Why Your Pastor Hates Pandemics (Are You Really Leaving the Church Over Masks?)

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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. Though the average CRC pastor looks like the average North American in most respects, their scores deviate from the mean in a couple of interesting ways.  

These deviations are worth paying attention to, especially during a time of stress (like, say, the stress of a global pandemic). 

Higher Social Service Interest Scores

Among other things, a Birkman measures a person’s interest in a range of types of activities. For example, How interested are you in doing things outdoors? How much do you enjoy engaging in music or reading or writing or numbers? 

Though CRC pastors are pretty diverse in the range of their interests, one category of interest stands out far above the rest.  On average, CRC pastors have much higher “social service” interest scores than the typical North American. A high “social service” interest score measures the extent to which you derive satisfaction from and are motivated by helping others and advocating on their behalf. 

For CRC pastors, then, their Birkmans tell us “they just want to help!” They genuinely care about their congregations and really want to see the people around them growing and doing well. 

Are You Really Leaving Over Masks?

For someone with a high “social service” interest, nothing is quite as motivating as seeing someone’s life changed for the better. But nothing is as deflating and discouraging as seeing that someone’s life has not changed at all, despite your efforts to help. 

The shared experience of many pastors during COVID is a deep (but rarely spoken) sense of discouragement that their congregations could become divided over seemingly trivial things. 

A family announces they’re leaving the church because your church requires them to wear masks. Another family announces they’re leaving because your church doesn’t require masks. A long-time council member stops worshipping with the church because you included a single reference to racial justice in a congregational prayer three months ago. Another disappears for weeks before you learn she didn’t like a mildly political social media post made by your spouse. 

For many pastors, COVID-19 (and the US election and global protests around racial injustice) have felt like a test of their members’ sanctification and discipleship. Will my members respond with grace and an unwavering commitment to Christ and the kingdom of God? Or will my members divide themselves along myriad social and political faultlines? In too many cases, pastors have found that they and their congregations are failing the test. 

For someone deeply motivated to make a difference and see lives changed, seeing the people you love mirror the culture rather than the transformative message of the gospel you’ve been preaching can be devastating. 

So what can you do? 

1. Know and name this about yourself.

Remind yourself and your team that making a difference is deeply motivating to you. Recognize what a wonderful passion this is for a pastor to have! 

2. Acknowledge your grief. 

In safe settings, permit yourself to lament the pettiness and thin discipleship you are perceiving around you. 

3. Wonder about your own motivations. 

Though the desire to make a difference seems unimpeachably virtuous, does part of your discouragement derive from an unhealthy sense of your own importance or indispensability? Do you expect that you are responsible for the spiritual growth and maturity of your congregation? Invite God to reveal unhealthy or sinful motivations lurking beneath your discontent. 

4. Reach out to those who seem so “thinly” discipled.

COVID’s physical distancing requirements have made it harder to spend time together. As a consequence, we have less time to interact with other people but more time alone to reflect on those brief interactions. This dynamic lends itself to a lot of assumption-making. Is it possible you’ve not listened as deeply or well as you could to those involved? Reach out to these people you love and ask them to tell you what’s going on. Some may resist. But others may offer you a much more complex story of God’s work in their life than you had ever imagined. Or, in spending time with them, God may provide an opportunity for you to make a difference in a way and at a time you didn’t expect. 

5. Seek out ways to be with people.  

Though COVID makes it difficult, find opportunities to be with and help serve people anyway. Deliver a meal. Arrange a visit. Serve at a local shelter. God wired you in such a way that when you are serving others, your heart sings! Find creative ways to let this passion from God find expression, even if it's harder or different than it was before COVID. 

6. Remember grace. 

Though your passion for helping others surely is a gift from God, remember the complexity and messiness of sanctification. It’s a journey, and seldom a linear one. Even the disciples of Jesus frequently messed up and missed the point. Jesus’ response? Die on their behalf anyway. We’re saved by grace. You are. And so are your people. 

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