‘A fine line between surviving and falling apart’

Alberta pastors talk about their mental health during COVID-19

Joanne De Jong | Alberta Correspondent
Pastor Caleb Kowalko relaxes at the MC Alberta pastors and leaders retreat, held last November at the King’s Fold Retreat and Renewal Centre, west of Cochrane. (Photo courtesy of Caleb Kowalko)

Over the past year, everyone—pastors included—found themselves in situations requiring problem solving and emotional fortitude. Pastor Ken Tse, from Edmonton Christian Life Community Church, talks about the stress of seeking ways to minister to an older congregation that was not tech savvy. He worked to make sure that each member received training on Zoom, so everyone could participate in online activities.

Before COVID-19, the mental health of pastors was already a concern, but now there is so much more possibility of burnout. When talking about clergy mental health during COVID-19, Mennonite Church Alberta pastors made comments like, “It’s been brutal on pastors’ mental health,” “I’m just trying to survive,” and “There’s a fine line between surviving and falling apart.”

A 2015 Lifeway research project surveyed 1,500 pastors; 54 percent said they found the role of pastor frequently overwhelming—and that was pre-COVID—while 84 percent said they are on call 24 hours a day; 80 percent expected conflict in the church, and 23 percent left their previous church due to conflict. Demands put on pastors place them at far greater risk for depression than in other occupations. While caring for clergy is vital for congregational health, the project found that 71 percent of churches do not offer a periodic sabbatical.

While experiences vary widely, all eight MC Alberta pastors interviewed expressed love and appreciation for their congregations. They recognize this is a difficult time for everyone, yet, as Pastor Ryan Dueck of Lethbridge Mennonite Church said, “Pastoring is exhausting in unique ways.”

Everything pastors do is public. Even their personal lives are public. Now that they are “so much ‘on’—all through a camera—everything feels like a performance,” an unnamed pastor said.

Ministers carry the weight of questions like, “How do I show pastoral care to my congregation when we can’t meet in person?” “How do we maintain community when everyone is in a world of malaise and apathy?” and “How will we get people to re-enter into meaningful community when people say they love being on Zoom because it’s easy and doesn’t require any real responsibility?”

Pastors are expected to be strong, yet they have a lot to carry as the face of the congregation. “I’m supposed to be the person people rely on, but I need someone too,” said another pastor, adding that it’s hard to speak up for fear that members will feel their pastor is inaccessible or complaining when others have bigger struggles.

Pastors can feel discouraged when members would rather take a break from church than learn the technology. They can feel discouraged when members start to quote other church pastors they have heard online, who do not share treasured Anabaptist teachings. Discouragement can set it when pastors have worked so hard to build a different kind of community but now people are gravitating toward multi-media worship.

It is tough when church members do not agree on whether to tighten or loosen restrictions. One pastor spoke about a member who wanted a pastoral visit in the member’s home and became upset when the pastor said no, even though the visit was against pandemic regulations. Some members want their pastor to help them make sense of the pandemic in the sermons and others don’t want it mentioned.

Even though it is impossible to please everyone, pastors feel the burden to bring everyone together. Will there now be a whole new thing to be divided about? Can relationships between members be healed?

The role of pastor is unlike other occupations, in that clergy are called to love. It feels different when people ask, “So, what do you do all week?” one said. And is the question being directed to the person or the employee? The question can assume the pastor is working less, during COVID-19, when he or she might actually be working more. Even if the pastor is working less, he or she might be more drained than ever and might carry the weight of guilt for not doing more. Hour-long conversations take energy and now the pastor’s home is also the office, making it hard to create a separate space for rest.

All of this takes a toll on the mental health of pastors, who love their people and want to see them grow as disciples of Jesus.

Who pastors the pastors? How can they be supported and avoid burnout?

MC Alberta pastors are finding ways to sustain their spiritual health. Their restorative practices include flower arranging, MC Alberta evening prayer, family time, pickle ball, daily cleaning practices and time with friends.

Pastor Will Loewen of Trinity Menno­nite in DeWinton has taken advantage of the free accommodation for personal retreats offered by Camp Valaqua. Pastor Caleb Kowalko of Calgary First Mennonite Church was energized by the MC Alberta pastors and leaders retreat held last November. And the MC Alberta pastors council has been meeting together more frequently since the pandemic began, as a way to encourage and support its members.

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Alberta? Send it to Joanne De Jong at ab@canadianmennonite.org.

Related stories:
Holding the hope: Understanding and responding to mental illness
Standy by me

Pastor Caleb Kowalko relaxes at the MC Alberta pastors and leaders retreat, held last November at the King’s Fold Retreat and Renewal Centre, west of Cochrane. (Photo courtesy of Caleb Kowalko)

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