Life in Lockdown – A church leader’s perspective

I’ve had a burden to write this for a while – to share my own perspective on what it’s been like to live and minister through this COVID-19 crisis over the past four or so months.  I don’t claim to speak for all clergy or church leaders, but some of this may resonate for you. Also, I don’t claim that the stresses and experienced mentioned here are unique or more challenging than anyone else – many other professions and families have experienced much greater stress than I have – I’m simply trying to be honest to perhaps open up a conversation and help people to feel that perhaps they’re not alone.  I’m also aware that in many ways I’ve been insulated from the worst impact of this crisis, my family and I have remained healthy throughout, neither has anyone close to us lost their lives to this horrible disease, so I write with that in mind too. 

Given all of the above, this is a snapshot of what the experience of ministering in the crisis has been like for me – and perhaps for other church leaders too. 

First, to start with the positives …. !

Fruitfulness

Many people have been placed on furlough and since lost their jobs. Many are still in limbo, waiting to see when, if ever, they will return to work. Many have therefore been robbed of what feels like their purpose during this time, and have found themselves with too much time on their hands. If anything the opposite has been true – I’ve been on the go constantly, particularly in the early stages of the lockdown when we had to completely rethink how we were doing church. Those initial weeks – and the time since have been were simultaneously some of the most stressful and fruitful of my ministry so far as I’ve been able to play a small part in helping our church community stay connected while the building has been shut.  I’ve also had the privilege of ministering to my local school community, doing short videos for them, and meeting regularly with the head teacher, which I know we’ve both appreciated.

Affirmation

I have said this to my church a number of times, but I do feel so blessed to have been Vicar of my church. Members of the congregation have expressed their appreciation for the work I’ve put in to put the services together and for the other things I’ve done, they’ve sent emails to say thank you, phoned simply to see how I am, shown care in lots of different ways. I’ve also been blown away when I’ve called people to do my bit of pastoral care and discovered that I’ve ended up being ministered to far more than I’ve been ministering! These have each, in their own way, helped me to keep going, to make the efforts worth their while, reminded me that I wouldn’t want to be going through this than anyone else than this precious church family. What a blessing!

Family time 

Though this has had it’s interesting moments (My 2 year old gatecrashing my livestream of a midweek service, changing his nappy during clergy chapter meetings on zoom) and additional tensions (Tele church on Sundays with the 5 of us together in the living room is an interesting experience!), I’ve had the privilege of spending so much time with my wife and kids – eating with them most mealtimes, admiring them and my wife as they have grappled with home schooling, having a break from work to play the odd game of football in the garden and other joys that I will genuinely miss when my daughters return to school in September.

Nature

I’ve made sure I’ve taken advantage of the recommended daily exercise to go walking most days since lockdown began in March and I have discovered a new appreciation for the beauty of nature, particularly in the changing seasons that transformed our local park, which is only 5 minutes from my house.  Open fields. another 15 minutes away, have been a profound blessing.  These have helped sustain me through these challenging times – and wasn’t the unseasonably warm weather early in lockdown an extraordinary blessing?

So, those are some of the blessings I’ve seen and experienced in this time, but here are the negatives.

Grief

I haven’t lost anyone I’ve loved during this time, but I don’t have a better word for the sense of loss that I’ve experienced since March.  I will never forget being in a gathering of Coventry church leaders when the Bishop stood up and announced the news that the churches would be shut for public worship with immediate effect.  I was absolutely devastated and I am not ashamed to admit that I had tears in my eyes.  This shock and sadness was exacerbated by the fact that on that coming weekend we were due to hold our church’s special 60th anniversary celebrations – a whole weekend of special events had been planned, into which I – and others in the church – poured hours and hours of preparation, dreaming and planning – all of which was snatched away just like that, and we still don’t know when we’re going to be able to celebrate properly.  

It may not surprise you to hear this, but I love church – most of all when God’s people come together to worship each week.  I love the fact that the church I lead is one where people of all ages are able to flourish.  I love it when our voices all join together to worship God in song, and to learn together. I love being with everyone after the service – and love the fact that people hang around and chat with each other for a significant amount of time after the service has finished.  

Though a significant number of people in our church community have expressed how much they’ve appreciated our online services, for me they are a shadow of what I love.  For one, it’s a bit weird listening to myself preach (all our services have been prerecorded so far). There are personal challenges in our family as we try and manage our lovely 2 year son through “tele-church” in which he has no interest because he’d rather watch fireman sam or peppa pig, and far from keeping quiet, he’d rather make as much noise as possible. No, tele church has simply not been the same, and I have been reminded of that sense of grief each and every Sunday.  At Easter (normally my favourite time of the year), after the all age service, it got too much for me, and I wept.

Stress

A church gathering is simple, isn’t it? You get people together, sing some songs, say a few prayers, read out part of the Bible, have someone speaking about it, and then go home again, having met with God in some way.  No one ever really considered how we would be able to continue gathering as  church when our ability to actually gather had been taken away, because it had never happened before. No one had ever seriously considered what “online church” was and how to be one.  And yet, within days church leaders across the world had to discover this very thing – and they had to act quickly. For us this meant our first online service started an hour late, because it took ages to upload onto Facebook and YouTube.  From that point we moved to pre-recorded services each week, to both guarantee that there would be a service for people to watch and also to enable as many people to participate in the leading of the service as possible.  This meant that I had to learn video editing skills – and pushed my internet connection to the limit.  Each week, the video editing and uploading process has taken a whole day and there have been a number of occasions when something has gone wrong with the technology, making the already arduous process that bit worse.  Sometimes the process for getting ready for the Sunday morning service hasn’t actually finished until late on Saturday evening.  The nadir was Holy Week, when it seemed that nothing worked, and I ended up being up until 4am on Good Friday trying to get the all age service ready for only a few hours later, and only realising that only 20 minutes of the Hour at the Cross service had uploaded while the service was actually taking place, and then waiting a few hours for the service to finally upload.

It’s not just the video editing – recording sermons, notices, bible readings, etc takes time, and something invariably goes wrong which balloons the process that bit more.  

On top of this is the reality that a ministry that is based on interaction with people had to be done in a completely new way, and people within the community who were experiencing difficulties and grief simply couldn’t be  ministered to in the same way.

Over time, although the stress caused by adapting to online church, dissipated, there was what seemed to be a never-ending stream of information and guidance that had to be digested and acted upon.  The sands seemed to be constantly shifting, which was exhausting.  When would church buildings reopen? What would services be like when they did? Would we be able to sing? What about kids groups? What about those who didn’t have the ability to view the online services? How could we reach out to them? Dealing with so many questions is exhausting.

Disconnection

Zoom is a great tool for keeping people connected, but I have come to really dislike it.  I want to interact with people face to face, not through the medium of a computer screen – I get so easily distracted and find it hard to resist the temptation to look at other devices or disengage in some other way. I come away from Zoom sessions, whether small group or church fellowship, gatherings or meetings, more exhausted than after more “normal” conversations. Webinars have been a blessing, but again I’ve struggled to fully engage the whole time – it reminds me that I long to be with people above all.

Since we have been able to meet face to face with people, I have taken full advantage of this and ministry has felt very different.

Although I’ve been hugely grateful that events I had booked onto – CVM’s “The Gathering” and “New Wine” went online, for me it hasn’t been the same. I miss being with people – thousands gathered to worship God, both the awe and the intimacy, and hope and pray these events will be able to take place next year. 

Guilt

Guilt has come in various ways for various reasons – guilt at staying healthy when others have suffered, guilt at having a pretty wonderful family life compared to many, guilt at having not done enough to help people, guilt that despite the fact I am a “professional Christian” my prayer life has been rubbish when others say they feel closer to God than ever, guilt that I’ve not always been fully present to my family, that they always get the ends of my energies or the fringes of my attention, or that I’ve been horrible to them for no obvious reason.

Tiredness

All of the above has a huge physical and emotional impact and for me personally, it has meant that I struggled with sleep, adding to an enduring sense of exhaustion.

Sometime in the middle of June a gif appeared on facebook, of Wallace from “Wallace and Gromit” desperately trying to lay a train track as the train he is on speeds along.  It’s a brilliant piece of animation, as was the accompanying headline – “2020 for church leaders”.  It was shared by many of my vicar friends who felt that it captured exactly how we’ve been feeling.  Another visual analogy that has felt apt, at least for me, is that of the plate spinner – going from one plate to another, desperately trying to keep them all in motion, not daring to stop for one second.  The problem with spinning plates and laying new railway track while travelling on a speeding train is that you can only do this for so long – after a while, everything will simply come crashing down.  I felt like I was coming dangerously close to this point – I knew I could only keep gong at the frenetic pace that I had been going at for a little longer, or something had to give.  Thankfully our family holiday came at exactly the right time, and 2 weeks of scenic beauty (West Wales coastline takes some beating), chilling out and having fun with the family, has meant that everything seems different. If you are reading this, and you are a church leader, then please, please, take a holiday – soon.  If you are reading this and you are a church member, then make sure your leader has a significant break.  Ban them from the church building, confiscate their work computer or mobile phone, wrest the keys off them if you need to.  Whatever it takes, your church leader needs to stop – for the good of their soul and for the good of your church.

Conclusion

The post is already long enough and I hope it captures what life has been like for me – perhaps you can relate to me in some way. Having a holiday has helped restore some perspective that until a couple of weeks ago was sorely lacking, and helped me see that things haven’t been all bad. The fact remains though that the world is not all as it should be, gripped by a crisis that shows no signs of ending any time soon. Though there have been wonderful signs of love and life, death and darkness are realities that need to be grappled with – it’s natural to be affected by this. It’s natural and normal to have periods of low mood and a sense of heaviness, even if we can’t fully explain why. The only thing I can do is to look for the blessings that are around me and remind myself of the fact that my hope is placed in one who holds the world in his hands, who has conquered sin, sickness and death, and his love will have the final word. When I remind myself of this, there is, if only fleetingly, peace amidst the turmoil as He commands that wind and waves to be still.

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