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.




4/30 2019

The Power of Empty Hands

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The temptation is strong and will grow as your mission trip departure date approaches.

The mere thought of traveling to and working in Third World communities is enough to get our anxiety working overtime: Will I be safe? Can I drink the water? Will I be able to handle the poverty? What will it be like to be the wealthiest person the community may have ever met (I, who have never considered myself wealthy in the least!)? How will I respond to people in need—to hungry children? How will the trip change me—in my understanding of how God works . . . in relationship with my modest “wealth”?

This internal anxiety, though uncomfortable, can be a God-given instrument of deep learning and personal change (precisely why I signed up for this trip anyway!). It signals I’m crossing over, stepping onto that holy ground of encounter with people whose life assumptions are quite different from mine. And a faith which I hope to understand. It prepares my heart to receive the unexpected. And, it reminds me that God is in charge of the trip from start to finish.

But as the anxiety grows, most short-term missionaries begin to stock up on “gifts”—pens, candy, spiral notebooks, toothbrushes, etc. Well, maybe “gift” is the wrong word if a gift is meant to symbolize the relationship between two people. In fact, the items many groups leave behind in the community tell the receivers little about who we are, and clearly reveals that we know precious little about them. Often, all it communicates is that I assume that the receiver needs it. (If I give a friend a toothbrush, I’m bound to get a strange look.)


Meeting New Friends

To truly meet a new friend, I have to set aside previously-held assumptions, my degrees and status, and my power, and receive the person for who they are. For a long, uncomfortable moment, my complete ignorance of the local language reduces me from a respected professional to a mere toddler, babbling phrase-book greetings to the raucous delight of the host community’s children. In a flash, I realize how accustomed I have become to my personal “accessories”—my status and specialized knowledge about all kinds of things that, suddenly, don’t seem very important. In a way, these are the things that make me who I am. Or do they? I blush, bowing my head under the weight of the revelation. Tears well up in my eyes. I smile. And the host community’s Welcome Committee somehow senses the moment, surges forward, and embraces me. All 34 adults and all 52 children—the little ones, repeatedly. (“I’ve never been hugged by 86 people in a row in my entire life!”, I complain later, beaming). The awkward yet powerful initial encounter set the stage for the whole week of work and transformed us into the impossible: friends.

Embracing with Empty Hands

This is why the mission pastor told us not to load ourselves down with “gift” items—we would have transformed the moment of powerful encounter into a “give-me” circus with kids yelling and grabbing to get more. Unknowingly, we would have flaunted our wealth and left powerful expectations for the next church group coming to this community. A proverb from western Ethiopia puts is this way: “We only embrace with empty hands.”

Don’t get me wrong. To take a simple gift or two on a mission trip is a beautiful act. To give something that speaks of where I come from to that special new friend who teaches me something surprising about myself and about God. And we can set aside the rest of the clutter which really serves only to make us feel better about returning to our comfortable homes and hot showers.


I have to empty my hands to be able to receive from my new friends.

For our calling is to engage in “mission in the way of Jesus Christ”, following the One who embodied a deep commitment to solidarity. Jesus stands in solidarity with people caught in the line of fire, those trapped under the weight of systemic oppression, people at their wits’ end due to hunger or police violence or injustice. Though we can’t change the world in a day (and sometimes I use that as an excuse to avoid taking the first step!), we can choose to stand with those who are hurting. In a time of discouragement and frustration, how might you join with Jesus Christ who is today standing in solidarity with the poor and oppressed?


The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell is the director of the Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. Additionally he teaches mission courses at the Seminary including the M.Div. required class Intercultural Experiential Learning. During the 2019 January-Term, groups traveled to Cuba and studied mission in context at Evangelical Theological Seminary as well as the Philippines where they learned about the Churches’ response to the environmental crises with Silliman University.  


12/18 2017

The Fight for . . . Not Against

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prayers for healingIn the midst of polarizing political and denominational battles, the word “fight” may turn many of you away from reading this. However, the fight I’m describing has nothing to do with political rhetoric and is far removed from congregational committees and denominational commissions. It is a fight that no one will know I am in by looking at the smile on my face or by hearing the sermons that I preach. I am fighting for the life of our unborn daughter who was recently diagnosed with a critical congenital heart defect. I am not fighting the health care system nor am I at odds with insurance companies. I do not think that I am fighting with evil forces nor am I fighting with/or against God. Honestly, I have no idea exactly “who” my fight is against.

Perhaps, not having an enemy to fight against is what is keeping me focused. I don’t see “that person’s face” when I sleep at night. There is no awkwardness when he/she walks into the room. I have accepted that my fight is a fight “for” rather than a fight “against.” Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live. My fight daily brings me to my knees and I feel closeness to the Lord that strengthens me. My fight drives me to the pages of Holy Scripture to immerse myself into the Story that imparts hope. My fight pushes me to seek out the prayers of the saints who have allowed our suffering to become their own.

Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live.

I am not theologically naïve to believe that somehow I am wrestling with God or that my family is being tested. Instead, we are confronted by the frailty of the human condition that cannot save itself. Yet, at the same time, we are placing a degree of trust in human ingenuity that can operate on a baby’s heart soon after birth.

I believe that God is greater than critical congenital heart defects and human ingenuity. I believe that Jesus can heal. I believe that the Spirit is at work in this situation in ways we cannot see. I also believe that as I fight for my daughter’s life, I am called to fight for other children whose fate is uncertain. As I sit in different doctor’s offices, I now look at the faces of those who sit in anticipation of the “news” and pray for them. I no longer cling to my conscious ignorance toward those “sick” people who are all around me. This fight for our daughter’s life has opened me to the fight of others. At this time in my family’s life, these words of Jesus feel especially real, “ in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

The Rev. Keith Kaufold ’07/’12 is the lead pastor of a circuit that includes United Methodist Churches in West Homestead, Swissvale, and Millville; pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Aspinwall; and founding pastor of Eighth Avenue Place—a church plant and Christian community that confronts the ignorance that perpetuates racism and lives and ministers together in the name of Jesus Christ. Keith is currently enrolled in the master’s in social work program at California University of Pennsylvania.

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