For some time before the Covid-19 crisis (if we can remember back that far), we were hearing concern from pastors that they were becoming “soft targets” for the frustration boiling over in our society. Clergy told us that they were increasingly on the receiving end of anger from others—anger that felt significantly out of proportion to any “offense or slight” the complainant had experienced. Folks were coming to church already frustrated/angry/displeased about their life in the world and were letting those feelings fuel unbounded behavior in church, often directed at church leadership.
At best, the relationship between pastors and their boards is trusting, healthy, marked by a good understanding of each party’s role in leadership. Some responsibility (and the appropriate authority) is carried primarily by the board. Some responsibility (and the appropriate authority) is carried primarily by the pastor (and/or church staff). And some responsibility and authority are shared, in a way that strengthens all parties and builds up the congregation. In times of crisis, however, these roles are under pressure; boundaries can quickly get blurred. And in this particular crisis, when ever more tasks are being taken up by pastors in order to manage the mechanics of church life remotely, the stress on pastoral leadership is probably at an all-time high.
About six weeks into the current crisis, the facilitator of one of our clergy cohorts met online with her group of pastors. The facilitator asked: “Give me three words that describe how you are feeling right now about your ministry.” The answers:
worried, angry, delight
exhaustion, grief, over it
grief, worry, worn out
relieved, disappointed, anticipatory stress
exhausted, anticipatory hope
desire/longing, grief, anticipatory hope
disappointed, inspired, curious
One participant said I’m tired of being the little engine that could, the cheerleader
There have always been hidden complexities in the work of pastors, but never more than right now. And so we ask: If you are a board member, how are you contributing to that complexity? Are you bringing your own anxiety (or anger) into board meetings? Are you pressuring the pastor in order to relieve some tension in your own life?
Or, to put it more kindly: How can you and your fellow board members better support your pastor in this time?
Some guidance for boards in this extraordinary season:
Don’t over-function. A board’s role in facing current challenges is to guide and nurture the strategic values of the organization—not to micro-manage the leader.
Don’t over-advise. For instance, there are many ways to worship online. There are several options for celebrating the Eucharist when the congregation cannot gather. There are good alternatives for organizing online giving. Rather than have each member of the board rehearse their own preferences, or experiences, or third-hand wisdom on these matters (“my sister-in-law in Kansas City said their church is doing communion this way – why haven’t we tried that?”), trust the pastor and designated team for that decision. The church board should not become a review board for operational judgment.
Finally, board members might examine the kinds of questions they are asking their pastors and one other. Are these “how” and “when” questions that demand a specific answer, which in all likelihood is not even available? (“When are we going to re-open? How are we going to manage X? When can we start doing weddings again? When will we know if the youth mission trip can still happen this summer?”) Re-opening questions in particular can become a trap. There is so much out of our control in large parts of our lives. Pushing a decision on when to re-open feels more like an attempt to shape some control over the future than to attend to faith and community needs.
Instead, work on asking open-ended questions (questions for which you genuinely do not know the answer) that can help renew your congregation’s values:
What can we do best this summer to witness to the hope and life we know in Jesus Christ?
What does the neighborhood most need, that we might offer?
What does it mean to be the church in a time of unavoidable uncertainty?
What are the most essential parts of our life together?
What have we – surprisingly – not missed over the last several weeks?
What is the message we are communicating to those who are new to faith or are seeking faith anew, those who are using this time to approach a relationship with God?
You might even start your next meeting with the following poem:
Questions About Angels
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?
If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.
She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.
- What kinds of questions is Collins encouraging us to ask about angels?
- Why do the medieval theologians control the court?
- How does this poem make you feel? Where does it take you? Where does it leave you?
- What kinds of questions have we been asking in our meetings of late?
- What questions might we ask, today, instead?