The emotional toll of leadership in a pandemic

15 Sep 2020

By Emily Ferguson

Leading people through months of ongoing uncertainty and instability, while experiencing that instability yourself, is no small challenge.

Yet many pastors are courageously engaging those emotional challenges in a way that is transforming and propelling them forward into God’s future for them and their congregations.

For Kev Sheehan (pictured below with wife Kellie), Senior Pastor at Coast Community Church on the Central Coast of NSW, the emotional toll of leading through the pandemic has been twofold.

“For me there was a grief in losing the rhythms of gathering and connecting,” Kev says. “If I didn’t label that as grief, I don’t think I would have processed that emotionally and I wouldn’t have been able to embrace a new journey forward. I would have missed out on the new direction where my vision has lifted significantly about what we could actually do with God as we partner with him.

“It’s going to take courage to lead into new territory now for the Church – that’s got an emotional cost to it as well. It takes a lot of emotional work and a vulnerability to go, ‘Actually, am I okay about things looking different and leading in a space where people might not understand and want things to be back to normal?’ It takes vulnerability and courage to lead like that, but we miss an opportunity if we don’t.”

Bret Clarke is the Pastor at Forster-Tuncurry Church of Christ and has also engaged the emotional challenges of this season in a way that is propelling him forward in both life and leadership.

“My wife and I have three kids – 6, 4, and 2 years old – and we’ve been with each other all the time,” Bret says. “Family life through this season alerted me to what had become accentuated in my own life that wasn’t healthy and that I didn’t know about. It revealed more of who I was underneath.

“It’s been a necessary formation experience and I’ve learned so much about myself, not just as a pastor but as a father and husband, through COVID. It’s been painful, but if I didn’t have this time I probably wouldn’t have got to the stage where I’m at now.”

Counsellor Dr Paula Davis observed that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy emotional toll on many pastors, “This time is so unknown and uncertain. We have rituals that we do each day that provide us with stability and predictability, and that’s gone for church,” Paula says.

“It is an enormous loss (for pastors) and there is a necessary grieving of the loss of ministry the way it was and the loss of relationships too. If you don’t grieve your losses, they just go underground and catch up with you; they keep you stuck and unable to move forward. You’ve got to be honest about your grief before you can think about the future possibilities.”

Read more stories of Fresh Hope here.