I still remember the feeling—I was a shell of myself, not connecting with Jesus, my wife, or those close to me. I hadn’t had a break from preaching for nearly four months and I was toast—tired mentally, emotionally, and physically. Somewhere along the way I had believed the lie that more is better and that I was a superhero.
And I am not alone.
COVID-19 has changed the landscape of our churches and our leaders in ways that are nearly unrecognizable compared to just three years ago. We have seen pastors burning out at higher rates, church buildings closed from prolonged financial crisis, and nearly everyone questioning the future of the church—Is it in person? Online? Home-based?
And church leaders have primarily been at the center of the burnout discussion as they have tried to lead well through the crisis.
But there are other victims of COVID-19 as well: our church staff. For many, the pandemic simply highlighted and put in accelerated motion an undercurrent of fear and burnout that was already at work in a setting where the stakes were so high. Working in a church isn’t like working in the business or marketplace sector. The weightiness of the call to care and provide for those in the church spiritually and socially can make the lines of vocation and avocation blur quickly.
As we look at new ways of doing and being the Church today, we cannot gloss over the problems that plague the people who keep our churches running. Jesus knew it well. He both modeled what health looked like to his weary disciples, and He encouraged them to rest when needed. Luke 6:12 even lays out the model of retreat for those of us committed to the growth of the kingdom of God: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.”
Since the pandemic began two years ago, I have seen more pastors and leaders take either planned or forced sabbaticals than at any time in my ministry.
And if we need to take action to care for ourselves, how much more do those under our care?
Let me suggest four ways we can better care for our church staff who have, are, or will be suffering the effects of COVID-19.
First, model self-care.
As leaders, we cannot properly encourage our staff towards boundaries and self-care unless we understand and have experienced the value of it ourselves. There is a reason that we are told to put our oxygen masks on first if an emergency arises on an airplane. We must be healthy in order to lead healthy.
This can look like a break from work—this is the shabbat rest we see God model after creating the world and all that’s in it (Gen. 2:2-3). He ceased from his work. But it must also include the idea of nuakh, the other main Hebrew word for “rest,” which means something like “to dwell.” God does this in Genesis 2:15 after creating humans. He settles with them.