Matt Bloom: A commitment to personal rituals can sustain clergy, even during a pandemic

Unsplash / Ashley Batz

Pastors can benefit from adaptable, restorative practices, writes a leading researcher on well-being in the workplace.

I spent my summer away from the thick of all things COVID-19. I was at our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which means I was outside every day, could easily spend time with our wonderful neighbors and still maintain appropriate social distancing, and had ready access to fresh food from small local providers. No visits to crowded grocery stores, no trying to walk on busy sidewalks. As a professor, I had no work responsibilities that required me to adapt.

Pastors are at the other end of the pandemic impact spectrum with no clear relief in sight. They are trying to preach effectively with empty church pews as their audience. They are suddenly required to be technology experts -- available 24/7 to handle computer problems -- and still carry out their usual responsibilities.

They feel the intensity of working from home in new ways. They struggle to create appropriate space for pastoral care in the middle of a now-packed and privacy-strained home. They wrestle with the terrible reality that they cannot make hospital visits or, even more wrenching, officiate in traditional ways at funerals. Life for pastors has become immensely harder.

My colleagues and I at the Flourishing in Ministry project have developed some practices based upon our research that I think will help pastors, especially those who are bearing significant burdens from the pandemic. We call these “wise well-being practices” -- in part because they are based on solid scientific evidence, and also because they can be tailored to fit into a pastor’s unique ministry and personal situation.

A basic triad of wise well-being practices can help us build solid ground from which to move forward.

First is acknowledging that anxiety is a natural response. We are hard-wired to experience anxiety in times like these, followed by fatigue, frustration and fear when challenges persist. The key goal is to be able to acknowledge that these responses are normal and not somehow evidence of personal “weakness.”

One simple but effective strategy is to explicitly name the troubling thoughts and feelings and then to recognize that they are natural and understandable -- that they are OK. Certain kinds of prayer can help with this. The shift in thinking and feeling will probably not be immediate or comprehensive, but research shows that this simple practice, repeated over time, is very likely to help.

The responses may recur, and if they do, that is normal as well. Again, building solid ground starts with accepting that these times are very difficult and quite naturally will evoke anxious, worried thoughts and feelings.

Building solid ground continues by engaging in at least one joyful practice on a regular basis. Joyful practices foster positive, peaceful, hopeful thoughts and feelings. Examples include centering prayer, lectio divina, hymn singing, the reading of beautiful poems, walking meditation, listening to hopeful music and jubilant dance.

I have several joyful practices I turn to, including reading positive nonfiction like Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World” and listening to podcasts like “The Slowdown.” More recently, I have been listening to music that inspires me, like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Even five minutes of a joyful practice each day will produce meaningful benefits over time.

A final way to build solid ground is to get enough rest. Even in good times, we hear a lot about how important getting sufficient sleep is for our health and well-being. During challenging times, it is especially important to ensure that our minds and bodies are rested and restored.

Short catnaps can be very effective. Even if sleep is difficult, finding ways to physically relax can help. And yes, being a couch potato for short periods can be beneficial if that brings rest. But worrying about getting enough rest is counterproductive, so if sleep becomes an ongoing challenge, getting assistance from a physician or heath care professional may be in order.

In times like these, it is important to affirm our core life values and beliefs. Researchers consistently find that when we feel uncertain or threatened, returning to our core values is a balm.

Consider an exercise such as this: Dwell on at least one value. Think about what that value means to you, why your living out that value matters so much. Next, acknowledge the ways you are living it out -- you need to be able to embrace concrete things you are doing that represent that value. Then imagine new ways you can live in consonance with that value in several aspects of your life: work, home, civic activities, etc.

Try to be vivid and specific in what you imagine. Make it real for yourself. Finally, create some reminder of the value: an icon, a quotation, an objective that represents it, a song that reflects it. When practiced over time, such affirmations can be powerful antidotes to life’s most challenging experiences.

We invite pastors and other ministry workers and leaders to visit our website to find more resources, including our WorkWell mobile app. WorkWell offers users an opportunity to build their own personal well-being profiles, as well as access to more wise well-being practices by experts including Barbara Brown Taylor, Parker Palmer and James Martin, with new practices from Robert Franklin and others coming soon.

Simple practices that require small amounts of time really do create benefits, as long as we make them rituals, activities that we engage in regularly. My colleagues and I sometimes say “five for flourishing,” which is meant to remind us that we can all find five minutes to help ourselves.