“May the peace of the Lord go with you.
May the peace of the Lord go with you
May the peace of the Lord go with you wherever you may go.”
There wasn’t a dry eye on the stage. Moments before, the leader of the worship band instructed the singers to come off the mic and the musicians to put down their instruments. “We have been singing to you all night, now I ask you to send us out with a blessing tonight as well.” The room took their charge seriously. In unrehearsed, unabashed acapella, this song of blessing washed over the worship leaders, flooding them with emotion that welled up from somewhere deep within their souls. The last note faded and the room went still. And in those few moments of peace, there was something of an understanding - an understanding that our corporate longing for words of blessing never goes away, no matter how long we let it go untended and unseen.
Every Sunday worship leaders and pastors walk through the doors of their building and prepare to lead their congregation’s worship service. There is always the physical preparation - printing updated lead sheets, editing the last paragraph of the sermon, setting up mics and firing up amps. But there’s also an emotional preparation taking place. More often than not, it feels like putting on your Sunday “game face” and getting ready to lead, smile, pastor, sing, send. It doesn’t matter if you were up into the late hours of the night anxiously waiting for your teenager to get home safely. It doesn’t matter if the harsh words said about you in the council room days before still sting. It doesn’t matter if your upcoming week holds medical appointments, impossible conversations, or day after day of simply putting one foot in front of the other. You have a job: get up, lead, execute. Game face on.
Like any other profession, there are weeks where this simply needs to happen. You pour that extra cup of coffee and you do what needs to get done. These days come and go. But what happens when the collective build-up and the increasing frequency of these days begin to take a toll on spiritual and mental health? In our conversations, we listen to many leaders who have not recovered from the strain of ministry leadership during the Covid 19 pandemic. Some are serving in churches where there is a great deal of conflict and ongoing stress. Add to these things the near-constant anxiety lurking under the surface caused by everything from news of global war, politics in turmoil, and the stressors of everyday living and it’s no wonder that many are not well - spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For a long list of reasons, many are not well. Yet week after week, they pick up their guitar or their manuscript and lead people to sing “it is well with my soul” while their own soul continues to fragment with each note played and each text exegeted.
Significant research is being done about what it means to be a “trauma-informed church” or lead “trauma-informed worship.” These are extremely important discussions we need to have as we seek to be sanctuaries where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are able to participate. But one piece missing from the conversation is that our congregations need to be trauma-informed themselves about their own leaders.
It is not enough for the leaders to be trauma-informed about the parish. The parish must seek to know, and more importantly to care, about the spiritual and mental health of their leaders.
Churches want healthy leaders. What does this look like when the demands of ministry are persistently at capacity? Churches want leaders who model rest. How can they rest when Sunday keeps coming? Churches want their leaders to lead with a “non-anxious presence.” But what if the numbers keep dwindling, volunteers disappear and the simmering pressure pot begins to boil? Christmas 2023 provides a somewhat timely example of this. Because Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fall on a Sunday, if a church decides to have multiple services because of tradition and people’s preference, staff potentially have upwards of 3 distinct services in 24 hours, for two weekends in a row. They will do it and will do it brilliantly - pulling out all the stops for the perfect Christmas Eve candlelight service and Christmas morning delight. But as the rest of the church picks and chooses which service to attend and settles in for celebration with their families, these weary leaders will collapse from exhaustion with one eye open to the round of services coming next week.
Not all leaders have experienced trauma. But many have. Not all leaders are leading each week feeling twinges of traumatization either circumstantial or personal. But some do. As conversations continue to surface around what it means to be a trauma-informed church, how can proactive steps be taken to also be trauma-informed parishioners? What are tangible ways to care for souls - souls that are not just employees and not just ministry leaders, but human beings. And more importantly siblings in Christ? Every church will need to answer this for themselves, but here are a few ideas to consider:
- To be “informed”, one must “know.” To “know”, one must ask. What structures do you have in place for staff to be honest and transparent about how they are doing? Not how the church is doing, or how their ministry is going, but how they are doing personally. Have you built a culture of support for your staff team?
- Does that culture of support include more than just a listening ear? If a leader is struggling, is the church prepared to do what they can to tangibly support? Now is a good time to review your church’s mental health benefits and discuss them openly with your staff. Is there sick time available for mental health? Does your staff have access to mental health services? Has it been explicitly said that therapy time/spiritual direction time is work time?
- In a highly-charged season of ministry - whether from conflict, seasonal busyness or heavy pastoral care needs, talk with your staff directly about how to best support them. Show them that you recognize the spiritual and physical load they carry and give them gracious and ample space to unburden.
- Small gestures go a long way to show appreciation and care. One church arranges for a meal to be brought to their pastor’s house the night of the monthly council meeting. Another church gives an extra paid day off on each staff member’s birthday. Thank you cards are small but speak volumes. A starbucks gift card provides Sabbath coffee. Some kind of recognition of pastor appreciation day (which just passed on October 8) for all staff is a surprise gift on the brink of one of the busiest seasons in the year. These do not need to be big or break the bank. Small can be hugely meaningful.
- Offer continuing education, recognizing that any investment from the church demonstrates investment in their leaders. Conferences are not only places for learning. They are often sacred spaces where particularly worship leaders and pastors can show up and be blessed as worshipers themselves. No responsibility, no obligation. Just blessing.
What are ways you as a staff member have felt supported and cared for? What are ways your church has taken proactive steps to care for staff? Please share in the comments below!
As we seek to be trauma-informed churches, we recognize that this is long-game work. Creating safe cultures is slow and patient work that begins with small and simple steps. May we be faithful in taking the next step and may we know the peace and presence of God with us every step of the way. May the peace of the Lord go with you wherever you may go.