We were so close to returning to what felt like normal activity just a few short weeks ago. We were returning to work, gathering for worship and removing our masks to reveal our smiles.

Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Delta variant of COVID-19 entered our lives. Now, some of us find ourselves once again wearing masks, limiting contact with others and pleading with folks to get the vaccine.

Churches have not been immune of course. In fact, over the last few months, I have had numerous conversations with pastors, denominational leaders and congregants about our current state of limbo; a hellish place for clergy to reside.

Churches are navigating the difficult waters between responsible safety measures and pressure from church members to gather as a faith community. Clergy are feeling the pressure more than ever before, as congregants are often divided on how to respond to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases.

While some churches have suspended in-person worship once again, most are continuing to offer options for congregants to be involved both in person and virtually.

Clergy are often caught in the middle of these conversations. They desperately care for the health of church members, while at the same time feeling the pressure to return to “normal” as quickly as possible.

The one consistent remark I hear from clergy considering this latest outbreak is the notion that some of their church members have suspended reality in their desire to rush back to “normalcy.” More precisely, as one pastor remarked, “After returning to in-person worship and with this latest outbreak of COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant, it’s as though the ‘crazies’ have infected some of my church members.”

The pressure has been so intense on some clergy that there is a growing exodus of ministers who are departing congregational ministry to seek work outside the traditional walls of the church. The pressure of the pandemic, the rise of Christian nationalism within congregations and the hostility of church members toward racial justice have taken their toll on many of my colleagues.

Some remaining in parish ministry have been granted time away to concentrate on their mental health — a welcome respite provided by a few churches. Others have found support through mental health professionals offering a sympathetic ear and empowering voice.

A stark truth emerging from the last 18 months has been the significant amount of pressure our clergy have been under. Churches need these sacred men and women to lead us through this wilderness of limbo. We need their wisdom, insight and hope in order to successfully make it out.

However, many ministers are succumbing to the perils of congregational quarrels and parishioner pettiness. Instead of seizing these moments to become more compassionate and understanding of the world around them, many churchgoers have decided to use this time to act on selfish motives.

Listening to my colleagues over the last several months, I’ve learned a lot and want to provide some helpful suggestions on how you can support your pastors and ministers.

  • Give them grace. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure these days, so ease up if their sermons are not perfect, committee meetings wander, budgets decrease, attendance levels off or they forget to pray for the splinter in your finger. Let grace abound, for we are all in need of it after the last few years.
  • Give them space. With the walls of home, community and church closing in on them, give them enough room to be free and creative. You will be surprised what our clergy can do when given this opportunity.
  • Give them community within the church. Most of the time when clergy receive calls it’s because something bad has happened or someone wants to complain. Find ways to let them know they are loved. Hot meals, babysitting and cold beers go a long way.
  • Give them community outside the church. While we all think our church is different from all others, we have a lot in common. Pastors need a community outside the church to decompress, unwind and just be human.
  • Give them an extra week of vacation. This simple gesture will cost most churches absolutely nothing or very little in an honorarium for a guest preacher — and I will be glad to come to your church at no cost to you. What will the church gain by offering an extra week of having your pastor away? It might make the difference between a resignation and more years of productive leadership.

Maya Angelou once wrote, “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.” As this COVID-19 limbo places our clergy in hellish places, let’s find ways to lift them up and honor their sacrifices.

We love our clergy because they first loved us. Let us never forget the struggles they have been enduring the last 18 months trying to provide wise counsel, strong leadership and an example for us to follow.

Like many of you, I am thankful for my pastor and staff for being a constant source of encouragement and hope during a very difficult time. They have been the light to help lead us out of this darkness; therefore, it’s time for us to take the candle and share some warm light with them.

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