I've officially been back to work for a week. It has been a week of phone calls, Christmas skit coordinating, and Blue Christmas planning.
I am benefiting from the time of rest and renewal, from ideas I got while worshiping with my friends' churches, and most importantly, from the opportunity to let go of worry about serving a church during a pandemic.
As I talk to friends who have not had even a short break from the weight of ministry during this time, I understand what a gift the timing of my sabbatical turned out to be.
Because the weight of balancing all the moving pieces - how to worship, competing congregational expectations and desires, new information about how to stay safe, personal risk calculations, fears over finances and membership - is crushing for so many right now.
Too many of my friends, my ministerial colleagues, are burned out. Some are being mistreated by congregations that are lashing out in fear and grief. Some are playing the role of preacher, tech support, social media manager, video editor, counselor, public health expert, digital worship designer, all at the same time.
And it's not just ministers. I fear when we come out the other side of this we will find ourselves with a shortage of teachers, health care workers, ministers, public health experts and more.
I think about aides at nursing homes, already underpaid, overworked and short staffed, trying to care for individuals who are isolated more than ever. I think about doctors, nurses, aids, respiratory therapists, all the hospital staff, who have been operating at crisis levels for 10 months. I think about teachers and school administrators who are asking some of the same questions as ministers but on a larger scale - how do we balance the need to stay safe with access to community and resources?
There have been very few easy answers this year. There has been a lot of anger, fear, and grief. This week, a friend and colleague, Rev. Travis Smith McKee posted the following on Facebook:
What I’ve noticed in the circles I’m around is the inability to talk about grief. There’s a desire to just stay positive, jump over disappointment, and get right to action. There’s an inability to name what we’re mad at, how we might actually just be sad in a situation and there may be no one person to blame. ...
We feel like things should be fixed by now. We feel like we need to move forward. We feel like it’s not fair, and how we respond can hurt us even more. ...
What have you had to change, what have you not had a choice but to change? What has disappointed you, not about others but about your own expectations? Can you name it, can you identify the areas of control you have and don’t? And in naming the deeper issue, can you sit with your feelings instead of acting out of them?
I don't have an answer to the heavy weight so many people are carrying right now. I don't have an answer to the complicated questions of how to meet contradicting needs. I don't know how to get everyone who needs it time off to breathe and let go of the pressure and the worry for a while.
I do know that the grief is so thick we cannot wave it away. I know that our grief is complicated and layered and unique. I know that anger at what we cannot control is real and is dangerous when it causes us to lash out at others.
We aren't at our best right now. A million posts on every platform have been made to tell us to stop expecting the "normal" amount of productivity from ourselves. To remind us to practice grace and lower expectations. A very true sentiment, but one that comes at time when many people are being expected and required to do far more than "normal."
Even when this prolonged season is "over," there will be unhealed wounds to care for. Broken spirits, survivor's guilt, grief unimaginable, fears that cannot be switched off after months of being told to avoid crowds and enclosed spaces, skepticism and distrust of experts, layers upon layers of trauma. And today I am worried that we will not have the people and communities in place to help us care for one another because they will be ones most in need of healing.
I fear this for our future and it brings me back to today. To Travis' question - Can we name our disappointments, can we identify the areas of control we have and don’t? And in naming the deeper issue, can we sit with our feelings instead of acting out of them?
It isn't fun to sit in the messy pain of emotions but if we don't take responsibility for them we will spew them like venom at others and magnify the grief, anger, and fear in the world.
Sit with your feelings. Make space for grace. Then rise and share that grace with others.