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Pastors and Churches Face Hard Challenges

March 31, 2021

Easter this year can be a season of reflection, renewal, and special prayer, helping pastors and churches to gather strength and hope following months of the COVID-19 pandemic, political tensions, and other challenges, say a number of Pastor Church Resources (PCR) staff.

But it also is a time to admit the challenges we have faced, and yet to consider that it is often darkest before the dawn.

“Everyone right now is tired,” said Sean Baker, a ministry consultant for PCR. “Pastors are tired, councils are tired, and congregation members are tired and worn out from just the extra workload. The strain of the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, including church.”

Under the strains and weariness that have emerged in recent months, some pastors and churches have grown anxious — even wondering if they will be able to stay together. Many have contacted PCR for help, said Baker.

“When we are anxious and feeling fear, we can be less trusting, and I think we see threats more quickly. At the same time, we’re less creative about the challenges we have,” he said.

Among other things, PCR supports congregations and their leaders in times of transition and discernment by providing consultations and resources that foster personal and communal health.

In his role, Baker is called by churches and/or pastors to consult with them and to help them get through rocky times. Dave Den Haan also serves as a ministry consultant. Both have seen their caseloads more than double over the past year.

Buffeted by the ongoing virus and other realities, said Den Haan, churches want to untangle from different challenges and, in some cases, to discuss how their pastor has done through it all.

“We have seen, for instance, that there have been conversations [and controversy] around wearing masks and social distancing,” said Den Haan.

At the same time, other tensions that have been under the surface in some churches have arisen, causing pastors and churches to undergo uncommon strain. Also adding to the problems are different and sometimes fractious beliefs regarding the CRC’s human sexuality report, which is now available for churches to discuss but won’t be formally addressed until Synod 2022.

Wading into this mix as a consultant can be hard, especially when working with churches that are divided over a number of things.

“We have seen some churches where people have lost sight of being with one another in love,” said Den Haan.

At the same time, the consultants have worked with and helped churches solve their problems.

“These are churches that have confessed their sin and sought reconciliation,” said Den Haan. “These are stories of powerful moments packed with the gospel.”

Another challenge facing churches in the past year is financial, said Nate Rauh-Bieri, Financial Shalom program manager for PCR.

“Some churches have done fine financially, but some have really struggled from reduced income,” he said.

As giving has fallen in some congregations, pressure mounts on many people in the church, especially the pastor.

“When giving is tight and the budget is tight, the pastor may be feeling anxiety over the financial viability of the church,” said Rauh-Bieri.

Yet another tension for pastors is having to preach in front of a camera week after week during COVID-19, said Zach Olson, ministry vocational consultant for PCR.

“You wonder who is actually watching. You miss the people,” said Olson. “In many cases, pastors have been on their heels this whole time and aren’t sure if they have the gas to keep going.”

Al Postma, classis renewal leader for PCR, said the inability for church members to meet in all of the formal ways they had done before — through various classes, Bible studies, potlucks and visits by church elders to homes — have gone by the wayside.

Churches have been built around some of those formal structures and, without them, the church community suffers, he said.

“We are in a new time and in a new place. We are facing unique circumstances,” said Postma. “Do I turn left or turn right? Do I leap over this barrier or make this call? You are in unfamiliar terrain with all of the formal structures gone.”

Looking ahead, PCR personnel are working to advise churches, especially those in conflict, not to make quick decisions, and try hard to listen to God and one another.

“Right now everyone needs a lot of tenderness and care. Grace needs to abound” — not just for pastors but for their families as well, said Lis Van Harten, director of PCR.

Meanwhile, she added, PCR realizes that when the COVID-19 pandemic ends and the world returns to some sense of normalcy, churches will still be working through many effects of the pandemic.

“There is going to be a lot of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Once we get through COVID-19, we’re going to be working for some time caring for, supporting, and encouraging many pastors, councils, and churches,” said Van Harten.

Right now, said Elaine May, PCR’s women’s leadership developer, the weariness among pastors and churches is immense, and the grief they are feeling over many losses is only beginning. “We need to slow down,” she said.

This is the time to turn to prayer and to show kindness for one another.

Reflecting on the sorrowful season of Lent that is ending and looking forward to the encouraging joy of life in Christ that comes soon with Easter, she added, “We’re in the in between time. The resurrection is coming. Now is a time of deepening faith and increased trust in God.”