Keeping going for the long haul as pastors in the crisis
‘I have never felt so tired,’ he texted.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of pastors I know feel worn out by lockdown. They are using words and phrases like ‘exhausted,’ ‘jaded,’ ‘difficult to keep going,’ ‘needing more zeal’. The coronavirus restrictions have brought a great weariness. What can we do?
Feeling drained during the pandemic is not, of course restricted to Christian leaders. Googling ‘tiredness in lockdown’, quite a lot of things are brought to our attention. It is apparent that across the nation individuals are worn out. Various doctors and psychologists have helpful things to say on the subject to which it is worth paying attention.
Early on in lockdown there was a certain stimulation in finding how to adjust to a new way of life. But that has long gone now. The sameness and the lack of variety in our options can be wearying in itself. If we fail to take a day off and think about something different we will not be doing ourselves any favours. A new hobby or even touching up the garden furniture which has long needed a lick of paint breaks the monotony.
Too much stress saps our energy. Worries about the virus and our loved ones, the challenges of learning new IT communication skills, the anxiety about ‘re-opening’ our churches while complying with government guidelines, all take their toll. And I fear many pastors are not particularly into prayer – which is the Bible’s antidote to anxiety. ‘Why pray when you can worry?’ seems to be the mindset. We need to learn, by prayer, to cast our cares upon the Lord and leave them there (1 Peter 5:7). Prayer brings peace (Philippians 4:6, 7).
Do your work and finish it. There is nothing better for rest than to have completed a piece of work. Achieving something sets you up to rest. ‘It’s in the can, I can relax.’ But too many men are perfectionists. They are never satisfied. They never finish. And so they are forever stressed.
Some people have foolishly taken the opportunity of the disruption of their lives in lockdown to abandon their routines. They stay up late on social media. They get up later than they would usually to compensate. But it doesn’t compensate. Our bodies are used to certain rhythms and sleep patterns. If we abandon them, or think we know better than our metabolism, we suffer. Routine is our friend. God made us to be people of habit (Genesis 1:5). The day is for work, the night is for sleep. Embrace it. Don’t fight against it.
Take exercise. One online doctor says the brain interprets inactivity as sleep. So if you don’t take exercise the body will think you have already slept. Don’t be surprised then if you find it difficult to sleep at night. Maybe taking some exercise on your own without the family would be good – and let your wife do the same.
Plan for sleep. Make a good bedroom environment – right temperature, no clutter which leads to distraction. Avoid caffeine in the evening. To wind down before bed take a bath, or read something gentle.
But apart from these straightforward practicalities there are deeper issues which need to be part of our mindset if we are going to be resilient under difficult circumstances which may yet persist for a long time. These relate not just to our body chemistry as creatures, but to what we are as human beings made in the image of God. Patterned on God himself, such things as truth and purpose are essential to our well-being. We need to understand ourselves in the crisis at this level too if we are going to be able to cope well.
We are designed to be people of integrity. We are to live by the truth. If we try to cope with hard times by continually running away from reality, it will not serve us well. Continually watching box-sets is not the answer.
The Christian’s great comfort in times of trouble is the doctrine of the loving sovereignty of God. We do not have to live through fantasy or in denial because we know that this situation is not an accident, or even ultimately harmful to us. We are to face reality, but face it with God. ‘If God is for us, who (or what) can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). With God we can not only face reality but face down reality. This is where we find resilience.
It is about living and walking by faith in the midst of the dark challenges. This is Joseph looking to God even in Egypt (Genesis 39:20, 21). This is Paul and Silas singing at midnight while chained in the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25). This is Abraham believing that God would fulfill his promise of a child despite all the outward circumstances indicating otherwise (Romans 4:19, 20). This is the integrity of putting into practice the truth that God is the God who is there.
Seeing the purpose
In her book Resilience: A Spiritual Project, Kirsten Birkett writes: ‘It is clear that a sense of meaning to life – that it is not random or arbitrary – and a sense of purpose – that it is heading somewhere – are key psychological factors in creating resilience.’1
God has a purpose in sending the virus. Many pastors see the lockdown as simply marking time until we can get back to what we are supposed to be doing with the church. But I’m not sure that this is helpful. Hasn’t God spoken to the world through the pandemic? Hasn’t he humbled the churches in shutting us down for a period? As pastors we should be discerning what God is saying and aligning ourselves with his purpose?
This will give us a right sense of mission during these days which energizes us. This is where we will find the zeal and a sense that we must bring our message Sunday by Sunday, even online.
We need to be thinking of ways that a bad situation can be turned into good. When we can do this we gain a sense of triumph over the difficulties. This becomes a great source of new enthusiasm. We no longer feel oppressed by our circumstances but on top of them.
We know that God has been shaking the secular complacency and challenging everyone about eternal destinies through this terrible virus. As one example, our own church has started putting out a crate of Bibles and the booklet by John Lennox, Where is God in a coronavirus world? for people to take freely. Many have been taken. This kind of venture makes the church feel as if we are using the crisis rather than just watching it unfold. That is so positive.
Looking to heaven
We gain steel and determination as we look beyond this present coronavirus world to the glorious world to come.
The Puritan Thomas Case says it so well: ‘Affliction reveals the glory of heaven. To the weary, it is rest; to the banished, home; to the scorned, glory; to the captive, liberty; to the warrior, conquest; to the conqueror, a crown of life; to the hungry, hidden manna; to the thirsty, a fountain of life and rivers of pleasure; to the grieved, fullness of joy; to the mourner it is pleasures for evermore.’2
So short-term and long-term, may the Lord give us strength and resilience in ministry.
 Resilience: A Spiritual Project (Latimer Studies, 2015), p. 34.
 Quoted in Voices from the Past, Puritan Devotional Readings, (Banner of Truth, 2009), p. 189.