the flock? The starting point is the same as it is in any ministry or leadership role in God’s kingdom: Humbly seek to strengthen one’s own connection with God.

May this week’s prayer guide and encourage you in leading the flock God has entrusted to your care:

Dear God,

Grant me the love, wisdom, strength, and grace to care for your people well.

May our church community be a light of support and encouragement to those who return to church and those who stay home.

Lord, pour your Spirit into my staff and volunteers. Lift them up in their spirits to do your good work with humility and grace.

Remove all the overhanging darkness from this pandemic. Encourage the hearts of those struggling with anxiety and depression. Give me the eyes to see those within my congregation who need extra support this week.

I thank you that You are my Savior, Lord, and God. As I draw near and focus my mind and heart on you, fill me with the healing and strength of your fire within my bones. Give me the capacity to serve you well and the peace to find rest and self-care.

In the name of Jesus, I ask this, amen.

This blog is the first of a new series, Pastoral Leadership Snapshot, which presents statistics at the intersection of COVID-19, the church, and pastoral leadership. You can find future installations of this series here.

About the author: Amanda Sorenson has worked with faith-based organizations and authors in the development of discipleship and Christian living resources and is a student in the M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College Graduate School.