Anything that is not about care can wait

My family is now in week three of working and learning from home. One day earlier this week, I started out the morning feeling comparatively calm. That floor-is-falling-out-from-under-me feeling that was so familiar over the past few weeks, coming in waves over the course of the day, was nowhere in sight. “I might be getting the hang of this,” I thought to myself.  “It’s been a big adjustment to be working from home and pivoting toward all this pandemic stuff, while also taking care of a kiddo, but maybe we’re rounding the curve.” I responded to emails and spent an hour on the phone with a colleague. I felt competent as I helped her navigate some things. “Ok, I’m doing my job here, things are alright.”

Thirty minutes later, I found myself in a meeting I thought was focused on getting a task done. But I had misunderstood; the meeting was about having a conversation about some big ideas. All of a sudden, I was irritable, judgmental (toward myself and others), and incapable of sitting still to listen well or participate. The list of to-do’s suddenly seemed impossible to achieve; I multi-tasked through the meeting and felt my anxiety level rise palpably. By the time lunch rolled around, my heart rate was elevated, I could hardly focus on the conversation with my family, and my mind kept ricocheting between my task list (“Gotta get these 18 things done before kiddo’s naptime is over”) and shame (“I can’t believe I acted that way in the meeting”). I wanted a do-over and a nap.

And it was only noon!

Sound familiar?

We’re all unprepared for what’s happening. Suddenly working from home, learning to help our kids navigate distance learning, helping loved ones make difficult decisions about in-home care, managing hard financial choices for our businesses and our families, managing chronic medical conditions and mental health struggles  – all of us are on unfamiliar and fearful ground. And that doesn’t begin to include the extraordinary stress that medical providers are currently facing, or the fear of folks who are suffering from the virus itself right now.

On top of all that, those of us trained as faith leaders are facing a particular kind of new stress. We’re facing the same challenges and fears that all our parishioners are carrying. But the very things we have been trained to do in crises are now off-limits. The ability to gather in prayer, to share the bread and wine, to offer pastoral care in the form of laying on of hands – these things now make us dangers to others, rather than blessings. We see the families we’ve been called to serve struggling, and the ministries we’ve worked so hard to build forced to literally close their doors.

In this kind of situation, friends, it would be reasonable for anyone to go into some degree of shock. To experience confusion and disorientation. To retreat into knee-jerk reactions and your Enneagram type’s preferred method of numbing. To decompensate, disconnect – or the opposite, to exhaust ourselves with overfunctioning. Anyone who already lives with the particular demon known as ‘impostor syndrome’ has probably already heard that voice pipe up: “This crisis is going to show people what a fraud you are.”

This is a time of extraordinary anxiety and fear. None of us is immune to it.

One way faith leaders can cope through this is to let go of all the to-dos we can, and focus on caring for others. Caring for others requires us to be fully present to them even if we are on the phone, and tempted to multitask. Caring for others means modeling the best practices of physical distancing we can in order to not risk anyone’s infection.  

Caring for others in this kind of situation also means that we have to make our own self-care a priority. It takes time to pray, to walk around the block, to do one thing at a time. And even if your brain is operating at a normal level this week (unlikely, since this kind of stress usually has a negative impact on cognition), your normal April to-do list is going to be impacted by the time it takes to do that self-care and to respond to the increasing pastoral needs around you. In the coming weeks, as infection rates continue to rise and we get more clarity about the kind of personal and economic impact COVID-19 will bring, the capacity of our faith leaders to offer a ministry of calm presence will be needed even more. We will be living with the daily impacts of the pandemic for months, not weeks.

What I’m trying to say, to myself and to you, is this: Anything that is not about care can wait.

Faith leaders, your care for others is intimately connected to your own self-care.

A few examples:

  • When you model honoring the sabbath, you help others now working from home set humane boundaries as well.
  • You may not feel you have permission to set down the pile of expectations, but when you model giving yourself permission to be human, you are giving others an example of what it looks like to be healthily self-differentiated.
  • When you model scaling back your expectations of yourself, and letting things be good enough, you are offering others the ability to set down their perfectionism.
  • When you model trying something new and struggling to get it right, you are offering others the courage to stretch themselves.
  • When you model asking for help, you are offering others an image of the body of Christ in which each part is needed.
  • When you model vulnerability about your own struggles with fear and anxiety, you are helping others put words on their experience and seek support for their mental health.

Most importantly, when you choose to believe that you are already beloved, and you choose to act out of that trust in God rather than fear, you model for others what faith looks like in an uncertain time.

This approach is at the heart of Bishop Prior’s recommendations and expectations for Holy Week, here. You do not have to offer online versions of all the Holy Week services. You have permission to stop creating and instead model self-care and presence in an anxious time.

This approach will also be at the heart of the zoom meetup on best practices for spiritual care with the sick and dying that we’ll share this coming Friday, April 3, at 2pm CT. Register here.

We’re also working with Leaderwise to offer a webinar for clergy and pastoral care providers in the coming weeks that will remind us about walking as spiritual companions through fear, illness, dying, and grief. Stay tuned for more information on that.

This is going to be the real work of the pandemic time, friends. So your self-care matters immensely right now. We can do this. We will do this, with the help of the Holy Spirit, one step at a time, leaning on each other from the safe distance of our homes.