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By: The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

One pastor said, “When can we go back to normal? That’s all they keep asking. How the heck do we get back to normal after the past year?” Another said, “I’m supposed to love them. How do I love them after all the crap they’ve put me through this past year?” Still another commented, “I don’t even know where to start. I’ll bet we lost at least 30% of our members during the pandemic. And everyone thinks it’s up to me to get them back.”

These are statements I’ve heard over the past two months from pastors I work with. They’re under tremendous pressure to get back to normal,… but what if normal doesn’t exist anymore? As one said recently, “I thought I’d be ecstatic once everyone was vaccinated because we could get back to in-person worship. It’s even worse now! At least during the pandemic they mostly got along. Now they’re at each other’s throats. Some just want to get rid of all the technology and go back to the way it was. Others love it and want to increase it. Some want to pretend the pandemic’s over, while others want proof of vaccination. I hate it!”

Church members and pastors suffer from both fatigue and a yearning to get back to normal. But there is no normal to get back to. Normal died during the pandemic as churches scrambled to meet new realities: How do we record our services? Do we need a camera or can we use our phones? Do we live stream on Facebook or YouTube or a streaming service, or upload recordings to YouTube? How do we create an engaging service for distracted, bathrobe clothed people watching in their kitchens while eating breakfast?

No church remains like it was at the beginning of 2020. We have more technology and fewer members. The good news is that churches have been amazingly adaptive. The bad is that they’ve been despairingly conflicted. As a clergy coach and guide, most of my work now is helping them sort through options as they try to move the church forward.

I’ve been offering a very clear response: you can’t go back. You can only build back. It’s as though we’ve all been devastated by a hurricane, an earthquake, or a condo collapse. Relationships have been frayed, worship services have been disrupted, education has been decimated, trust in authority and each other has eroded. Our post-pandemic world is mentally and spiritually like a war zone after a truce. Where to start? What do we do?

I’ll share some of the guidance I’ve been giving pastors:

  • Emphasize building back rather than returning to normal. Share with leaders and members that the church’s recovery is much like rebuilding after a hurricane, earthquake, or collapse. Get them thinking about how to rebuild intentionally.

  • Talk about building back better. In building back after a disaster, few restore things to what they were. Most try to make improvements Almost all churches now have an upgraded digital presence both through video and websites. Lead your church to become a hybrid church that holds onto what was good while embracing what can better.

  • Start small and basic. The tendency after a disaster is to get back to the same level of activity, but the reality is that that capability is gone. We need to start where we are, not where we were. Don’t be in a hurry to return, especially to what wasn’t working, but do think about what can be done. Start small and build up. This is a chance to rethink things and do them better.

  • Reconsider the pastor’s position description. I’ve been encouraging all pastors to talk with their boards, councils, sessions, or vestries about rethinking their roles as pastors. For the past 50 years more and more has been piled onto the pastor’s plate. Originally pastors focused on preaching, teaching, and worship. Then they became responsible for visiting. Then they became the main evangelizers. Soon they were responsible for developing small discipleship group programs. They became more and more like a corporate CEO or organizational executive director. They’ve been tasked with leading the congregation to become more missional. The pandemic has forced them to become technology wizzes. In the process no one’s advocated for taking things off the pastor’s plate. Most pastors are past the breaking point. So, whether it starts with a personnel committee, a task force, or the board, it’s time to talk about what needs to be taken off the pastor’s plate and shared with the congregation. This reflects a reality I faced 25 years ago: I realized that I could focus on visiting or on leading, but I couldn’t do both. We re-envisioned my position so that the laity did more visiting, which allowed me to focus on leading. We did it again 10 years later to allow me to spend more time writing books and speaking across the country as part of a mission of our church. The key is having honest conversations about what is realistic for pastors, and engaging in a process to restore pastors to what’s realistic.

  • Talk with members about the need to move forward. Whether it’s through newsletters, videos, a congregational letter, or sermons, let the congregation know that this pandemic wasn’t the first time the church faced an upheaval. Christianity is a religion that’s thrived through so many catastrophes and upheavals (think of the early church growing despite persecutions, attacks from barbarian tribes, the Renaissance, and the Reformation). Remind them that God doesn’t call people backward, but always calls them forward.


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

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By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA - Executive Director

Amidst everything written about how the pandemic has or will change us, have you noticed recent ones about people who aren’t returning to work, who choose to remain unemployed, or who are changing careers? It’s become an issue in businesses such as restaurants, hotels, mini-markets, and any number of lower paying entities.

It’s not just them. Many, many people are reappraising the kind of work they do, where they work from, what their work/life balance should look like, and even whether they want to continue the career tracks they had been pursuing prior to the pandemic. Quite a number realized during and after the pandemic that they no longer wanted the careers they had because they were burned out. They became deeply aware that their life wasn’t what they wanted it to be, nor that they felt it should be.

What is burnout? It’s very difficult to define. According to University of California, Berkley researcher and author, Christina Maslach, there are three critical factors she identified as part of an inventory on burn out she developed called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. They are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion is the easiest to understand and has really been almost epidemic during the pandemic. It’s feeling pervasively overwhelmed in ways that no amount of sleep, breaks, diversions, entertainment, exercise, and/or activity can relieve. Depersonalization is more difficult to describe. It’s feeling detached from ourselves as though we are numbly watching our lives from a outside. It’s common among people who have experienced trauma, and for many people the pandemic has been a slow, persistent trauma. A diminished sense of personal accomplishment refers to a sense that nothing we’ve achieved, nothing we’ve done or are doing, really matters. It kills our sense of self-worth and causes us to feel empty and unimportant.

I know these feelings intimately. I experienced burnout in 1983 after working for two years as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital, followed by 16 months of being unemployed. These experiences led me to do a lot of self-assessing and eventually led me to go to seminary, while simultaneously getting a master’s in social work, so that I could, in part, help people experiencing what I had experienced. My burnout led me to realize that there’s another component to burn out that researchers often don’t pay enough attention to: a loss of meaning and purpose. Victor Strecher, in his book, Life on Purpose, says meaning is a sense that I am on earth for a reason. He says purpose is the sense that what I do matters. When we’re burned out we feel as if nothing we’ve done or are doing matters, and that we lack a greater reason for living.

Many people are emerging from the pandemic questioning why they are here. They woner if anything they are doing really matters. They deeply exhausted, depersonalized, and as though they’ve achieved little with their lives. Burn out is a serious problem that can lead to increased levels of addiction, self-destructiveness, lethargy, and isolation, all while eroding relationships and engagement in life.

What do we do about this kind of burn out? My burn out transformed me, but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It led me to make significant changes in my life and instilled within me a re-determination to pursue a life of compassion, healing, and spiritual openness. It took a lot of chats with friends, family, pastors, and others to get me there.

Burn out is an invitation to re-evaluate and reassess what our lives are about. What kind of changes to they invite us to make? They can include:

  • Slowing down: Many people slowed down during the pandemic and fear a return to a 24/7, 365 culture. Overcoming burn out means being intentional in taking and making time for nature, reading, reflecting, praying, thinking, and being appreciative and grateful throughout our lives.

  • Becoming more self-aware: Most therapists spend endless hours self-reflecting. That’s not as true for the population at large. Often, we don’t like to explore the roots of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relationships, and more. Becoming more self-aware helps us break out of patterns that drag our lives down, and it enables us to make more life-giving decisions.

  • Caring for self: This may seem obvious, but few do it. In American culture we talk a lot about self-care and do very little about it. Perhaps it’s the American way of constantly veering towards extremes, which makes us feel like caring for self means we have to become Olympian in our fitness, eating, and more. Self-care simply means doing what’s healthy for us, even if it goes against the grain of our culture.

  • Caring for others: In study after study, it’s clear that the happiest, most content people are those who find ways to care for others. Why is it so important? From a spiritual, meaning and purpose perspective the answer is simple—we’re on earth to love and care, and when we do we end up doing what really matters.

  • Family and friends: Not all families are healthy, nor are all friendships, but it’s important to carve out time with others with whom we can laugh, do things with, and love. This may mean looking for new friends who can help us have healthy relationships and working on our families in counseling to create greater health. Much like what was said about caring for others, family and friendships are the primary people we can care for.

Reflecting on all of this, how can each of us turn our levels of burnout into insight that leads to a better life. Our therapists at Samaritan are here to help.

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The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

I’ve long been fascinated by people who’ve overcome despair, catastrophe, and trauma and forged new ways of living filled with hope, joy, gratitude, meaning, and purpose. I’ve spent a lot of years studying their lives.

Some have lived in modern times, but the ones who stand out to me are those who lived in history’s truly difficult times. Among them are people like St. Francis, who lived in the 12th Century. He had been a young, wealthy dilatant, preoccupied with drinking and chasing young women. Suddenly his whole life was turned upside down after being captured in the first moments of a battle he had no training or skill for. Spending a year in a festering, squalid dungeon, he re-emerged as a changed man who was ready to devote his life to compassion, love, and faith.

Another, Ignatius of Loyola, had been a magnificent and glorified soldier. During a battle his leg was shattered by a cannonball, which led him to spend more than a year in bed convalescing. He developed a new vision for his life and became a deeply spiritual man, eventually helping to found the Jesuits in 1539—a society for Catholics committed to education, self-reflection, and service.

The one who stands out to me the most is St. Patrick. There are so many fanciful myths about the man, but even when you strip those away, his story was amazing. As a 5th Century teen from a wealthy family in the southwestern part of the Roman province of Britain, he was captured by Celtic raiders and taken back to Ireland. He was forced to live as a slave for nine years, mostly as a 24 hour-a-day, 365 days-a-year shepherd.

Constantly starving and exposed to the elements, Patrick had to become physically, emotionally, and spiritually resilient. He had to develop strength he hadn’t had before. He also discovered God’s presence peeking through nature all around him. Responding to a dream telling him that a boat was waiting to take him home, he eventually embarked on a frightening march to the sea. When he got there, miraculously a group of traders were already there and agreed to take him back to Britain.

If you or I had escaped slavery, the last thing we’d want to do is to return to live among our captors. Amazingly, upon his return home, Patrick felt a call to return to Ireland as a priest and a bishop to minister to the Celtic people, who at that time were a fiercely tribal and violent people. What would cause him to want to go back? He spent the next ten years being trained as a priest and was finally named the Bishop of Ireland prior to his return. What allowed him to grow from his experiences rather than to be crushed by them?

These people inspire me. We’ve grown sensitive to people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our therapists do tremendous work with those suffering the trauma of war, abuse, severe bullying, tragedies and more. Still, there are some who face trauma and grow in response. They still have some level of PTSD, but that’s overcome by what’s called Post-Traumatic Growth Syndrome (PTGS). Patrick was a person who clearly had PTSD, but he found a way to develop PTGS. He had resilience physically, emotionally, spiritually. So many of us struggle with life, especially in response to the twin traumas of our culture—pandemic and polarization.

How do we develop a resilient response to the struggles we face? Let me share some ideas:

Assessing Reality: Those who develop this kind of resiliency are neither optimistic nor pessimistic. They’re realists. They fully understand the situations they are in and accept them as reality. At the same time, they also recognize that they can create their own reality by how they respond to their situation. There’s the reality of their situation in life, and there’s the reality of how to respond to it, which leads us to…

Appreciation over Depreciation: Those with resilience learn to look at life with a sense of appreciation rather than depreciation. In other words, as bad as things are around them, they can be like St. Patrick, who began to experience God through the beauty of the surrounding hills, trees, grass, sheep, sun, moon, stars, and more. He experienced God in a beauty that contrasted with the ugliness of humanity.

Imagine a New Reality: Resilient people assess their present reality, but because they are appreciative, they can imagine a life beyond their present reality. They become intentional about crafting a different way of life. They choose to look for what’s possible, and as a result change their reality, even if it takes time.

Letting go of Loss: These people do recognize and grieve over what’s been lost through their turmoil and trauma. They don’t deny it, they work through it. And then they let go of the loss in order to move forward toward…

Obstacles turn into Opportunity: No matter how much we may want to change, we will always face obstacles. Always! The obstacles aren’t the problem. It’s how we respond to the obstacles that matter. Do we confront the obstacles and become stuck, or do we take advantage of them as opportunities to grow in new directions? My guiding metaphor for this is water. Notice how water reacts with obstacles. It either goes in new directions, finds a way to overcome them, or erodes them. Water doesn’t stop. Francis used imprisonment to grow. Ignatius used convalescence to grow. Patrick used his slavery and shepherding to grow. How do we use our situations to grow?

Resilient people aren’t necessarily special people. Instead, they are people who face the same dilemmas we face, or worse, and find ways to grow through them. Samaritan is here to help.

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