Pastors Face Mental Health Challenges Amid Covid-19 Pandemic

NORMAN, Okla. (BP) — In recent weeks, as he has juggled altered responsibilities — and added some new ones, too — Tristan Martin has experienced an overwhelming sensation of busyness.

Amid the social distancing required during the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin, pastor of Alameda Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., is shepherding a congregation of mostly senior adults. He’s also helping to homeschool his young daughters while his wife, a behavior analyst working with autistic children, continues to work outside the home.

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been in ministry, but also in being a dad,” Martin said.

Martin’s situation isn’t unique during the pandemic, which has prompted not only changes in ministry structure but increased personal challenges and stress for pastors as they seek to meet the needs of their families, their congregations and their communities — and as they do it largely from home during a time of social distancing.

A recent LifeWay research study also found that pastors are now experiencing some intensified pressure points connected with their congregation’s needs. Among those: 26 percent of pastors reported worry over finances; 16 percent feel pressure over technological challenges and 12 percent felt pressure offering pastoral care through a socially distanced format.

Intensified stress is not unique to pastors as a recent poll, conducted by Monmouth University, found that 55 percent of people said their stress levels have increased since the pandemic began.

A call to honesty

Ray Ortlund, president of Renewal Ministries and pastor to pastors at Immanuel Nashville, said this is a time when pastors must honestly and humbly admit their needs.

“The Lord is giving us pastors a gift during this time of difficulty and limitation,” Ortlund said. “He is giving us the gift of humility. The joy we so often felt during active ministry — yes, there was stress and disappointment, but there was joy too. And that joy we felt — was it a function of character and faith, or was it a function of activity and adrenaline?”

Ortlund added that having the humility to recognize that needs may be greater than previously realized is also a pathway to revival for pastors.

Frank Lewis, pastor of First Baptist Church Nashville, said the effort of making a daily routine in the midst of so much uncertainty has brought frustrations, new levels of irritation and stress.

“It’s a stress that’s just off the charts right now for me,” Lewis said. “That’s usually not me.”

Lewis said generally he is able to handle normal levels of stress well by handling his diet and exercise routine and practicing patience. But with the current events and increased personal demands, he has noticed in himself the temptation to respond to individuals with frustration and curt speech.

Another LifeWay research study gathered responses from pastors in relation to the difficulty of connecting with their congregation and keeping up with needs in a manageable way. One response noted that with the rapid change of job description and needs, there is a constant demand for communication and pastoral care. Another said the work can become tedious, and the avenues that would support the pastoral experience are all blocked.

Geremy Keeton, senior director of counseling at Focus on the Family, said habits of personal, spiritual self-care that were already necessary for pastors are being revealed and amplified during the pandemic.

“A pastor’s ability to know how to gauge his need for self-care is essential every week of his ministry,” Keeton said. “… Those who had that in place and do that well are having to buckle down and make more effort in doing it and are probably thriving because they’ve practiced, before coming into this, what self-care is. But if that [self-care] was not in place, and you came into this with a deficit, it was probably going to push you to a place of realizing you need to do that, or to a breaking point.”

Keeton said pastors must care for their body, their mind and their spirit. They must be filled with the Spirit, in order to pour out to others.

“Pastors are holistically ministering to their flock, and so they have to holistically minister to themselves,” Keeton said.

Along with navigating care for his daughters, ages 5 and 7, Martin continues personal and academic study, as well as full-time ministry. Alameda Baptist’s Sunday morning services are broadcast on Facebook Live. To maintain connection with the congregation, which averages a little more than 60 in attendance when meeting in person and is about 60 or 70 percent senior adult, Martin has spent plenty of time on the phone. That’s at least in part because some of the members don’t have access to or aren’t comfortable using Facebook.

But Martin, who is in his first pastorate, continues to find running important, both for fitness and stress relief (although he’s down to once or twice a week with the suddenly more hectic schedule — and after his treadmill died). Martin said the messages he’s been preaching are as much to his own heart as to the Alameda Baptist congregation. Most important, Martin said, are the spiritual disciplines of prayer, solitude and reflection — always essential, but especially now.

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Source: Baptist Press