Pastoring our Pastors in Time of Pandemic

Need for Pastoral Care of the Clergy

I know the word ‘pastoring’ doesn’t really exist, but I wish it did because it expresses something we are apt to forget. Those to whom we look for pastoral care are themselves in need of care and support. Throughout this pandemic we have heard a lot from parishioners who are sad or unhappy at the way in which some clergy have seemed unresponsive to their needs, especially during periods of lockdown or church closure. As one disgruntled man remarked, ‘They think they have done enough by becoming third-rate movie stars with their live-streamed Masses and what not.’ I daresay some have; but most haven’t. They have tried to be good and dutiful priests in a situation none of us has met before. A few have been blessed with the imagination and creativity to meet the new circumstances positively, but many more have struggled and one or two have been utterly crushed by the experience.

Some clergy have felt abandoned by their bishops and left to soldier on, not sure what to do for the best. They have been burdened with an extra load of admin at the very time when those they chiefly rely on to help — mainly more senior members of the parish, who may well be shielding because of age or infirmity — are not available. They live alone; some admit to being close to breaking-point, others cannot bring themselves to articulate their feelings of loneliness and discouragement. For them celebration of the Holy Mysteries is not the only aspect of priesthood that gives joy and purpose to their lives. They miss the interaction with people. More than one has confessed that, being naturally shy and without the ‘excuse’ that coffee after Mass or regular parish meetings of one kind or another provide, they are becoming more and more isolated.

Wrap and Throw Service

Happily, this is where the brotherhood of the priesthood takes on fresh meaning and importance. It has been heartening to learn of the support received from friendly ‘phone calls and video meetings with fellow priests; but it isn’t enough. Here at the monastery we do our best to listen non-judgementally and sympathetically to those who feel the need to unburden themselves of the distress they feel. I hope we manage to reassure them that they are not letting the side down or being a failure because they are not exercising their priesthood in ways familiar to them. We try to give encouragement. In the monastery we refer to this as our ‘Wrap and Throw Service’, meaning we do our best to wrap those who come to us in the love of God and throw them back into their parishes to minister to others. But again, it isn’t enough.

The Role of Parishioners

The people best placed to support the clergy through this time of pandemic are their parishioners. Yes, you! The bishop can only do so much; fellow priests and monasteries can only do so much; but you are there. You know your priest in a way no one else does. It does not take much time to send a friendly email asking how he is and saying you miss seeing him on a regular basis. A word of thanks and appreciation for what he is doing to meet the needs of the parish will never go amiss. An offer of help may be warmly received. Who can tell? Pastoring our pastors isn’t a difficult art. It simply requires a warm heart and the ability to see the human person wearing the collar — someone just as much in need of encouragement as we are ourselves.

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13 thoughts on “Pastoring our Pastors in Time of Pandemic”

  1. Thank you so much for this very helpful reminder.
    Praying for you and the community in your own pastoral work. (Just loved the “Wrap and Throw service” label!)

    • Thank you for your prayers. The Wrap and Throw Service takes its name from the remark of an old nun, now deceased: ‘Wrap ’em up in the love of God and throw them back into their parishes.’

  2. This is so, so true Sister. I sense that our two wonderful young priests/monks are sometimes near breaking point. I love the idea “The Wrap and Throw Service”. I’ll have to get my throwing arm back in training!

  3. My parish is run by a religious order, most of whom are elderly but, while some can’t assist with the more active parish work in normal times, they are able to support with prayer and counsel and relationships. Parishioners support the parish priest as much as possible, mainly virtual at present and the schools, when they are in, have plenty of online interaction.

    • That’s good to know. I think that members of religious orders, when they do not live alone, are usually, though not invariably, better supported than their counterparts in the diocesan/secular clergy whom I was writing about. But even religious clergy have their difficulties, and I wouldn’t mind betting that one or two of those older men you mention sometimes feel a bit like a lonely shell washed up on the seashore. Let’s do our best to support them all.

  4. The first lockdown was difficult, but there was a sense of excitement about it. The second a little tougher, but now the third and it is extremely wearing.

    Many of us are working harder than ever, and clergy morale is at an all time low. Even the things like the Mass and the daily office, which give us life, can feel like a heavy burden. Its amazing how just a phone call or an email even, can lift the spirits. So thank you for saying this.

  5. Thank you Sister! Sometimes we forget that the simplest acts of kindness are all that is needed to rescue someone who is struggling during these difficult and isolating times. Clergy included. Thank you for the reminder!

  6. I love the “wrap and throw” – as a priest, that describes some of my ministry very well! Many of us in the CofE have the “advantage” of being in families (though obviously that can be a mixed blessing), and I have to say that our senior staff team, bishops and archdeacons, have been wonderful in checking in on us, sending notes of appreciation and “being there”. What has been equally helpful is when they have admitted to being utterly fed up of Zoom, and completely exhausted. It gives us permission to own our struggles without guilt.
    Like Fr Alex, this lockdown feels much harder, and the resilience more challenged. Conducting funerals without being able to visit the bereaved is dreadful. Celebrating weddings with only 4 guests allowed is a challenge. (No weddings currently of course). Hospital chaplains praying for people from behind the door must feel awful. Easter will have a different resonance this year I think, as we are all spending more time than we would like in the Garden of Gethsemane.
    Yes, little kindnesses to each other go a long way. It’s amazing how petty I became when stipendiary clergy got a little box of gorgeous chocs as a thank you at Candlemas, but being retired….. I bought my own!!!!!
    I shall hold on to the “wrap and throw”…. Thank you….

    • Jane, I totally understand this. I found myself getting so jealous that a diocese on the other side of the river, (I’m on the North side of London) was sending lovely parcels of Cheese and biscuits etc to all its stipendiary clergy. We got a book (should a Benedictine be complaining about that?) that should have arrived in November which arrived yesterday!

  7. We need to pray daily and give thanks to God for our Priests. Heaven knows we need them more than we can imagine. They are human they to suffer under the heavy cross of lockdown, they to feel the same burdens of loneliness. With all of that they care and pray for us their flock. I say again we must pray daily for our Priests and Religious they are precious.

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