At Old South’s 2021 Christmas Eve service, the featured speaking part was “The Shepherd” from Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat. As the Shepherd reflects on his life, realizing that he’s the kind of guy who will eat muddy bread when hungry, he also discovers that he’s able to open his perceptions just enough to engage with the remarkable event of the birth of the Savior:
That’s how it was this night, anyway. Like finally coming to—not things coming out of nowhere that had never been there before, but things just coming into focus that had been there always. And such things! The air wasn’t just emptiness anymore. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a Hock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not just wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets.
Opening my own ears a bit, listening to this story that I’ve heard so many times over the years (because it is a favorite), I wondered about I’ve been perceiving in these days. As the pandemic rages on and the congregation of Old South gets smaller, I find myself thinking quite a lot about what I’m seeing and experiencing. And, I wonder about making sense of what’s right in front of me. How are we being called as church? How am I being called as pastor?
Those questions lingered and were present again on Christmas morning, when I considered them, in a new way, near the end of my morning “news round up.” My early Christmas morning routine resembled most every other morning, now that my children are adults and aren’t itching to the get to the tree at some ridiculously early hour. After waking up enough to feel that I was ready to head downstairs, if not exactly take on the day, I made an espresso, picked up my laptop, and began the usual rounds of checking news and playing games. My last stop was the Washington Post.
I hadn’t scrolled down far at all when a headline grabbed my attention: “The first Christmas as a layperson: Burned out by the pandemic, many clergy quit in the past year.” The article explored the “exodus of clergy who have left ministry in the past couple years because of a powerful combination of pandemic demands and political stress. Amid fights about masks and vaccine mandates, to how far religious leaders can go in expressing political views that might alienate some of their followers, to whether Zoom creates or stifles spiritual community, pastoral burnout has been high.” [full article is here]
Reading the experiences of the clergy highlighted in the article, I felt fortunate that the stress I’ve experienced is not nearly as bad as it could be. One poor guy was at the start of his ministry when the pandemic hit. He found himself dealing with a whole group of people who refused to wear masks and a whole lot of pushback when he voiced concerns about President Trump before the 2020 election. He’s no longer serving in parish ministry.
I have not experienced, thank goodness, major mask issues or a whole lot of pushback because of my political views. But, this time has not been lacking in stressors. There are plenty of them. It’s stressful to provide consistent and adequate leadership in a time that feels both challenging and alien. It’s stressful to be the cheerleader for church as we struggle with new demands and requirements brought about by Covid and the continued unwelcome decline in membership and active participation. It’s stressful to feel like I need to be in possession of just the right sort of advice and counsel, for all occasions. It’s stressful to stay on top of how to work new technology and to encourage the flock to follow me on this new path of discovery. It’s stressful to be both a learner and an enthusiastic proponent of the new hybrid world that we are in the midst of creating. And, it’s particularly stressful in the congregational environment that I serve, where I have little actual authority. Leadership requires a more collective approach, as if I am trying to push a herd of elephants by coaxing and cajoling.
A lot of the stress is in the myriad small details of ministry in this new age. With masks covering most of our faces when we gather for worship in person, communication mishaps are more common and, on occasion, leave trails of anger that are difficult to resolve. And, while technology offers new and wondrous paths of connection, it also provides lots of sources of frustration— like when the internet connection vanishes or the monitor in the sanctuary sports an unfamiliar screen, with unfamiliar options, after months and months of use.
Given that ministry involves a lot of interaction with imperfect human beings, ministry is a stressful occupation. But, the seemingly constant barrage of new things and new challenges leads to an overall sense that pastoral ministry has become an even more complicated minefield than it already was.
The language of our faith tells us to “not be afraid” and one of the major messages of Christmas is that God comes to us in very unexpected ways. Yet, there’s not much in the way of the joy or wonder of the Shepherd in Buechner’s story, in perceiving and encountering something new and awe-inspiring. What exactly is coming into focus in this time?
In the midst of the frustrations, the worry, and the stress, it can be hard to find a moment to consider what I’m seeing and perceiving. But, when I do, I can’t help but feel like there’s both a lot and not much right in front of me. Is the air around me alive, or full of meaningless annoyances? Are we, as a church, just feeling the growing pains that are leading us to a new awareness of God’s presence with us? Or, are we allowing ourselves to get so caught up in the moment, busying ourselves enough not to notice that there’s not much there?
After the Christmas Eve service, I was the last one to leave the church. I took a moment to look around the sanctuary, in the quiet and in the dimness of the evening. There was comfort, to be sure, in the familiar, lovely sanctuary with all of its beautiful space. There was a moment when I could simply be in the sanctuary and know that I could be there without something stressful happening. But, as I stood there, I likely heaved a heavy sigh as I gazed upon the reminders of the changes we have experienced, in the cluster of new equipment at the front of the sanctuary. I couldn’t escape at least one of the truths coming into focus: a lot of effort was put into a service that was attended by the lowest Christmas Eve “crowd” ever.
On my drive home, I stopped the car at the top of the hill of our long, dark private road. I got out and looked up at the blanket of dark indigo with its twinkling stars, feeling the cold, sharp air all around me. And, I listened to the music on the radio. I’m not sure what wisdom it had to offer, but I was grateful for the stillness and lovely words of hope and promise: “Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
In the midst of this holy season, in the midst of the stress and the questions, my hope is that there will be a bit more light and life. And more focus on what’s right there, in front of us.