By J. Scott Hudgins
CBFNC Director of Helping Pastor’s Thrive
In late March my congregation, like many others, established a special task force on the COVID-19 pandemic to help our staff and church navigate through this remarkable season of our church’s life. Often at the beginning of each meeting (by Zoom, of course), my pastor will ask the group a recurring question: “What are we learning?”
Her question is one that I’ve grown to deeply appreciate. She could have asked us to share our opinions, or our advice, or even our expertise. After all, we who gather are professionals – educators, counselors, nurses, managers, social workers, and long-time church members. Yet she intentionally asks us as a group to think about what and how we are learning as a church in the midst of unforeseen conditions we would never have chosen for our community or congregation. To speak of learning is to recognize the importance of openness and vulnerability, listening and sharing, discovery and surprise. Like rich soil, learning cultivates growth, sustains health, and nourishes life itself.
One thing I think we have learned in our task force is the extraordinary amount of time, energy, and determination our pastor and staff have given to ensure that our shared life of worship, ministry, mission, and care continue in the face of all the challenges of physical distancing and a closed building. Their commitment to faithful adaptation of our congregational life in the midst of this new reality bears witness to their vocation and the power of their love for us and their love for God.
We have also learned that this season has taken a toll on our pastors. They emerge tired and weary, sometimes anxious and worried about how long these challenges will persist. I have heard from many of my minister friends questions like this: When will we all get back to normal? Will there be a normal again? Do I have the energy and stamina to persist at the present rate? Can I afford to take time off or rest in the midst of this?
I am privileged to direct CBFNC’s Helping Pastors Thrive program, a series of initiatives designed to provide ministers with opportunities for enhancing pastoral leadership and identity through peer and mentor-based learning. The programs also provide focused time away to rest and reflect on their work, share with others, and participate in worship and times of prayer.
Over the last year, I have talked with dozens of pastors, and have carefully observed their participation in our events. I often find myself asking my own pastor’s question: “What are we learning from pastors who participate in our programs?” And in helping these pastors to thrive, what might I share with congregations as to how they can ensure their ministers remain vital, cared for and well nourished? Here is some of what I’ve learned:
- If pastors are to thrive, they need to spend intentional, dedicated time with other pastors who share a common vocation, face similar challenges, and understand the joys and burdens of ministry.
- If pastors are to thrive, they need to be engaged in ongoing opportunities for learning and spiritual formation. Seminary education is a great foundation, but there is no substitute for continually learning in the midst of practice. Taking time to learn and discover is essential.
- If pastors are to thrive, they need regular opportunities for rest. The wide range of skills and competencies needed to thrive in ministry is really staggering compared to many other professional fields. Just navigating between life and death, youth and senior adults, community and congregational roles can be exhausting. There is no substitute for rest. The most fertile fields must lay fallow for a season.
- If pastors are to thrive, they need opportunities for prayer, worship and spiritual formation when they are not responsible for leading or planning. In a recent workshop retreat, one pastor shared with me that it had been years since he participated in a service of prayer where he was simply a participant. Another wrote in her evaluation of the joy of worshipping where she had no leadership responsibility.
- Finally, if pastors are to thrive they will benefit from congregations who are committed to their vitality, and encourage, support and provide their ministers with the freedom to continue learning, to gather with peers, and to rest.
CBFNC’s Helping Pastors Thrive program provides learning opportunities throughout the year. Upcoming workshops for the Fall of 2020 will be moved to a virtual platform and include a Sermon Camp hosted Backstory Preaching™, a five-week seminar for ministers serving in associate roles, and an online gathering that explores helping individuals and families with end of life challenges. More information on these programs can be found on the CBFNC website at cbfnc.org.