4 suggestions for shepherding pastors during the coronavirus

May 28, 2020

When the COVID-19 affects began in early March, nationwide mental health needs dramatically increased. The Disaster Distress Helpline, a resource for people experiencing a mental health crisis, saw an 891% increase when comparing March 2019 to March 2020. Prescriptions for anxiety increased by 34% in one month, and online therapy company Talkspace reported a 65% increase in clients from February to early May.  

Concurrently, the demands on churches and ministries experienced a similar increase, resulting from the explosion of community-based needs due to job losses, food insecurity, and COVID-19 itself, as well as the rapid shift from in-person to online church services and groups.   

As the nation’s mental health has suffered under the weight of COVID-19, it’s important to remember that pastors and ministry leaders are human. The personal emotional and mental health of ministry leaders is regularly and severely stretched, even when times are good. Prior to COVID-19, 23% of Protestant pastors surveyed said they had personally struggled with some form of mental illness. And unfortunately, ministry leaders are not immune to deaths by suicide, as seen with the recent tragic losses of pastors Darrin Patrick and Jarrid Wilson.  

Working at Key Ministry provides a front-row seat to the mental and emotional health needs of people across the country, in part because our founder and president, Dr. Steve Grcevich, is a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist. But we also have insight into the mental health needs of church leaders through the ministry network we’ve built over the last 18 years.  

By mid-March, when COVID-19 was upending everything from sporting events to school schedules to tax-filing deadlines, we were very concerned about the side impacts of so much isolation, restriction, loss, and unwelcome change, and how churches would respond. As churches shifted how they deliver ministry, much of our work over the past 10 weeks has been focused on equipping churches and ministry leaders to meet mental health needs, both in their communities and their own personal needs.  

We’ve created original content to address specific mental health concerns for individuals, parents, and ministry leaders. And significant new resources have been developed by other organizations to help pastors take care of their churches and themselves like CoronavirusandTheChurch.com and ResilientChurchLeadership.com. Liquid Church in metro New York City, New York, developed a mental health support guide for their own ministry team called “Put Your Own Mask On First” that is available as a free download.   

But we fear that many pastors are not getting the message or are afraid that admitting their own mental health needs will result in losing their position in the ministry. With the overwhelming number of resources and support options now available, it is more important than ever for denominational and associational leaders to provide regular emotional and mental health guidance to their pastors, through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Pastors will listen to the leadership of those in authority over them personally and over their churches.

As the nation’s mental health has suffered under the weight of COVID-19, it’s important to remember that pastors and ministry leaders are human. The personal emotional and mental health of ministry leaders is regularly and severely stretched, even when times are good.  

Here are a few things that we encourage denominational and associational leaders to do in order to take care of the shepherds who take care of the rest of us:  

1. Provide free online therapy services designed for pastors. Many pastors have accountability partners, but ministry leaders also need access to skilled therapists who understand the importance of their role in their communities. While accountability relationships are necessary and helpful, a therapist serves a different role and is a neutral third party. A skilled therapist is a critical resource to help pastors process the weight of the grief being experienced in many communities. Pastors are particularly susceptible to secondary trauma; this was an issue even before all of the COVID-19 affects. 

2. Develop an online pastor’s retreat. Virtual retreats and conferences have been developed for women’s and special needs ministries and can serve as a structure or template for developing other events. The purpose of a retreat would be to refresh and revive pastors to continue meeting the shifting COVID-19 demands. If an event is strongly recommended from leaders in denominations and associations, the pastor might be more likely to commit to the time required to participate.

3. Weekly three-step guidance from denominational or regional church leadership. In one of our webinars, Pastor Brad Hoefs of Fresh Hope for Mental Health mentioned that weekly, brief action steps from trusted sources that address the specific needs of a denomination or geographic region would be extremely helpful.

For example, three-step guidance in mid-March would have been focused on taking ministry online. For now, the guidance could be focused on how to prioritize reopening. Future guidance may address emerging social issues, such as significant unemployment, food insecurity, and partnering with other local churches to meet community needs. Such guidance can also include simple steps for pastors to strengthen personal mental health or recognize when it’s time to seek professional help.  

4. Personal contact. Key Ministry interacts with and supports a large network of special needs ministry leaders and parents. The most challenging part of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has been maintaining contact with special needs families while ministry leaders and volunteers are not able to interact with families in person. But possibly the biggest success we’ve seen is the impact of regular, personal contact. Individuals and families receiving regular phone calls or other contacts from ministry leaders or volunteers are extremely grateful for the support and the effort made. If a denomination is organized by region, it’s worth the time and effort for the leaders to contact each pastor on a regular basis by phone or with a short video call, perhaps just to listen. 

Our shepherds need to be as healthy as possible—for themselves, their families, and for those that they serve. With Barna reporting that many pastors are feeling tired, overwhelmed, and lonely, it’s never been more important to support pastor mental health.  

Catherine Boyle

Catherine Boyle is Mental Health Ministry Director for Key Ministry. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24