Why CRC Pastors Struggle in Pandemics (There's No Time to Form a Study Committee)

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Background: Since 2016, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) has relied on the Birkman, an assessment of self-perception, social-perception and interests, to coach pastors toward greater self-awareness and more effective teamwork. In the last five years, the CRCNA has walked hundreds of pastors through the Birkman. To learn more about whether the Birkman could be helpful for you or your pastor, contact Pastor Church Resources at [email protected]

COVID-19 affects all of us, but in different ways. One way to appreciate what pastors might be going through is to look at how CRC pastors, on average, compare with the general population in their Birkman results. 

CRC pastors, on average, look a lot like the rest of North Americans. But there are some notable trends in their Birkman results that may be worth paying attention to, especially during a time of stress (like, say, the stress of a global pandemic). 

One stressor that’s predictable from a lot of CRC pastors’ Birkman scores: Swiftly changing pandemic circumstances forced a lot of CRC pastors into a mode and pace of decision-making that stretched them well outside their comfort zone.  

Higher "Thought" Scores

CRC pastors, on average, have higher “thought” scores than the general population. In the Birkman, your “thought” score measures the extent to which you see yourself as inclined to be either more decisive or more reflective when faced with a consequential decision. When the stakes are high, are you the person who wants to act and move forward or someone who wants time and space to think about the consequences and potential ripple effects? 

During ordinary times, when a congregation faces a challenge, a pastor with a high “thought” score might say, “Let’s slow down and think about this.” “Let’s process the implications of this decision.” “Let’s pray about it and reconvene next month.” Or, in the time-honored tradition of our denomination, “Let’s form a study committee.”

But the nature of the pandemic, especially during its early days, made it really difficult for pastors to say “Let’s slow down.” Dynamics and guidelines were changing rapidly and decisions needed to be made promptly about what would be kept open or closed. Meanwhile, everyone had strong opinions that were both conflicting and urgent. 

A pastor with high “thought” scores should not be surprised if this kind of rapid decision-making begins to cause stress. Generally, a person with high thought scores wants time and space to consider the complexity of the situation.

Yet, in a pandemic or other crisis, we have very little control over the pace and urgency of decision-making. There will be times for every pastor when decisive action is required. 

So what can you do? 

1. Know and name this about yourself.

Remind yourself and your team that a rapidly-evolving situation demanding quick decisions is the kind of situation likely to stress you out. That’s not to say you’re excused from responsibility. It’s only to let everyone know, "This is hard for me, but I’m trying." Now that you’ve named it, you can extend some grace to yourself and (we hope) your team can extend some grace to you. 

2. Recognize we’re all created differently and entrusted with different gifts.

Although a high thought score may feel like a liability in a global crisis, there are many ways that teams benefit from their higher thought score teammates. You help teams understand complex systems and relationships. You are able to anticipate the consequences of decisions. Though you may be frustrated with yourself in the moment, God created you as you are for a reason! 

3. Break it down. Slow it down.

When given enough time, you can make decisions. It’s the experience of feeling rushed that increases your stress and causes paralysis. Consider writing out the decisions that need to be made, breaking them down into their component steps and taking them one at time. You tend to think of the big picture and all its complexity. In this case, you’ll be better served by continually asking, “What’s the very next thing that needs to be decided or acted upon to move this forward?” Keep doing the next thing. 

4. Seek out those better suited to the moment’s decision (Hint: try a small-business owner or a church planter).

The good news is that God has likely placed some people around you that are more naturally decisive and less likely to be stressed by the rapid-decision-making needs of the moment. Small-business owners and church planters tend to have lower “thought” scores. Ask one of them for 20 minutes. Explain your dilemma to them for 15 minutes and then ask them, “What would you do?” Whereas you may be paralyzed by the options, they may be very comfortable to recommend a path forward. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Trust that God may be speaking into the situation through them. It is tempting to think that a high “thought” score is more spiritual than a low “thought” score. But the ability to make a decision and move forward is just as much a gift from God.

5. Find ways to leverage your strengths anyway.

Now that we are all more accustomed to pandemic realities, seek opportunities to let your high “thought” score benefit your church. Consider taking a day or two to retreat. Reflect, pray and journal about what you’ve learned in this past season and what you anticipate in the months ahead. Consider what opportunities may be worth seizing in the months ahead. Help your church prepare for the variety of different post-COVID realities that may emerge. That’s the kind of thinking you tend to be really good at. Let it benefit the church!

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