To say that the last twenty-one months have been challenging would be an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone, breaking us all out of our familiar and comfortable rhythms and routines. To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged pastors would be a massive understatement along the lines of saying the Grand Canyon is a pretty big ditch. While I cannot speak for all pastors, I can speak for myself as I hope to encourage others to join me in reflecting upon, and sharing their experiences.
Reflecting on the Past Two Years
After Christmas, I had a bit of time to reflect upon the last two years. As I thought about my experiences, my emotional state, my calling as a pastor I was reminded of a chapter in A Burning In My Bones, Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson. The chapter is called “Staying Put” and it describes a six year period of Peterson’s ministry that he described as “the badlands.”
Collier recounts how Peterson and his family would spend his vacation time at his family’s cottage on Flathead Lake in western Montana. On the drive from Baltimore, where Peterson served the Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, to Montana, the family passed through the Badlands in South Dakota. Collier writes, “Lush farms and sprawling forests would give way to the Great Plains and then the towering Rockies. The landscape was part of the heart’s secret healing—except for a long stretch through the South Dakota Badlands, ‘where nothing is green or growing. No trees, no water, no towns. The only sign of life was an occasional vulture cruising for carrion.’ Miles and miles of desolation, earth stripped of any visible sign of beauty. The only break in the monotony was signs for Wall Drug dotting the roadside for hundreds of miles.” (A Burning In My Bones, p.136)
As one who has driven through those South Dakotan Badlands on multiple occasions, I understand the desolation Collier is describing. And when Collier describes “the badlands” as, “trudging through miserable, monotonous conditions, with no relief in sight,” (p. 137) I felt as if he was describing the last two years of ministry. I resonated deeply with this image of “the badlands.” In trying to keep up with constantly changing public health advice, caring for people whose lives were upended and uncertain, learning the ins and outs of live streaming worship, trying to help children attend school from home, serving on a Presbytery committee whose responsibility is caring for congregations and pastoral leaders, I found myself and my soul burned out, barren and lifeless. I too, found myself “trudging through miserable, monotonous conditions, with no relief in sight.” It felt like traveling through a wasteland, and I was beginning to lose hope.
A Season of Discovery
But I also found myself remembering Lewis and Clark and the stunning account of the Corps of Discovery. I read an abridged version of their journals after graduating from high school and one of the things that stuck out to me then, and stays with me today, is the day-in, day-out rhythm of the Corps of Discovery. Each day was similar to the one before it and the one that followed. Wake, eat a little something, pack up the keel boats, paddle or pull the keel boats, stop in the late afternoon, set up camp, start a fire, hunt, eat, go to bed and then do it all again. Weeks would pass in the journals with this same rhythm. Then after two years of travel, on November 7, 1805 the Corps of Discovery viewed the Pacific Ocean with Lewis commenting on the great joy it brought to the whole camp. After years of trudging along, the Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific.
Finding Life in the Badlands
As I reflected upon these two things, I began to see how they framed my experience of the past couple of years. They also provided me with a metaphor to help me navigate through the pandemic burnout I was experiencing. One of the difficulties of the pandemic was being in emergency response mode early on and then remaining in that mode for months. Any previous rhythms were disrupted by the pandemic and then not restarted. Each day felt the same as the day before—there was no structure. I realized that in order to move through the pandemic, to move through the burnout, I needed to return to rhythms of daily life that would give life. I needed to restart and begin new daily spiritual practices that would be the equivalent of putting one foot in front of the other.
And so after Christmas I began. Each day I have three priorities, three practices that I need to do because I know they will feed my soul and help me recover. I am beginning simply, because that is all I really have the space for. So each day I try to pray, play and study. These are three things that I find easy to neglect—finding excuses for how there is no time, or they pull me away from what I should be doing—but they are the things that keep me from falling into Badlands despair. Prayer keeps me connected to God and keeps me in Scripture. Play is moving my body and exercising. Study is reading something that interests me and is not directly applicable to my Sunday sermon.
There are days that I do not feel like doing one or any of these three practices, but I am focusing on doing them every day. I am focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Like the Corps of Discovery, I am going through the motions, knowing that at some point I will come out on the other end and joyfully celebrate at the view of the ocean before me.
Questions to Consider:
- How are you feeling in this moment?
- Do the metaphors of the Badlands and the Corps of Discovery resonate with you? Why or why not? What metaphors or images would you use to describe the past two years of ministry for you?
- What are some practices that give you life? How can you incorporate them into your daily life in this moment?
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.