Pandemic Pastors and What Remains

After a few years of devastating blows or tiny, constant cuts, what remains at the bottom of your well?

Josh Retterer / 10.4.22

National Geographic ran an article by Alejandra Borunda in March 2022 titled, “The Deceptively Simple Plan to Replenish California’s Groundwater.” We all have seen reports of the devastating effects caused by the reservoirs drying up, afflicting several western states. The problem is easy to see, ideas to fix it are even easier to propose, but as always, we get hung up in the doing. This paragraph in the piece stopped me in my tracks.

“It’s obvious we’ve been living well beyond our means,” says Aaron Fukuda, the manager of the Tulare Irrigation District in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most seriously overdrawn regions of the state. “We all know we’ve either got to shrink the demand or increase the supply … and groundwater recharge is becoming the go-to solution.”

After these last few years, I’ve felt overdrawn, just as Mr. Fukuda brilliantly describes. I was indirectly tipped off to this fact when I bit the heads off a couple of friends, and I mean clean off. I offered an apology, but I’m pretty sure stuff like that leaves behind some, um, slight redness and swelling. As I was starting to list the reasons as to why (beyond their being annoying) I realized that the deep, previously inexhaustible, reservoir of patience I had was gone.

The proverbial well was dry, save for a couple of rusty tin cans and a mouse skeleton.

While this is going on (and symptomatic of my lack of patience) I started to complain to a friend about the nihilism I was seeing among the clergy, and wanting to write something helpful (read: vaguely reproachful). He suggested I adjust my gaze vertically. I felt like Derek Zoolander, “God?” Once I did that, I suddenly wanted to ask some clergy friends a particular, and not unrelated, question: What remains?

More specifically, after a few years of devastating blows or tiny, constant cuts, shepherding a flock who occasionally are doing the cutting, raising a family, and just trying to exist as a human being, what remains at the bottom of your well? So I asked!

Tyler Miller answered with an honesty that made me feel less alone with my dusty-bottomed cistern:

I was a pastor in Los Angeles at a church that was in the graduation phase from plant to established church. Planting a church in LA was taxing in ways I didn’t realize until four years in, when my body started telling me it had been quietly keeping score. So, when in year five covid hit, it really did hit like insult to injury. Like being handed a brick backpack when you are barely keeping pace to begin with.

Honestly though, Covid changed everything and nothing. It was a magnifying glass, exposing and increasing creaky cracked foundations in churches and pastors and sheep alike. Burnt out pastors barely hanging on, moved, changed roles, or quit all together. Problematic sheep turned up the volume from ten to eleven to twenty two. Covid took the last vestiges of creature comforts left for weary pastorates and consumed them like a locust swarm. All that was left was the cold hard ground floor of ministry.

If any clergy person had an excuse to dip into the icy waters of nihilism, it was Derek Sweatman. Just read what his COVID experience was like!

At first, COVID bothered me. It tampered with my parish. In all, our church was shuttered for 16 months, long enough to feel like things would never return to the past. But then, in the heart of our shutdown, I got cancer. Stage III in the colon. I stopped caring about COVID and started fighting for my life instead. They told me it was treatable, so I jumped right in with chemo and radiation. When my surgery arrived, that’s when things went wrong. One surgery turned into three, and I don’t even remember the last two because I was in a coma. I lost nearly 40lbs in the hospital, and my ability to walk. The church thought I was going to die. The refinancing our church was going through at the time was put on hold, because lenders don’t like it when the top leader is on death’s door. But I woke up. I learned to walk again. And on July 11, 2021, I shuffled into the pulpit and preached at our church’s reopening.

Seven months later my doctor told me the cancer had spread, and that surgery wasn’t an option. When colon cancer spreads, it’s not good. “We don’t really treat this for cure”, he said. I stared at him. He continued, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I did. I also knew that I had a sermon and a Sunday to keep preparing for. Those Sundays always keep showing up, cancer or not. We decided not to tell the congregation until I got through a few treatment rounds and until we had a better handle on what was happening. Then, from the chemo chair during my third or fourth round, I sent out an email to let the church in to what was happening.

As I told my friend and fellow pastor, Chad Brooks, “It’s been strange to feel all that ministry come back at you.” I’ve given almost 16 years to this parish, and right now it feels like they’re pastoring me.

The last person I asked was our friend, Pastor Mandy Smith. She zooms out a bit further to take in a larger view of the body of Christ and the times, by looking towards another sketchy, stressful time for the church. We are not without hope. Far from it.

This moment in the church’s life has often made me think of one little line in Acts 8. Right after the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. This is when Saul set about his mission to destroy the church, going from house to house, dragging off both men and women and putting them in prison. This tender shoot of the early church needed protection, watering, not prison and scattering. Until verse 4: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” God can’t help but turn what was intended for evil towards good. This is the hope of resurrection, not just that we will one day be raised from the dead but there’s life hidden in every dying thing — scattering of the Good News, even in what looks like only persecution and diaspora. I have to trust that although we’ve had a great resignation of pastors, there is some new possibility we can’t yet see … I don’t know the answers but I’m trusting God does.

She ends by pointing up. What I discovered, after directing my gaze vertically, and seeing God’s work in and through his shepherds, is that my well wasn’t actually dry. It couldn’t be, because I’m not the source. That patience I lacked was made up for my God’s grace. It’s what allows me to apologize, to forgive, and what heals the wounds inflicted by and upon me.

Instead of worrying about empty wells, I can fall back into the arms of the ocean, the everlasting, inexhaustible source of life which is Jesus Christ. That’s what remains.

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10 responses to “Pandemic Pastors and What Remains”

  1. Eric says:

    Wonderful! Thank you!

  2. Grateful for this, and for the reminder of the freedom of NOT being the source!

  3. Nathan Hoff says:

    Yes. Thank you. Tears.

  4. As a pastor, I found that the following really helped — and my congregation encouraged me to do this — I took a full month off. I traveled with my son and then went on retreat. Being away from the news, social media, and daily worries and being immersed in nature, fun, good food, sleep, and God’s healing grace brought me back to life. I encourage pastors to be candid with their churches and take the Biblical prescription of Sabbath: Time for rest and re-creation. It sure was a blessing for me.

  5. Well I’m actually in the midst of my first covid bout right now, having been essentially moored in my little condo for five days… and counting. Having now to plan how to cover our weekend liturgies (a vespers style acoustic guitar liturgy on Saturday, and our Eucharist on Sunday), I’m aware of how many people are unsure of attending (much less leading…) when their pastoral leader is down for the count. Oh, it’ll come together, but I feel the fragility right now. To be reminded that this is ultimately not “my” work or even “our” work, but rather a case of seeing what God might be up to even in the midst of the toughest of days was a most welcome and gracious reminder. Thanks Josh, and thanks to your three colleagues who had stories to share.

  6. JA Smith says:

    I love this. My take has been similar. I picture a well and I’ve said to my colleagues, “I’m tired but I have a deep well to draw from and that’s what I’m doing.” It’s been so difficult at times but a mental picture of the well that never runs dry, is what “restores my soul.” Thanks for reminding me once again.

  7. Thank you for sharing. I left ministry in the UMC after 9 years this July. Last Spring I remember experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue for the first time from the inside. It’s been good to step out of some of the relentless parts of pastoring. One of the things I’ve come to realize: when we’re “on” the cultural flow is “off” and vice versa, making it challenging on you and your family throughout the year. My family now gets me all weekend and my evenings are all mostly spent at home. How can we change this in our profession? This was one of most demoralizing parts of pastoring in my opinion.

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