As I write this, it has been almost exactly a year since schools closed and life as we know it was altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday, March 13, 2020 was the last day of “normal.”
And as we approach the one-year mark (depending upon where you call home this date may look different) thoughts of this auspicious anniversary keep pushing through all the others things vying for attention in my mind and park themselves right in the middle of everything making it increasingly difficult to pay attention to other things. My daughter has even written ‘COVID-iversary’ on our family calendar. But how does one even begin to summarize all that has occurred over the last twelve months?
Pastoring in a Year Like No Other
The reality is the last year has been unprecedented for everyone, and I would contend that it has been profoundly jarring for pastors—it has been for me.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed my ministry would pivot from an incarnation ministry of face-to-face interactions with my parishioners to pre-recorded and live-streamed ministry. I did not become a pastor to become a television pastor—that is not my call.
Nor did I ever think in my wildest dreams that I would have to figure out how to create a live-stream "studio" from scratch, on the fly, without assistance from professionals.
I never thought I would have to make public health decisions for the good of the church community I have been called to lead without ever having public health training. I am thankful for the resources of a retired family physician and retired nurse who served on Session (the ruling board of the Presbyterian congregation I serve) who helped us sift through all the information in the early months of the pandemic.
I never thought I would be working more hours than I have ever worked while also trying to care for my wife and three school-aged children who were trying to figure out how to do school from home.
I never thought I would have to figure out how to address and work through the emotional trauma of my parishioners due to the pandemic; or address and begin conversations around racial justice and systemic racism thrust into the national consciousness once again with the killings of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, among others; or address and begin conversations around inflammatory and divisive political rhetoric.
An Exhausting List
The list is not exhaustive, but it is exhausting, and it does make me want to disconnect and walk away. (As an aside, I am so thankful for my counselor who has been working with me for the past four months and is helping me process all of this and more. He has helped me not turn my wife into an unintentional counselor and has helped me process the lifetime worth of trauma I have experienced in the last twelve months. I cannot highly encourage my colleagues in ministry enough to seek counseling in the midst of this pandemic-tide.)
While I have sought out help through counseling, the effects of the pandemic trauma continue to be part of everyday life. In the midst of the incomplete list of changes above, members of my congregation still seek me out to help them process their own pandemic experiences. For some, I am doing well. For others, I am failing. I am dreading and honestly putting off returning a phone call from one member as I write because I know it will be about how I do not call enough and am failing miserably as her pastor. Enter feelings of wanting to run away.
I know one of the most challenging parts of this pandemic has been the constant feeling of failure, of letting someone down. When church members then tell you that to your face it makes the pain even more profound.
The temptation to overwork, to sacrifice my soul and my family on the altar of ministry is great.
The temptation to hide or lash out is great.
The temptation to walk away is great.
I worry about my colleagues and myself.
The Power of Connections in a Fragmented Time
I am blessed to be part of a denomination that seeks to be "connectional" and has set up regular weekly Zoom meetings for pastors in our presbytery to connect, vent, and share. In this group we have been able to share stories of intimidation and ultimatums from church members about "going to the church down the road because they are open/don’t wear masks/sing/etc," or "you are not calling enough," or any number of statements of anxiety.
The ability to share has been a lifeline. But I also recognize that many of my colleagues may not have access to something like this. They are alone, and it hurts my soul.
God's Faithfulness Endures
In the midst of all of this I know that God is faithful and that God is with me through the Holy Spirit. I know that He is refining me and refining His Church. It does not make ministry in pandemic-tide any easier and it does not make the trauma any less painful. This in-between time will continue for the foreseeable future and the effects of this time will last the remainder of my ministry.
The challenge for me--the challenge for all of us--is learning to heal in the midst of this trauma. The challenge for us will be addressing the myriad ways the pandemic has changed our communities, our churches and our own lives. The challenge will be keeping it before us and our communities, remembering the lessons we have learned and not simply sweeping the entire experience under the rug and forgetting. Like Joshua, we need to pull stones out of the dry riverbed of the Jordan and set them up to be a memorial so that when our children ask us what these stones mean, we can tell them what the LORD has done for us.
Nick Marlatt is a member of the Project on Rural Ministry's Rust Belt Cohort. He is also pastor and head of staff at Ohio United Presbyterian Church in Aliquippa, PA, where he has served since completing an MDiv at Regent College, Vancouver in 2013. Prior to entering the ministry Nick worked as a park ranger at Cape Disappointment State Park in southwest Washington. He and his wife Kortney enjoy outdoor adventures and spending time with their three daughters.