Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/2 2020

Clergy Self-care During a Pandemic

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clergy self-careA couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed my pastor to ask how he was doing. He wrote back, “I’m good – just trying to figure out the most effective way to ‘be church’ in the midst of this time.” My pastor’s words capture well what I’ve heard from so many clergy colleagues over the last few weeks: how do we do this sacred, embodied work when we can’t be together in the same room?

The fact that “normal ministry” can’t take place right now is difficult for many reasons, but it doesn’t mean that clergy suddenly have more time on their hands. In fact, planning worship may take additional time and energy because clergy must learn and deploy new technology for a dispersed congregation.  Ministers may also feel that they should be in more frequent contact with their parishioners; conversely, fearful and anxious parishioners may reach out to their spiritual leaders more often, seeking comfort and hope. In these circumstances, ministers could potentially work many hours every day and still feel that they are falling short.


In the midst of a crisis, it can be tempting for clergy to forego self-care practices because everything else feels like an emergency.


But right now, self-care for clergy is more important than ever because this crisis will last a long time—weeks or months, at least.

Intense work patterns simply will not be sustainable in the long term and will likely lead to burnout. So, what might good self-care for clergy look like in these very unusual times? Here are a few suggestions:


Don’t forget the basics.

These days, there are lots of tips on the Internet for practicing good self-care in the midst of a pandemic: Establish a routine. Limit your intake of news and social media. Eat well and exercise. Take time to play and create. This is all good advice, for everyone (not just clergy) – follow it, as much as you can.


Conserve energy for what is most important for you and your congregation right now.

In the early phase of this crisis, many pastoral leaders have (understandably) focused on figuring out how to facilitate remote worship and educational experiences. This is important work – but in the coming weeks, pastoral care demands will likely increase as more people in our communities contract the virus and fall ill. (Check out these guidelines about how to provide pastoral care during this crisis.)

This will mean that clergy will have even less energy to devote to the usual tasks of ministry. If you are feeling especially stretched by the pastoral care needs in your community, consider the following:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

This may not be the time to produce an original set of daily devotions for your congregation when there are so many other resources available online. Consider sharing outside resources with your congregation rather than trying to create them all yourself.

Leverage partnerships to share the load.

If your community is experiencing increasingly intense pastoral care needs and you are feeling overwhelmed by trying to facilitate weekly worship or Bible study, consider partnering with a neighboring church to share leadership. This might also help your faith community to connect with another congregation in the neighborhood.

Ask, “What is most important right now for the people I am caring for?” and, “Am I the best person to provide that?”

Use the first question to help you discern where to focus your limited energy and time. Use the second question to help you figure out when to activate your network of resources, especially if referral is indicated (for serious mental health needs, for example).


Recognize that some boundaries may need to change for a while – but boundaries are still important.

Right now, you may feel it is important to be available to congregants via phone, e-mail, or text message more often than you typically would. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t set any boundaries at all. It’s OK to stop working at a certain time of day; after that time, only respond to communications if there is a true emergency. And taking regular time off will be even more important than usual to give yourself a break from the intensity of ministry during this period. Give yourself some time each week, even if it is only part of a day, to rest and renew yourself spiritually.


Practice self-compassion.

No one really knows how to do ministry well in these circumstances. We can certainly learn from those who have ministered in the midst of other communal traumas, but we are all trying to figure this out as we go. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Offer yourself the grace that you typically offer to others.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that what your congregation most needs from you right now is not a new virtual Bible study or seamless online worship—what they most need is you, as healthy and whole as you can be. Self-care practices are vital for keeping us all grounded during a very stressful time; ignoring self-care at a time like this will likely only hurt us and our ministries in the long run. As the Rev. Matthew Crebbin put it in a recent blog post about ministering during disasters, “Do not surrender to the temptation of believing that God needs your own personal destruction to save the world. It’s not only bad personal self-care, it is bad public theology.” Let’s resist that temptation, and instead remind ourselves and those we are in ministry with that each of us is a beloved child of God, worthy of respect and care.


A graduate of Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.), Vanderbilt Divinity School (M.Div.), and Furman University (B.A.), the Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller is in her element when teaching about caring ministry. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, her most recent book is titled When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations (Wipf and Stock, 2016). Fuller has earned numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. She concerns herself with church conflict, and her book uses two case studies to examine the issue toward constructive outcomes. Fuller advises pastors to develop an intentional plan for dealing with congregational conflict—before the conflict arises! Some of the first steps, she says, include acknowledging that anxiety will be present in such circumstances and that the more serious the conflict the more time it will take to resolve it constructively.




3/27 2020

Pastoring During a Pandemic

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still shepherding during pandemicRecently, as all the COVID-19 news began to reach a fever pitch, I had my regular meeting with my spiritual director. We had just heard at the Seminary that we would be moving all our credit-bearing courses online and shutting down all non-credit-bearing training. I found that I needed to take a minute to remember who I am beyond what I do. I do experiential education! I work with students to engage embodied leadership practices! I travel to new cities for immersive educational experiences! But not right now I don’t.

My vocation and my calling are to the same things they always were—but the window through which I am able to respond to that calling has narrowed.

The form this experience, education, and embodied leadership must take has changed entirely. My spiritual director, who is incredibly wise and a great listener, helped me consider all this without me suffering a complete meltdown.


Being a Pastor During a Pandemic

Indeed, this shift has been illuminating—what if embodied leadership right now is being still and asking the question of what it means to shepherd a people dispersed in their homes—and really hanging out with the question before we act? What if it is organizing for needs to be met through distance—and imagining how we might build that kind of community more permanently? What if the experience we are called to right now is simply trusting that the Holy Spirit holds us all together when we are all physically alone? What if the Christian life I am called to in this moment isn’t about a product but a certain kind of abiding?

Is it possible that who I am isn’t contingent on my proving that what I do with my regular work days is so important that I, the “essential personnel” must continue to do it within this crisis, risking life and limb for myself and everyone else?


Going Back to Basics

This is not to say the education, leadership, church, or life together are to be taken lightly or considered nonessential. But what if the basics of these things are actually ordering my groceries online so I don’t come in contact with anyone, and tipping well because this is a scary time for the gig economy.

What if the basics are sitting with the Holy Spirit and my anxious pit bull (pictured above)—because she is only anxious because I am anxious, and the only way we will learn to trust and be okay, is if we do it together?

What if the basics are calling my grandma and holding space for her fear? What if for a minute I am not a “thought worker” but a human being?

This sounds like a small start and maybe it is, but I’m guessing that if we make space for even a little bit of listening and being with—of holding space and sitting still—we might be shocked at the sort of big things we are being called to as pastors, as parents, as frightened people, and vulnerable advocates in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Friends, wherever you are reading this, I am so glad that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are in this together. Wash your hands, take deep breaths, don’t forget to stretch and drink water—but really, take a minute in the midst of all this to just be. I think that just might be the heroism/discipleship the world needs right now.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


3/18 2020

The Ministry of Marco Polo: How a Video Chat App Helped My Ministry (and Me)

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pastors experiencing the shalom of GodIn the fall of 2018, I received a call from a former colleague, asking if I would be interested in being a part of a cohort-covenant group of other women pastors. One of her pastor friends was working on her doctor of ministry degree. This group would be a part of her study in pastoral leadership.

Little did I know how these seven other women would affect my life.


Experiencing the Shalom of God

Julia, the convener of the group, sent us an e-mail describing her project. Her focus was on experiencing the shalom of God, and how covenant community helps pastors experience shalom, both as individuals, and together. We committed to doing readings, praying for one another, and meeting online every week.


But after our first meeting, we decided that we needed a way to stay in touch throughout the week. So, one of the Shalom Sisters—the name we coined together as a nod to Julia and her shalom project—suggested we use the video app Marco Polo. It was new for a few of us, but we agreed it was better than texting, e-mail, or using Facebook messenger.


Over the next few months, we continued to meet and pray together, doing our online check-ins every Thursday. We started to get to know each other better by sharing our joys and concerns. We talked about our faith journeys, our current ministries, and our personal lives. And as we walked alongside each other we started to communicate more and more on Marco Polo.

We sent messages (known as “polos”) from our homes, our offices, our cars, and our local coffee shops. Julia gave us a tour of the Christmas lights in her neighborhood. Jamie showed us the view from her hotel room in Kenya. I shared a video from the beach while on vacation in Florida.


Doing Ministry, and Life Together

Marco Polo was helping us do ministry, and life, together.


Over the past 17 months, we’ve supported one another through community tragedies, discerning new calls, online dating debacles, StepBet challenges, new hires, deaths, surgeries, home sales, engagements, retirements, marriages, challenges with colleagues, and across-the-country moves.


Soon Julia will be defending her dissertation. She has been working for months on this paper, part of which will share the research and data she collected from each of us—data from what was only to be a nine-month covenant group. Several of us are planning on meeting up again this spring in California.*

I always smile when I get the little “ding” on my phone that one of my sisters has left me a message, wondering what funny story they will tell, what prayer request they will share, or what update they will give from the last time we talked. I smile because that “ding” is a reminder that I am not alone in ministry.

Here is just a glimpse of how Marco Polo has allowed us to share life together:

“We will be praying for the doctors to have wisdom, and for you . . . for you to take care of yourself as you try to take care of them.”

“I got connected with another church in the area who is having serious conflict issues. It’s a small church, and I am just praying I’ll be able to help them.”

“Thank you for your prayer for me. Since mom fell it’s been really hard. Exponentially hard.”

“Working on our women’s retreat, and the theme is prayer. If you have any thoughts or feedback I sure would appreciate it.”

“I only got four hours of sleep last night. I’m running on fumes. This is brutal. No family should have to go through this.”

“So have any of you had issues with wild turkey? We got a wild turkey that is pooping all over! Trying to get rid of him. One of my Buildings and Grounds guys is going to come and have early Thanksgiving I think!”

“Love you. Praying for you. Just holding you up this weekend.”


Coming Alongside One Another

In her dissertation, Julia writes about how ministry leaders face unique challenges that hinder their ability to form intentional communities and collegial relationships. She concludes, “Through mutual encouragement and by establishing healthy rhythms, pastors can come alongside one another to seek and to know the full shalom of God.”

Marco Polo has enabled the coming alongside for our group despite the fact that we live in the north, south, east, and west of the United States.

Pastors and ministry leaders, if are feeling alone, don’t limit yourself by finding a group to meet in person over a meal or coffee. I wasn’t able to find that myself because of everyone’s commitments and schedules, let alone my own. Marco Polo is a tool that allows us to connect, encourage, listen, vent frustrations, and share ministry. Share life. As Julia’s dissertation reminds us, “Paul encourages his readers in 2 Corinthians 3:11 by writing, ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.’ The God of love calls us to be in community, reconciled and transformed through relationship, and to receive the promised gift of shalom.’”

I know I experience the gift of shalom, thanks to my God, my Shalom Sisters, and yes, even thanks to a video app called Marco Polo.

*The Shalom Sisters have postponed their gathering as they are also working to follow the CDC guidelines and help their people through the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Rev. Ellen Dawson a 2009 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (M.Div.) who has years of experience in mission leadership, campus ministry and parish ministry. Ellen serves as associate pastor at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church, where she preaches, teaches, and works alongside the Mission and Membership committees, as well as the deacons. She currently serves on the advisory board of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. When Ellen is not working, she’s usually reading, visiting with friends and family, or walking her dog, Ziggy (pictured above).

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