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4 suggestions for shepherding pastors during the coronavirus

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 and 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.  

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