Complicated Love: A Reflection on The Last Six Months as a Pandemic Pastor

*It feels helpful to note this post has been blessed by a dear colleague who is currently serving as interim pastor at the church we transitioned out of in June. We both seek to help our congregations move forward in vitality, hope, and the grace of God. I'm deeply thankful for her and the complexity of serving a church she may never worship with in person during her tenure.*

"Jenny, how are you doing?"

I have no idea how to answer that question lately. So I do what many of us do and say, "Good, fine, you know. One day at a time." The other person nods and we move on.

Meanwhile, my heart aches with all that's left unsaid.

One day, we'll sit in coffee shops and hold our warm mugs and ask each other the questions again. And we'll listen. Really listen. Because we'll remember 2020 and how it felt to hide behind masks in fear of getting too close. We'll remember how it felt to be disconnected from each other. We'll remember missing leisurely conversations with a good friend who knows us well enough to say, "Wait, what's *really* going on?"

And if you sat down with me at a coffee shop today and asked me, here's what I might say.

The last six months have been difficult. The kind of difficult where tears live just below the surface, threatening all day long to make their presence known. Some days, I fought them and won. Other days, I opened the gate and they danced down my warm cheeks. Still other days, the tears incarnated as tight muscles and anxiety. I pushed the pain away until I lay in bed shaking from the tension and pain at night. Only then would I remember to ask my Fear or Grief what she wanted to say. Then the tears spilled forth with their secret treasures.

Problem is, they never felt like treasures. They felt like gifts I'd never put on a wishlist. Anger, sadness, loss, isolation, uncertainty, anxiety, frustration. Yeah. Nothing we ever ask for.

And yet.

Each unwanted gift held something I didn't know I needed. I'm still unwrapping most of these. But it finally feels time to name some of them out loud, in hopes of two possible outcomes. First, in naming a bit of the journey this year, I'd mark this moment as a turning point of sorts. Second, in bringing to the open what we so often walk in private, there's permission for us all to step more deeply into our own invitations. We really are all in this together. But if we don't share some of those things, it's still so easy to think we're alone.

So what was difficult about the last six months in our little world?

We left a community we adored without getting to say goodbye. Sure, I got creative about the goodbye and mustered everything inside me to convey how much I loved being one of their pastors for five years. I wrote them a book, hosted Facebook Live conversations, waved from six feet away at a car parade and recorded final video messages, as if all the rituals could somehow fix what was unfixable. We would never again gather in the sanctuary to share our love for each other. We wouldn't get our hugs in the hallways and the nods with eyes full of tears that said everything that couldn't form into words.

I was so busy being the best pastor I could be in that season that only several months later could I finally put into words the anger, loss, and disappointment at the goodbye we didn't get. I learned how much embodied community means to me. I learned how much I love being a part of a mission and vision that I deeply care about. I learned how much I care for the teams I serve with. I learned how deeply I love the churches I serve.

One day, we'll return to them to say goodbye and get those hugs. We'll laugh and tell stories. We'll say thank you. We'll remember how much it all mattered. We'll give each other permission to keep moving forward in new ways.

In the meantime, our family thinks of them with deep love. We look at pictures once in a while and tell stories of what we miss. We mourn the difficulty of clergy boundaries during a pandemic. We lost the bulk of our support structure in an instant and are now building an entirely new one. We learned (again) the importance of investing in friendships outside our local churches. These moves are hard on clergy families as we establish helpful and appropriate boundaries so churches can get to know their new pastor. And. It's tough.

As I turned my attention to my new faith community, I burned out this fall. Hard. Turns out trying to love new people through a screen while grieving a massive life change isn't pretty.

The folks in my new community were incredibly gracious. They frequently wondered how we were managing and loved us through gifts, welcome notes, emails, gift cards, and phone calls. It was the best kind of prevenient grace. I wasn't yet able to love them with my whole heart but they still loved me.

This all happened in the midst of protests, a wildly dysfunctional political season, a global pandemic, schooling at home, and all the complexity of 2020. Their love was quite astounding for this 38-year-old pastor on a screen.

I couldn't give my new community what had come so easily in the past. Creativity disappeared. I pulled old sermons to adapt. Tears fell after meetings with unknown faces on a screen. I walked around town, trying to feel some kind of connection to this place.

It felt like exile in my body. The dissonance was jarring because on paper, this was a great thing. Beautiful parsonage in a waterside town and a progressive faith community with a social justice heart. A fabulous co-pastor to hold it all with. Yet, my heart was breaking.

So I did the only thing I knew to do. I walked. I cried. I prayed. I trusted a few friends with my stories. I moved all over the stages of grief with wild abandon. I kept smiling and pastoring the best I could summon. I offered what I could and called it enough.

I chose to trust God with this season. There was nothing else to do. I couldn't go back. I couldn't go forward. All I had was one day at a time. One online conversation at a time. One therapy and spiritual direction session at a time. One walk on Sunset Avenue at a time.

Then we got to Advent. I woke up one morning with heavy grief for my former faith community and life before the pandemic. After fighting it for a bit, I gave in and let it immerse me. Grief took up residence in my tight shoulders and painful headaches for a week. As I neared the end of the week, I finally stopped to ask the Grief what she wanted me to notice.

Sweet girl, it's okay to let go. It hurts because it meant a lot. It hurts because it's a complicated loss. It hurts because you trusted a church with your young children and it was good for your whole family. It hurts because that place represents life before the pandemic. It's okay for it to hurt. And it's really okay to let go. The same God working in you is working in them.

Grief had lots to say. I felt it all. Again.

Then something shifted.

Our church spent Advent reflecting on God's dreams for us and for our world. We wondered aloud where we might be invited to participate in new ways. What were we called to interrupt? Where might we dream with curiosity and courage? What started out as nice pastor questions to ask began to pulse with a new vitality. Before I could even articulate it, my body sensed something shifting.

One Tuesday morning around 10:15, it hit me. I realized there were real live people on the other side of my phone.

They had pain, complexity, fear, and dreams, too. And maybe I could love them like I'd loved other churches. For the first time, I could see myself as one of their pastors.

My heart stretched, yawned, and woke up in a new way. Day by day, I could feel life returning to my bones.

As Christmas approached, love bubbled up in surprising moments. What had been a service out of necessity became a love of choice. My co-pastor mentioned, "Something feels different. I can feel your love for this community."

I came across a prayer in my journal from a week or two earlier: God, could you surprise me with love for these people and this season? I want to be ready.

Admitting I felt ready to move forward with this new community meant releasing the former one in a deeper way. I chose to trust God again with my worn out heart.

It seems obvious now. But without the familiar markings of pastoral transitions, the work was left undone. The grief was held in private, as so many of our 2020 losses have been. We've been forced to create our own rituals of release. Or it's tempting to push it into the dusty corners, hoping it'll go away. Right.

A month or two earlier, I spoke with our Staff-Parish Relations co-chairs who've walked this road with me. I shared the struggle and the need to step away for a bit to heal. The church gifted me some time and I'm now preparing for a month away in January.

I'll stay at a friend's home on the Olympic Peninsula for two weeks and will then explore the PNW through day trips from home. I'll spend time with our kids as they continue kindergarten and third grade online. I'll sleep, walk by the water, read, play, and listen.

I'll listen to the love that's growing in my worn out heart. I'll notice the way my heart is healing into a new shape, full of the love given from my last faith community. I'll celebrate the space being made for my new faith community. I'll listen to the new dreams shimmering on the horizon. There are a lot of them. As usual.

I'm sure I'll meet Fear, Doubt, and Grief. They usually make an appearance when I get quiet. But I'm also prepared to welcome Wonder, Possibility, and Joy.

Beloved friend, would you send love my way this January? It would mean the world. I hesitate to ask, because, well, you know how it is. It's hard to ask for what we need. But I keep encouraging you to show up, pay attention, cooperate with God and release the outcome. So I figure I should practice as well. Showing up to you today looks like writing out this post on a stormy January afternoon while my kids enjoy too much screen time and my dog sleeps on the couch next to me.

Maybe it's the new year vibes or the coming vaccines or this healing heart of mine, but it feels important to mark the season I'm emerging from. The season so many of us are navigating in our own ways. Our healing may take a lifetime. And maybe that's okay.

This being human thing is hard. So glad we're in it together.

To my Marysville family: We love you. We continue to release you to new people who love you. One day, we'll hug goodbye. Until then, palms up. God is with us all.

To my Edmonds family: Sometimes I wonder what will come of a love that was built through a laptop and a phone. I imagine the day we'll gather in the same room, after likely a year of a long-distance relationship. Thank you for receiving the love, story, and invitation Ann and I have and will continue to send your way. And most of all, thank you for loving our family when you didn't yet know us. Thank you for trusting me and loving me into this community of faith.

I wonder what God could do with a love forged in the fires of 2020?

Probably more than we can imagine.