Only human in a pandemic

Dr. Bruce Hopler

Vice President of Church Strengthening

  • Church & pastoral health


While this year has been undoubtedly challenging for everyone, it has been brutal for pastors. They’ve been having to lead their congregation through massive and sudden change without warning and usually without a roadmap.

They make the best decisions that they can, but know that whatever they decide, there will be a high percentage of their congregation that’s not going to agree and sometimes a lot of emotion or anger.

Pastors are weary. They have decision fatigue. They’re emotionally exhausted, and some fully burned out.

That is why we started a series of videos geared toward pastors’ emotional health. Each week I’ll interview one of our pastors or leaders to help give us practical wisdom and guidance.

This week I’d like to welcome pastor Jason Eddy. Jason is one of our Converge Great Lakes pastors, the executive pastor at Bethel Church, Janesville, Wisconsin. He’s also a regional director for PIR Ministries. He has served all of our districts in many ways.

All of my normal rhythms and boundaries are gone.

Jason Eddy: Thanks, Bruce. I’m glad to talk to you today. Thanks for doing this for our pastors.

Bruce Hopler: Let’s dive in. Why has this pandemic been so draining for pastors?

JE: Well, I think it may be different for everyone, but a few things that are common is I noticed in my own life, all of my normal rhythms and boundaries are gone.

In one of the books I’ve been reading, Lee Cockerell, retired vice president of Disney, says most people do a better job of managing their professional time than they do their personal time. And for me, all the lines have been blurred.

I used to have to go to the office for professional time and then go home for personal time, and I spent multiple weeks having to work from home. And those lines are all blurred. And it affected us in different ways.

So, for some of the extroverts, we were more isolated, and it was troublesome for some of our introverts. Their time of solitude was gone because they had all these distractions constantly going on. So I think that’s one reason.

Another reason is the normal bucket fillers are gone. So like I would say for extroverts, it was I would fill my bucket on Sunday morning to see all the people or to be able to preach to a roomful of people, and now that’s gone.

For others, some of the bucket fillers are just times of solitude, or they go into their study for extended times of prayer and Scripture reading. And it’s been harder to find that if you’re working at home and there’s kids running around. A lot of the bucket fillers are gone.

But maybe the primary reason is we’re all responding to higher levels of anxiety and grief — both within ourselves but from everybody else. Even amongst our boards, we have higher levels of anxiety for the well-being of the church. And it’s all affected even our personal lives differently and our relationships with grandparents or missing the grandkids. And we have church leaders that are concerned. When is the church going to get back to normal? So everybody’s anxiety and grief are at an all-time high.

I think David Platt said we were living with our anxiety buckets full before we went into March, and then the coronavirus just gave us an overflow of anxiety for us all to deal with. One of the things my wife and I have noticed is all of our relationships are awkward now. Where we’re trying to figure out: Are we social distancing? Are we not? Can we get together in person? Or do we need to do it over Zoom?

And everybody’s in a different place. Some are feeling very strongly that we need to wear masks and social distance. Some were over that in March and are frustrated that we can’t be in person. So it’s changed every one of our relationships in a different way.

We’re being second-guessed constantly. Every decision there’s someone who disagrees with it.

I also think pastors are experiencing a higher level of disunity in the body. And it goes back to that we’re trying to decide how to respond to a pandemic. And do we need to err on the side of caution and be very vigilant to social distance and require everyone to wear masks? Or, as other camps would say, “That’s way overblown, and we need to move forward,” and the disagreement on these things.

I don’t think I’ve talked to one pastor whose board is even in agreement about how the church needs to respond. In fact, I’ve been watching churches there in Orlando, multiple pastors who I really respect and look up to, and all three churches are doing different things. So we’re trying to respond to something with very limited information, and the information is always changing. So that creates a high level of stress.

And then we’re being second-guessed constantly. Every decision there’s someone who disagrees with it, and again, feels we’re moving too fast or too slow.

And then I think one of the last things I’ve been thinking about is the markers of progress are gone. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s time that we reassess how we measure success.

But I know even in our church, some of the primary markers are our attendance, our giving and it’s hard to know who’s engaged. We have higher level of participation online, but I don’t even think that’s for the full service. So it’s just really hard to know who’s engaging in the ministries of the church and who isn’t.

I am thankful that in some ways, the marks of discipleship like salvations and people engaging in discipleship groups, we’re seeing some increase there. But it’s just really hard to measure who’s engaging, who isn’t. Who needs care and follow up and who doesn’t.

I used to notice people weren’t here on Sunday. And I could say, Maybe that household needs a follow up this week, and all of those markers of progress are just gone. And we’re starting over from scratch. So I think this time is one of the most draining seasons of ministry I’ve experienced.

BH: I imagine that for most pastors, when the pandemic broke out, and things started happening, they probably thought, “OK, I know a thing or two about change. I know a thing or two about leadership. I know to a thing or two about stress. And I know a thing or two about, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

And so there’s all those clichés, but they felt maybe semi-equipped; we’ll figure this out. Then they must come to the point where they start maybe crossing a line with their emotional exhaustion or physical exhaustion, maybe feeling spiritually depleted, and they start moving into this area of burnout. One of the scary things about moving into burnout is they keep moving on without realizing that they’re in burnout. And so they can’t just dig in deeper and deeper and deeper in a hole. What are some of the warning signs that I’m in danger of burnout?

I experienced burnout, and one thing I learned about myself is that I’m quicker to realize what I need to do in my professional role than my personal.

JE: This is something I’m really happy to talk about even in my own experience in 2012. I experienced burnout, and one thing I learned about myself is that I’m quicker to realize what I need to do in my professional role than my personal.

So if you were to ask me, “What does my church need?” I’m quicker to say, “Well, I’m praying that this and this and this would happen for our church.” If you asked me, “What does my household need, my wife and kids, I can say, “Well, these are the things I really would like to see happen for my household.” But if you ask me, “What does Jason need?” I’m very slow to answer that question.

And so actually, one of my assignments on my day off is to spend time assessing: What does Jason need? Where am I strong? Where am I weak? The primary problem with burnout for us as leaders is we’re so slow to see it when it’s happening in ourselves.

So we encourage pastors with PIR to begin looking for the warning signs. It’s kind of like you’re driving in the car, and that warning light goes on, and you say, “OK, we have a problem.” So when I talk with pastors, I say, “If you’re driving your car and it overheats, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?”

You’re going to shut it down, and you’re going to try to identify what needs to be addressed, so you don’t blow the engine up. And what we’re watching with pastors is that when you put us under high levels of stress and high levels of grief, for an extended period of time, there begins to be warning signs that maybe something needs to be addressed, or there needs to be action taken.

So here’s just a couple warning signs. We look at it physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. So physical signs are some of the first places I began to notice that I need to take caution, and one of the first ways is maybe trouble sleeping. If you’re waking up at two and three in the morning and your mind is racing, you can’t get back to sleep. That’s a warning sign that your body is starting to respond to high levels of stress. If you’re not waking up feeling rested in the morning. That’s another warning sign that the body’s starting to feel too stressed out.

I talked to a pastor recently who said, “On my day off, I just crash. I can’t get out of bed. I’m so exhausted. And then I get concerned that if I don’t get enough rest on my day off, I got to start again the next day on that, and the treadmill is just going too fast.” So there might be different physical signs, the warning signs. It could be indigestion, headaches, a lot of things, but you just want to start noticing if something’s not going right in your physical body. That’s a good reason to say, Here’s a warning sign that maybe it’s getting to be a little much.

Emotional signs are the ones we don’t like to talk about, but we might begin becoming increasingly frustrated or irritable. I had a pastor reach out to us at PIR. And actually, his wife reached out to us, and so as I was talking to his pastor, he said, “I’ve been in ministry almost 30 years, and I am all of a sudden losing my temper. And I don’t know what’s happening. This is not like me. I’ve not done like this before.”

But that’s an emotional sign that there’s something wrong, that the stress is getting to be too great. For other people, it might be just a general discouragement or feeling like we’re living under a dark cloud. It can be general depression. It can be high levels of anxiety just emotionally.

If we have trouble getting back to the place that life is good, it’s a warning sign that our body’s maybe getting a little behind the eight ball.

Spiritually is honestly maybe the hardest one to identify. Because many of us are just consistently in the word, and we’re in prayer and we’re checking that off like, “OK, I’m stewarding my spiritual life,” but where I start to see a warning sign spiritually is when I began experiencing greater levels of insecurity, or I begin to feel like I’m not a good pastor.

That’s to me a warning sign that something spiritually is getting depleted when I’m struggling with these feelings that I don’t normally struggle with. So again, another call we’ve received from a pastor and basically said, “I don’t think I’m a good pastor anymore.” And I said to this pastor, “OK, but what would your wife say?” And he said, “Well, that’s not a fair question. My wife thinks I’m a good pastor.”

And so as we were talking about trying to discern God’s direction for this brother, I just asked him the question, “If you could serve as a pastor with confidence and joy, would you still want to serve in this way? Or, if you are full of confidence, enjoy serving as a pastor, would you still rather go start a business or go work in the marketplace somewhere?”

And he said, “You know what, if I could do it with confidence and joy, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. It’s just been so long; it seems impossible.” And so we’re starting the journey together just to begin to say, “How do we come back to that place where spiritually, we’re confident in who God created us to be? And we’re confident of his call on our life.”

And so another warning sign of this, some measure of spiritual depletion, would be that we begin questioning God’s call. And we begin thinking, “Well, I knew God had called me to this place of ministry in the past, but now I just feel like I’m not effective. And maybe I’ve missed God’s call. And I’m not where I should be anymore.”

And it’s good for us to have some people we can talk to and pray with these things about because maybe God is bringing us to a place of transition. Or maybe we’re just experiencing a warning sign of burnout where there’s a spiritual depletion happening even with our best attempts to steward it. We’re just under greater levels of anxiety, grief and stress, and we need to find someone to help us get our tank filled up again. So these are some of the warning signs that with PIR we’re talking with pastors about.

BH: I appreciate you kind of separating some of those things out. Anybody who knows my testimony, about 10 years ago, I had a complete burnout. And when I did, it was a complete worldview crash. I didn’t even know what I believed anymore. And one of the things that I’ve learned when I’m coaching people is exactly what you’re talking about. When it’s difficult, it becomes so entangled that it is very difficult to begin to separate what’s physical, what’s emotional, what’s spiritual. It’s just a mess, and so, therefore, we go into escape mode. And for pastors, escape looks all different ways. And one can be obviously falling into sin, but one can be I just want out.

And so it’s important that you begin to take the threads out and begin to separate, well, is this spiritual? Or is it really emotional? And kind of separate out those things so that you can begin to deal with that. So what are some intentional things that pastors can do to inflate their flat tires?

We need to preach the gospel to ourselves in this and that the blood of Jesus came to cover our shame.

JE: I think the first thing for me in the beginning of my journey of acknowledging that I had a flat tire, there was so much shame that came with that, that I didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. So even to say there’s something going flat in my spiritual life that feels like failure. I don’t want to acknowledge it to anybody.

And the first thing I would say to us as leaders is that we need to preach the gospel to ourselves in this and that the blood of Jesus came to cover our shame. So we need to have the courage to be able to talk about it with safe people that I’m seeing a warning sign here that maybe there’s a tire going flat.

And even if it’s spiritual, to say, “I’m doing my best to steward my spiritual life, but for whatever reason, I’m still seeing limitations.” And I think that’s what’s hard for us as leaders sometimes is to want to acknowledge we have limitations.

So when we talk about having a flat tire, I’m not saying this is a failure in any way of one of our leaders. I’m just saying we have limitations. Certainly, when I do physical exercise, I understand I have limitations. That’s the first place I’m willing to acknowledge it.

But to say I have limitations also in my emotional strength, and I have limitations in my spiritual strength. That is the first step in being able to see how that flat tire can be refilled.

If you have a physical flat tire, it’s getting the big rocks in place, and it’s assessing, “Am I getting enough sleep?” I would just tell you, Bruce, that when the coronavirus started back in March and in early April, I could not get enough sleep, and I did not understand because I track my sleep since I burnt out. And I was thinking to myself, “I don’t understand why I can’t get enough sleep. I’m sleeping two hours more a night, and I still feel like I’m going to crash at two o’clock in the afternoon.” So I just was intentional to keep making sure that sleep bucket is getting filled.

And then exercise is the same way. For many, many years, I would replace exercise with that meeting that I felt was important. And what I’m learning is that I will reach my physical limitations sooner if I don’t keep stewarding my physical health with enough sleep. And then enough exercise.

And then another one I’m talking with pastors about a lot right now is a day off and vacation. Some might think that this season is like a vacation for pastors, that the building is closed, but in our local church, our team was working six days a week just to get the video online for Sundays.

And I was watching as our lead pastor didn’t have a day off because he was spending his whole day off recording and trying to get that video to upload. So the boundaries were different. And we had to learn as a team: How are we gonna get new rhythms in here of downtime when it’s taking seven days a week to climb up this mountain right now?

I also think vacations are a big deal. Many pastors feel like things are so unsettled right now. It’s hard to hand it off to anybody to take a break. Our team went six months without a vacation, and so now we’re saying we have to get our team vacations. And so over the next two months, we’ve got it on the calendar. We’re rotating the team through to make sure everybody’s getting a break. And now, over this next six months to Christmas, we’re going to make sure everybody gets all their vacation time because they worked so hard for the first six weeks of 2020.

We got to keep our physical tanks filled up. It’s like a checking account. We’re continually making withdrawals. We also have to make sure we’re making deposits.

So I think whether you’re a pastor or church leader, be assessing the rhythms on your team and make sure people are taking a break.

A couple of years ago, one of our team members was just getting increasingly irritable, and that was uncharacteristic for them. And one time, they came to me agitated about something. I just changed the conversation. And I said, “When was the last time you had a vacation?” They froze. And it had over six months since they’ve had a week off. And so I said, “Let’s start there. I want to make sure that you get adequate rest.”

So that would be physical. We got to keep our physical tanks filled up. It’s like a checking account. We’re continually making withdrawals. We also have to make sure we’re making deposits.

Spiritually, let’s talk about that one a minute. When my spiritual tank starts to feel empty, this is the first thing I notice is that I’m not as confident in who I am. And I’m battling new levels of insecurity. And as I supervise a team here, what I’m noticing is you throw people into high stress, and it begins to poke at insecurities that either weren’t there or were there and were covered.

And so one of the ways we keep our spiritual tanks full is to have selah every day. And selah is like in Genesis 1. Every day, God took a step back, and he saw all that he had made, and he said, “It is good.” And so to keep our spiritual tank filled up, we need to intentionally have those moments where we’re pausing at some point every day, and remembering that the way God made me is good, the way God saved me is good, the way God is sanctifying me by putting his spirit in me that’s good and that God’s plan and call on my life are good.

And I’ll be the first to tell you that I was really confident in 2019 God’s plan in my life was good, and I have wrestled with this more over the last four months then in a long time, and so the way I’m keeping my spiritual tank filled up is to spend those selah moments with the Lord to remember, “OK, life is good. I love God’s calling on my life. I love my wife and kids. I love the church he’s called me to. It’s good.”

And just as a little funny story, the other night at supper, my 8-year-old daughter was hearing all the discussion on the table, and she said, “Dad, this is not ‘selah-e.’ She knows that we got to take time to remember, “Life is good.”

And then the last one emotionally when we have a flat tire emotionally or psychologically I think one of the biggest things that’s missing for pastors and church leaders is the idea of being known. In 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter on love, it says that one day we will know fully, even as we’re already fully known by God.

God knows you fully, and God knows me fully. And in our role as church leaders, oftentimes, we’re so busy. We are the least-known people in the organization. And that begins to cause an emotional flat tire. So the ministry of PIR is really just giving pastors the opportunity to be known.

So if you start noticing that your emotional tank is empty, you need to find a circle of people that are safe, where you can be known, and you can just talk it out. PIR Ministries believes that pastors have most of the resources they need on their journey, but they don’t have someone to listen.

Recently I had a conversation with a pastor who had been carrying a tremendous burden for six years. And he had gone to his board. And the board said, “Well, pastors don’t have problems. So you shouldn’t need help, you’re supposed to help us.” And so he had carried this now for six years.

And I asked him, “Who, besides your wife, have you talked to about this?” And he said, “Well, no one until this conversation.” And that is where the emotional flat tire happens. So pastors and leaders need someone with whom they can be known, even as God already knows them.

So, pastor, if you’re feeling like you have a flat tire, whether it’s physical or spiritual or emotional, there’s no shame in saying, “I seem to be hitting a wall of limitation here, and I’m weak.” And we learn to talk and boast about our weakness.

Paul says then is when we see the power of Christ at work in our lives. So it’s really a beautiful thing, and Bruce and I just want to encourage you, pastor and church leaders, that you’re not alone in the season. And it is hard. And we’re sorry for how hard it’s been and how much increased anxiety and grief you’ve experienced.

But you’re not alone. And it’s OK to say this is hard. So let’s find some brothers and sisters that can come alongside us and talk with and then pray about it with and let’s get back to being confident that God has created us good and his calling on our life is good, and he has a good plan for us.

BH: Jason, I appreciate you. I appreciate your words. I appreciate what you do with PIR. And we’re bringing Compass to your district in September as a way for pastors to kind of get back, reevaluate and reengage. So we’re all working together trying to figure out how we can help pastors get healthy.

But that loneliness one is a big one because I oftentimes find most pastors don’t have friends. I mean, real friends, because beyond talking about football, you know, I have men in my life that I’ve talked to almost every day, there’s pretty much nothing they don’t know about me. And so if I get burnt out, they’re like, Bruce. They call me on it, but that came as a result of getting out of burnout and to say, “I don’t ever want to go back there again.” So thank you for your words, Jason.

Converge’s Compass pastor assessment will help you evaluate your ministry and enable you to face challenges, move forward and increase fruitfulness.

Other Staying Emotionally Healthy as a Pastor videos

Dr. Bruce Hopler, Vice President of Church Strengthening

Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.

Additional articles by Dr. Bruce Hopler