“Who are your workers and what do they carry with them emotionally and spiritually into worship?”
I frequently ask pastors and worship leaders this question to encourage pastoral curiosity within their parishes with their people. What joys and burdens do your people bring when they walk through your church doors, and what do they need to hear and know to send them back out to engage God’s work in their daily living?
These are important questions – ones that mold and deepen the ways you engage with your congregation Sunday and Monday alike. But we are workers too. So what do we bring with us each week into worship?
This worker narrative was written from my voice and much of my own experience. It also bubbled to the surface because of many conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues in these past few years as we struggle with our callings and our contexts. This won’t be everyone’s experience. But for those who resonate with it, may you know you are not alone.
For 68 Sundays, I adjusted my light ring, carefully positioned the camera, and hit record. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen. We open God’s Word today….”
There I sat, in an empty room — willing the memory of bodies, the sound of voices, and the rustling of paper bulletins to be real enough in my soul that preaching might have something of an incarnational presence once again.
For 68 weeks, I raised my arms to bless a scattered congregation of people who would receive the edited version 48 hours later. For 68 weeks, I sat on my couch on Sunday mornings, wondering if our people would see a more interesting option on the YouTube sidebar and click over halfway through the sermon.
March 2020 was an embodied exodus story. If I’m going to be truly honest, we as a church were not doing well long before it began with the arrival of Covid 19. A different kind of virus had seeped into the walls of the church and the minds of the people, and it left so much death and destruction in its wake. Political toxicity scorched the common ground and the common good, growing a chasm so deep it forced people to continually step further and further away for fear of getting burned. Families fractured. Cities rioted. Social media poisoned. Countries gawked. Churches ignited.
And pastors? We lived in a perpetual state of fear, feeling like we were trying to make ministry bricks without straw. Living under the oppression of opinionated voices, we agonized over our words in the pulpit, fearful they would be perceived as “too political.” We sat through painful conversations, donning our neutrality like an ill-fitting piece of clothing, trying to remain a calm and non-anxious presence. We watched people lobby in the lobby. We wept as colleagues and former seminary classmates walked away.
The arrival of the pandemic felt like a lightning bolt of adrenaline. And for us “doers,” it was enough to get us back on our feet, ready to take action and do the really difficult things our pastoral care classes had equipped us to do. We led our people faithfully through the Red Sea of lockdown, grateful for the resilience of our staff teams to get worship up and running online. We charted a course of cloud by day and fire by night with advice from the medical personnel in our congregation who spoke with expertise and wisdom. Manna and quail were provisions that came in the form of drive-by birthday celebrations, pastoral care visits on porches, and hearing stories of ways people were once again caring for each other as the body of Christ.
Little did we know though, how prolonged our wandering in the wilderness would last. I remember being hopeful we would be back in person for Easter 2020. If not then, certainly by the summer. We better start thinking about fall programming for Sunday school because we’ll be back to normal then. Christmas? Spring? Grumbling grew louder. Arguments over masking and vaccines reverberated from 6 feet apart. Our sturdy pillars were called to question. The manna began to rot. While I juggled my own deteriorating mental health and the needs of my family, the pressure was increasing on all sides. It would have been better to let my calling to ministry die back in Egypt.
Still, we journeyed on. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, we journeyed. We stopped to build altars of gratitude and remembrance. We buried our loved ones in new and surreal ways. Worship services were portable and could be watched from wherever and whenever. New enemies would pop up in the form of racial violence, government coups, political death threats, and medical protests. Still, we journeyed on.
As we finally neared the Promised Land of fully accessible vaccines coupled with warmer weather, my feet were so blistered from the hot sands of conflict. My garments were worn thin by the whipping winds of rhetoric. My soul felt as dry and desolate as the landscape I was preparing to depart.
And here I am in the promised land — a land I had hoped would have enough milk to quench my thirst for a new calling, and enough honey to make the mantle of ministry sweet again. But I am weary. I am cynical. I have nothing left to give. Congregational singing sounds nothing like the heavenly foretaste I once remembered. The pews are nowhere close to as full as they once were. Tithing is withheld in protest like indulgences. Nobody has capacity to volunteer but expectations remain disproportionately high. The church has already found new ways to create conflict. My fellow leaders burned out and went home by another route.
“Be grateful” they say. Life can return to normal. Church can return to normal. It’s been a long journey, but we made it. As I stare at my new surroundings, I can’t help but feel it. I’m back to making bricks without straw.