Health and Growth

7 Ways to Avoid Pastoral COVID Burnout:  How to Care for Your Soul While Caring for Others

Seven ways church leaders can practice self-care during the COVID pandemic.

7 Ways to Avoid Pastoral COVID Burnout:  How to Care for Your Soul While Caring for Others
by

Paul Maxwell

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the entire world.

Spiritually.

Emotionally.

Financially.

But leading a church during these difficult times is a doubly difficult task.

Part of a church leadership team’s responsibility is to care for their community members when their lives are threatened by crisis.

But rarely are church leaders faced with the task of leading every single one of their members through a crisis that strikes at the very heart of their physical and financial wellbeing.

Church leaders during this season are tasked with:

  • Caring for hundreds of individuals in states of crisis.
  • Expectation to work overtime.
  • Keeping the church physically healthy.
  • Keeping the church solvent when classical fundraising models no longer work.
  • Pastoring individuals who have lost loved ones, but who cannot have a funeral.
  • Producing a full one-hour live-streaming event every single week.
  • Continuing to keep the church running as normal in every other respect.
  • Handling the stress of COVID on their own lives, family, friends, and finances.

These responsibilities will take a toll on even the best stamina.

Because of this, it’s important for church leaders to take care of themselves during COVID, just as much as any other human being.

Just because you have a divine call on your life to care for the church, that does not mean you are superhuman. God created humans to have limits. That was by design. Because of this, it’s important to think excellently about how to fulfill God’s special call to care for the church while not neglecting his call to care for yourself.

Let’s dig into seven ways pastors can practice self-care during the COVID pandemic.

1. Pray and read Scripture.

We are never above the need to depend on God for our strength. The way we rely on him is to ask him for strength and read his Word. Even Jesus needed to take a break from ministry to spend time with the Father: “Jesus got up and left the house. He went to a place where he could be alone. There he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

The promise of God’s presence with us, and that he hears us, is articulated clearly by John: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 John 5:14)

The way we know what God’s will is—and therefore how to pray in such a way that satisfies our souls—is to read his Word to us: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

It’s easy to push this down our to-do list so that it becomes a neglectable task that we don’t have time for. But the truth is that we can’t afford not to continue this critical habit—especially as we carry the heavy load this season of leading a church in which every member is in a state of crisis to one degree or another.

2. Double down on community.

One of the greatest invisible stressors of the country’s stay-at-home orders has been the isolation many have experienced. Pastors, like all people, need physical community in their lives. 

If you are unable to get together with others in person due to risk factors, it is even more critical to lean into community. The author of Hebrews encourages us here:

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Community can sometimes be awkward. We don’t always know what to talk about. It can feel vulnerable to reach out to someone just to “say hi.” But in a season of extreme isolation, it is more necessary than ever—for the sake of our own hope, encouragement, love, and service to the church—to reach out to others for help.

3. Set clear boundaries with congregants.

While you are caring for those in crisis, you are not on call 24/7. You are not obligated to expose yourself to infected congregants. Paul exhorts the Galatians: “For each will have to bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:5)

Just because you are a pastor, that does not mean you are obligated to be the personal therapist of every member of your congregation. This comes back to human limitations. People in the church have always asked pastors to shift their ministry in order to accommodate their personal desires:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim. 4:3)

But the Apostle Paul has a better word: “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2) As a church leader, you are not able to bear everyone’s burdens. 

This is where networks, volunteers, systems, and procedures come into play. Recruit those in your church to lean on one another during this difficult time, facilitate the catalyzation of those relationships through administration, and devote your time to those tasks with the highest return for the overall wellbeing of the whole church.

4. Manage stressed staff with tact. 

Even though many are involuntarily unemployed during this season, Fortune Magazine reports that many are considering quitting their jobs right now. Those who struggle with mental illness may be experiencing even more pronounced experiences of stress during this pandemic.

For that reason, it’s important to understand that your church staff may underperform during this time. While COVID by no means represents a no normal for productivity per se, recognize that a heightened demand for pastoral care in your church is not automatically matched with increased work capacity among your staff and volunteers.

Communicate to your church staff that they have the latitude to underperform during this time. This is not the right time to crack down on productivity. You may end up breaking your workforce. 

Instead, give them the opportunity to follow your example in self-care. Set a slower pace. Make sure that you do not create an undue burden for them during a time when they are already overburdened.

Proverbs says: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” (Prov. 11:14)

Lend yourself to your staff as an example of hope and courage in the midst of a frightening circumstance. This will minimize the potential for undue conflict in the church office and, consequently, make your life easier as well.

5. Stay physically healthy.

It is important to take care of your body during this season. The Apostle Paul writes:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

Not only are we tasked with using our bodies for the glory of God during normal life, but we are also in a season in which it is supremely important to mitigate risk factors for COVID infection by strengthening our immune systems. This means that, as tempting as it may be to get Doordash and watch Netflix 3 nights in a row, it may help you in more important ways to cook a healthy dinner and go for a run.

6. Prioritize your family.

It’s very easy to neglect our families during this time. More than that, it’s easy to forget that they are a resource of encouragement and love for us that we need now more than ever. Paul exhorts Timothy that a church leader “must manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4)

Be sure not to lose sight of your family, their needs, and their value to you during this time.

7. Be patient with yourself.

Proactively guard against perfectionism. It will quickly corrode your resilience to failure, of which there will certainly be an abundance during this season. Scripture reminds us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t always have to be the strongest person in the room. You may have your own moments when stress turns into emotional overwhelm and exhaustion. 

Don’t beat yourself up over it. God’s grace is made perfect, not through powering up, but through dependence on his power when we are weak. And there has rarely been a season when so many church leaders have felt so weak.

Over to you

Take your leadership in stride.

If you don’t care for yourself during this season, you are doing a disservice to your own church. They need you to be a leader that’s bringing as much as possible to the table right now. The only way that is possible is if you play chess, not checkers. In other words, play the long game of legacy, not the short game of burnout.

God’s strength will be made perfect through your humble acceptance of the limits God designed for human life.

Coronavirus tool kit for pastors and church leaders:

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7 Ways to Avoid Pastoral COVID Burnout:  How to Care for Your Soul While Caring for Others