173 Days of Negotiating With Reality & Why Your Microphone Matters: A Word For Pandemic Pastors

Last week I wrote an essay entitled, “Blow Up The Damn Pedestal: An Open Letter to Pastors.” Hearing deep resonance with many pastoral colleagues and a surprisingly forceful Spirit nudge, we’ll continue the conversation here. I once heard someone say, “It’s not enough to blow something up unless we’re building something beautiful next to it.”

I’m fascinated by the idea that pastors (and all humans) have an opportunity to rethink a lot of things during this pandemic. Pretty much every habit or pattern or system is up for grabs, if we’re willing to shine the light of our attention on it. Problem is, many of us aren’t sure we have the emotional capacity to reform and innovate. We see the gaps, the opportunities to innovate, the Spirit-led invitation to stretch in a new direction. Our hearts are aching for all the ways our people could experience new life and just systems.

And we’re exhausted.

I’m also painfully aware of what we’re about to enter this fall. Social distancing was one thing on a warm sunny day when being outside was fairly easy. But this fall and winter, when cold and darkness push us inside, our isolation will be a challenge for many.

In some ways, it feels like August is a moment to step back, get honest about how we’re experiencing this pandemic as humans and discern our next steps. Because our people will need us this winter. They'll need community. Maybe more than ever. And I think we’re up to the opportunity, if we show up and pay attention to our inner experience now, instead of later.

So yes to stepping down from the pedestal. Still true. I don’t think pedestals are healthy or biblical. They don’t lead to long-lasting spiritual growth for the people on them or the people who put them up there.

For those who are blowing up the pedestal, I write today to remind you about something you still have and get to use.

We each have a microphone during this crisis in a way many others do not. We have our hearts, our phones on tripods in our sanctuaries, our social media accounts and we have our titles. Yes, some of our “regular attenders” aren’t regular anymore. Yes, recording attendance and engagement is a moving target. Yes, technology hiccups are annoying and real. Yes, many of our jobs were deemed non-essential during this pandemic. Yes, some of us are meeting in person and it’s full of complexities.

But we still have our microphones.

Problem is, for us to be ready to use them, ready to offer encouragement, grounding and hope, we’re invited to step off that pedestal. We must give ourselves permission to deeply process how we’re navigating this crisis as a human being.

I’m finding once that permission is received and honored, healing comes in surprising ways.

I hesitate to share this as if it’s a formula that dismisses the continued pain and healing that we’ll each cycle through during this liminal time. But I share it as a field report from one pastor to another. At least for a moment, I found a way to move through this pandemic with a little extra space for creativity and curiosity.

Some of you know I got the call to move churches this past February. Then everything shut down. Through my phone, in a nearly empty sanctuary, I told my beloved church family of five years that we were moving. At that point, we hoped to return before the end of June to corporate worship, but part of me jumped to a worse case scenario and assumed this would last longer than that. I hated to be right. I threw everything I had into creatively saying goodbye, to grieving, to preparing them for their interim pastor.

We arrived at our new faith community in July and wow. I suddenly realized a hello during a pandemic might be harder than the goodbye. With the goodbye, at least there was a relationship to lean on. With a pandemic hello, we’re starting from scratch. Through Zoom calls, letters, emails, phone calls, Facebook groups and online worship, we’re ever so slowly building relationships. I feel love for them, even though they are mostly faces on a screen to me.

As one beloved faith community said goodbye and another beloved faith community said hello, I stumbled about the early days of first impressions in a cloud of grief and overwhelm. I reminded our new faith community that none of us were at our best. We were all navigating a global pandemic likely for the first time. We sought to extend lots of grace as we met online, made leadership decisions, and got to know each other.

I don’t know your Enneagram number or if you think the Enneagram is amazing or a bit overblown, but it’s helped me learn a lot about my shadow sides. I’m an Enneagram 1. If you couldn’t already tell.

Enneagram 1’s don’t give themselves permission to feel their anger. We offload it in very creative ways. We deny it. We have fine-tuned reaction controls. Like a whack-a-mole game at Chuck E Cheese, anger pops up and we smash it to bits and pretend we never saw it.

Enneagram 1’s deeply value being good. And anger? It’s not on the approved feelings list. It’s a disruption to our striving for perfection and reform. It’s chaotic and out of order. So it gets smashed with a club. Immediately.

This makes for an outward facing pleasant person who doesn’t give into their anger. This makes for an unhealthy inward person who doesn’t allow the complexities of rage and anger to make it to the surface.

A few weeks into July, I talked to my therapist through my EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and asked for weekly sessions if possible. It became clear that if I was to navigate this difficult season intact, I needed help. So I got help. By the way, those of you with an EAP, we typically get eight free visits a year for each member of our family over the page of 6 or 7. I’ve gotten two rounds of that approved for this year and intend to ask for more because of the pandemic. I’ve been told they’ll likely get approved. Our mental health industry wants to help. Take them up on it.

My therapist and I worked through the mess of emotions I was holding the past few months. Looking back, I now notice anger was not one of them named out loud. But it was circling. Whispering. Shaming. Telling a story about how unfair this all was. I limped my way through a work week and breathed a deep sigh of relief once I got to sabbath. Then started to dread another week. I was getting the job done but my heart was in a vice grip. I felt lonely, overwhelmed, disconnected, and sad. Even while doing my very best to give an upbeat and hopeful vibe to my new faith community. The dissonance could only last so long.

Then one day, in a Zoom therapy session (that took some getting used to, by the way, but it works), she noticed I had a bad headache. She mentioned, “Headaches can be anger.” Then inquired, “Is it okay to feel angry?” I do what I do often do in therapy. I said the right thing and mentally patted myself on the back. “Yes, it’s okay.” But then went on with the truth. “I have lots of qualifiers. It’s okay to feel angry when I’m alone, when no one can hear me or see me, when I’ve sorted out a solution beforehand, when I’ve justified that it’s okay to be angry, etc.”

She patiently listened as I rattled off the conditions for when I’m allowed to be angry. I saw a small smile through the screen. Then a slight nod as my voice cracked and I whispered my truth through the tears clogging my throat.

“I’m angry I had to move during a pandemic. I’m angry I had to say goodbye to my church that way. I’m angry I have to say hello to my church this way. This isn’t how this is supposed to be. I’m angry at everything happening in our country and the injustice in every conversation that matters to so many of us...”

173 days.

That’s how long I held onto anger without naming it.

Once I could name it, then I could hold it.

Once I could hold it, I could allow myself to feel it.

Once I could feel it, I was free.

The next morning I wrote this:

One day

she let go

of the Anger

the unfairness of it all

It wasn’t supposed to be

this way

she told the Fear

trying to protect her

that she was okay now

she stopped negotiating

with reality

she let go

and she was free

I stopped negotiating with reality. Yes, this pandemic is really happening. I can’t escape it. Our kids are starting school online this fall. Our church won’t be opening for corporate worship until Easter 2021 at the earliest (unless things improve). We are in this thing.

My heart smiled when I woke up the next day with a very different energy. A couple new ideas emerged. I felt ready to release all the things we were still trying to pull off at the church so we could imagine what actually made sense during a pandemic season. There was space in my soul for true compassion for others’ experience. I felt deeper empathy for the hearts around me. Turns out that anger wasn’t just painful, it was heavy. Attached to my being. But once I chose to sit with whatever was inside, I could offer some compassion and grace to it, and wow. Acceptance. Understanding. Grace. Love.

It won’t be the last time anger visits me during this pandemic. Or this week. But something holy happened when I bore witness to my anger. Now, Spirit has more room to move. To dance. To imagine. And I’ve got more hope than I thought was possible 173 days ago.

I share all that to say: You have a microphone. People are listening during this season. They’re looking for hope, for truth, for authenticity. They’re hoping you’re in this with them. If you’re willing to courageously listen to the depths of your own heart in this painful time, they’ll know. They’ll be able to sense it. If you’re just powering through on fumes trying your damnedest to stay on that pedestal, they’ll sense it.

For the sake of your heart and the hearts of your people, may you step off the pedestal. Blow it up if that sounds fun. Or just step off and walk away.

May you reflect, explore, name and feel the truth rumbling in your heart. Offer it compassion and love. Watch it morph into something else.

May we tell our people about our resurrection-working God. About a world where justice rolls down like waters. That hope arises from peculiar places. That slowing down to feel our way through this upheaval is the very thing that may bring us freedom. Love lives in our hearts, longing for us to pay attention. When we allow healing to reach the hearts of pastors, we all win. God’s got a chance at leading us through this crisis. We’re in this together, dear ones.

Listen to your heart and then pick up that microphone.