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Our View: Churches

Ministers are struggling through COVID-19, too

Like everyone else, we have found ourselves considering the costs that COVID-19 so far has exacted from our lives and our community, and recently began wondering how the community’s spiritual leaders have fared during this terrible time.

Ministers have faced all the same fears and problems as have the rest of us, of course. Additionally, they’ve had to learn overnight how to transform services into online products, how to become adept at technology, how to engage with their flocks digitally. Like other businesses (and churches are, in effect, small businesses), they lost staff members and couldn’t find new ones.

The Rev. Katie Kandarian of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango said she has worked 70 hours a week during the last year, as pastoral care needs increased – until her son, who lives in Los Angeles, was in a serious car accident this summer, and all else fell away. After spending time to ensure he was on the mend, she came home to Durango and slowed down – a little.

At the UU, while finances have held steady, the congregation has experienced divisiveness over what Religion News Service calls “the trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election and the racial reckoning in response to the death of George Floyd,” she said.

The past year has made more ministers than ever before consider leaving their churches, and nationally, many have. One study showed 29% of Protestant pastors were thinking about leaving ministry altogether.

The Rev. Jeff Huber has led The Summit, a United Methodist Church congregation, for 20 years. He had planned a sermon series called “Life After Pandemic” to begin about three weeks ago. It’s been retitled “Life and Pandemic.” But the message is the same, he said: “You can let it lead to fear, or look at it as a chance to lean on God.”

He is unequivocal in his approach to the pandemic and its demands. The teachings of Christ require that believers care for others, he said. “If we have to wear a mask, get a vaccine, do it for others,” he said. “If Jesus wore a cross, you can wear a mask.”

The Rev. Mark Palmer, pastor for 25 years at River Church, a charismatic, evangelical Christian congregation, said the pandemic has taken a huge toll on his congregation – and on him.

“This last year I would classify as one of the most difficult years of ministry I’ve ever experienced,” he said. Mentions of Black Lives Matter and the concerns of African Americans in sermons angered some congregants, he said. Requirements to wear masks in the sanctuary alienated others. When requirements to wear masks were lifted, still others were angry.

Attendance at services in person and online dropped, along with tithes. Palmer was called a Nazi and other invectives. Last November, he had to take a month off just to regain his footing.

But he believes that some congregants will return, and new ones will find the church.

Despite the troubles local churches and ministers have faced, what persists in uniting them are their charitable efforts. At the UU, River Church and The Summit, congregants have come together to support the Navajo Nation, which was hit hard by the pandemic. Truckloads of food and household supplies have been gathered and shipped southward.

Huber said he has invoked psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” and a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in recent sermons. Frankl analyzed what made the difference for those who survived and those who didn’t and came to this conclusion: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It seems to us that the only rational way to survive these times – whether one is religious or not – is to take that advice, to consciously choose one’s own path, and to make that path include service to others.

Hats off to all of the ministers who have held steady during this crisis, cared for those in their congregations – and forgiven those who have been less than kind.

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