Pastors on Edge: The Challenge of Church Leadership During COVID-19

COVID-19 has disrupted America at every level, with no institution, organization or business safe from its impact. But the virus is hitting the nation’s religious landscape especially hard—and some pastors are starting to wonder if they’re up to the challenge.

It’s not that pastors have it worse than other leaders right now. I can’t imagine the stresses faced by, say, the Superintendent of a local School Board, the CEO of a hospital, a small business owner, the governor of a state, or young parents dealing all at once with job, finances and educating their kids at home because school is closed.

The difference is that pastors and other church leaders not only have to deal with the physical consequences of the virus but also the spiritual ones.

America’s church habits are changing before our eyes

America’s church habits are changing before our eyes. After five months of what amounts to a nationwide church shutdown, the accustomed ways of attending, participating and ministering are no longer part of our lives. I blogged previously on some of the changes we can expect to see in churches in the coming years as the result of the virus.

If, as psychologists tell us, nine weeks is enough time to stop one habit and begin a new one, where does that leave us after a period twice as long? It seems more and more likely that COVID-19 doesn’t represent a hiccup for American churches—it may be more like an earthquake.

And many pastors don’t feel qualified to lead their churches through what’s coming next.

There are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, the old leadership models don’t work in this new world. Learning how to market your brand, grow attendance and build facilities worked twenty years ago. Effective ministry today is built on personal authenticity and each congregation’s willingness to find its own place and voice in ministry.

Another thing that weighs on many pastors is that they feel ill-equipped to lead through chaotic times like we’re facing today. Churches may be the most traditional of all organizations and most pastors were trained in a certain way of doing ministry, worship and decision-making that respect their churches’ past experience of keeping people informed and happy.

But COVID-19 places pastors in the position of chief decision-maker. Despite whatever other committees, staff members, lay leaders or congregational meetings might be expected to have a major role, the fact is that almost every decision ends up on the pastor’s desk. The situation is too dynamic to lead any other way. The pastor decides what to do, how to do it, when to do it and when to adjust it. He must also be prepared to accept responsibility for its outcome.

For many, the load of that responsibility is getting heavy.

The fallout will likely be significant. I served a church in Charleston when Hurricane Hugo hit and remember vividly the stresses and challenges of cleaning up and repairing that following the storm. But it was what came after that really sticks in my mind. Within eighteen months many of my pastor friends moved to other churches because they were so exhausted that they had to have a fresh start.

Today’s situation is worse because of the way it just keeps going, with no end in sight. I won’t be surprised if in the next year or so many pastors find new churches to serve while others leave the ministry altogether.

Strength to stay the course

So how are we as pastors to respond? I don’t have any glib answers or spiritual clichés to offer. But a few things I’m learning through these months may help some find the strength to stay the course.

  • Talk to as many people as possible—in your church and outside your church. I’ve learned from lots of new friends through the last few months.
  • Be willing to try new things even while you’re still trying to make old things work. I think of it as building an airplane while I’m flying it.
  • Adopt the leadership style described by John Naisbitt a few years ago called, “High Tech/High Touch.” Use the best technology that’s available in your ministry but at the same time be constantly looking for ways to stay personal with people. Learn to use Facebook while not neglecting the writing of personal notes of encouragement.
  • Learn to thrive in chaos. Uncertainty and change are facts of life for every pastor today—to think otherwise sets us up for failure.

But there’s one more thing, really the main thing that we pastors must value, nurture and protect in this season above all else. We have to stay close to Jesus. To the degree that we passionately pursue him, our leadership will work out just the way it should.

In his book, “Diary of an Old Soul,” nineteenth-century Scottish pastor George MacDonald captured the essence of the leadership style I believe is more critical today than ever before:

My Lord, I find that nothing else will do but follow at the Thy footsteps, sit at Thy feet,

And where I have Thee not, still run to meet.

Roses are scentless, hopeless are the morns, rest is but weakness, laughter crackling thorns,

If Thou the Truth do not make them the true: Thou art my life, O Christ, and nothing else will do.

For more content like this follow my Facebook Page Mike Turner Faith and Family