Rev. Deb Foster had been in her new ministry at Dunbarton-Fairport United for exactly three weeks and three days when COVID-19 hit full force. Soon after, the Pickering, Ont. church building was shut to the public and Foster had to reinvent her ministry on the fly, moving it online and to the telephone. It has not been easy. “I never even got to meet and get to know the people face to face,” she says. Instead, like clergy across the country, she pivoted and created a new worship experience. “I have tried to approach this COVID winter with creativity and hope, promise and opportunity, because it is such a time,” Foster says. “But underneath in me, it has been desperately disappointing and stupidly scary.”
As the weeks passed, she came to a realization: “We are in the midst of a new story now.”
That “new story” is something that every minister is now experiencing, including me. While exciting and energizing, it is also exhausting and putting significant stress upon clergy. It is not simple to reinvent a whole way of working in just a few weeks. The number of hours it has taken has surprised us all. No one foresaw the number of seven-day workweeks that would be needed in the first months of the crisis.
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That’s what concerns Rev. Alan Hall, who works in the General Council Office as executive minister in ministry and employment. “I have been so impressed with the imagination and ingenuity shown by our ministry personnel as they retooled their ministry,” he tells me, “but the sprint is not sustainable.” For Hall, the time has come for us to step back and catch our breath. “Congregations need to encourage ministers to set reasonable and sustainable expectations,” he says. Hall also points out that the Employee Assistance Plan offered through the United Church has extensive resources to support clergy, including counselling and supports to manage stress and lifestyle issues.
“It has been desperately disappointing and stupidly scary.”
Janet Marshall, director of congregational development for the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, has also noticed a wave of innovation. “The creativity and adaptability of our clergy has been stunning,” she says. “The burst of energy has been huge.” Like Hall, she is concerned about the sustainability of the pace. “I hear the same refrain from everyone: ‘I never realized that I would be busier leading a virtual church than one that met in person.’”
The Anglican Dioceses of Toronto and Central Newfoundland both proclaimed a time of jubilee this spring, in which they covered clergy salaries and stopped congregational remittances. This gave churches a financial breather. However, not every denomination is in the same position. Erik Mathiesen, the chief financial officer for the United Church has seen these concerns first hand. His national webinars on finances had more than 1,000 viewers each week and he saw the anxiety in the questions he received. “Ministers are worried about what their jobs will look like in six months and if they will even have one,“ he said. He is also concerned about the future of those congregations that are already financially vulnerable.
This applies not only to Christian clergy, but our colleagues in other faiths. Imam Habeeb Alli is a prison chaplain, community organizer and a member of the Canadian Council of Imams. Alli said that while some innovative mosques have surpassed their financial targets, others have had to lay off their imams. Mosques have also had to respond to the economic impact on their congregations. “During Ramadan, we organized drive-through pick-up meals for those in need,” he told me. Like churches, they are reconfiguring their worship spaces to adapt to the new normal.
While COVID has resulted in churches shutting their doors for safety, Rev. Beth Walker of Victoria’s Fairfield United had a completely different challenge — one that also provided an opportunity for creativity. “We haven’t had a building since January of 2018, it’s been torn down and is being redeveloped,” she explains. They were worshipping in a community centre on Sundays, but it closed due to the virus. Now, worship is pre-recorded outdoors. Like Hall, she wonders about the sustainability of our current pace. “This is going to change the way we work; how do we balance innovation with the way we used to do church and in the future how are we going to do both?”
As ministers, our job descriptions have been radically shifted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. To this, we can add the grief of personal losses in this time and the ache in our hearts to be with our people again. As clergy, we need to care for and support each other. As Rev. Foster told me: “Just be kind; everyone is doing their best in the midst of a COVID-19 winter.”
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