Strains on pastors during pandemic resemble strains on chaplains in a combat zone

Pastor Linda Norlien, retired Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) in the U.S. Army, recently shared this reflection on what it takes to minister well in difficult circumstances and consistently over a long period of time.

May it be an encouragement to us all as we look toward 2021.

Ministry during a global pandemic is presenting challenges most of us have never faced before. Our training and prior experience comes up short in equipping us to face the increases in leadership challenges, decisions and fatigue.

Based on my experience as a retired Army chaplain, I would say this ministry context most resembles the challenges Army chaplains face while deployed to a combat zone. 

Ministry in a combat zone

Perhaps a brief account of an experience I had in 2006 in the dining facility at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr, Iraq, will reveal the resemblance I see. I had just finished my meal when I spotted a fellow chaplain and took the opportunity to walk over and see how he was doing. It was breakfast time and my friend looked exhausted.

I sat down and heard his account of visiting his night shift personnel. He was eating breakfast and preparing to head out to check on his day shift. He was noticeably thin and completely ragged out. Since he was the only chaplain of his military branch on the base, he felt the weight not only of making sure all of his personnel knew him, but that he had addressed all of their religious support needs.

He was weeks into his pattern of making rounds across the entire base—visiting both day and night shifts. He was lacking sleep and losing weight, to say nothing of the strain on his emotional and spiritual life.

I was senior to him in date of rank and on my second combat deployment. I also knew his supervisory chaplain was located on another operating base, so I took the chance to offer him some friendly advice. As we talked, I was able to help him see that he desperately needed to develop a battle rhythm that included regular sleep, quality nutrition, quiet time with the Lord, physical exercise, phone or video conferences with his family back home, regular office hours and some body-and-soul-relieving relaxation with people.

His day and night shift visits were commendable—demonstrating that his heart was in the right place—but not the most efficient pace for long term, sustainable ministry in a combat zone. He thought that the place he was needed most was out where his people were, but he could only be in one place at a time. He was wearing himself out visiting with each of his personnel, but at any given time there might be 10 others unable to locate him.

I conveyed my genuine concern that he was on a trajectory that made him inaccessible to most of his personnel most of the time. He was also harming his health and he would not have the needed reserve energy to draw from if there were a serious incident requiring him to be at his peak emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Our visit went well and ended with him thanking me for my concern. He also pledged to give my recommendations genuine consideration.

Lessons we can use

We know from the testimony of others that the stress and strain of leading churches during this global pandemic is pushing pastors toward exhaustion. So, allow me to offer you some of the lessons we learned as military chaplains while deployed to combat zones.

The most important first step, as I told my friend in Iraq that morning, is to develop a weekly written plan for your time. In the military we called it our “battle rhythm,” which we printed and posted on the doors of our office, chapel and dwelling. That posted schedule informed everyone in our unit, from the most junior soldier to the staff and commander, where we were 24/7. We also made sure everyone had our contact information, so we were accessible, as needed.

An important principle we must recognize is that we cannot physically be everywhere we could possibly be used, so we must be accountable to others for where we are so they can locate us. Treat that plan as your rule of life and exercise and refine it week by week. By making your schedule available, you force yourself to be accountable to discipline your time. Developing and refining that plan every week helps you identify areas you might be neglecting like enough sleep, time with family and personal devotion time.

A second key principle is that it is not enough to simply be present physically if you are so spiritually and emotionally and physically depleted that you are not worth anything when you get there. The most important thing you bring into any conversation, meeting, study, worship service or counselling appointment is your well-rested, emotionally-healthy, Holy Spirit-filled presence.

I am not saying that God will not equip you beyond your own normal capabilities when the situation requires more than you have at that time. However, we are foolish to consistently live beyond our physical and emotional and spiritual capacities, and then expect God to use us when a need presents itself.

To minister well, consistently over a long-term time of unusual stress and strain, we must increase our planning and collaboration time and prioritize better than ever. Look for and ask God where He is working and resist distractions. Choose wisely so you can join God deeply.

In order to build your perseverance watch for and cultivate sources of joy. Have a sleep plan and keep working and refining it. Eat healthy food and drink more water. Nurture healthy friendships of all sorts. Ask God to help you resolve any personal conflicts you have and nurture family relationships, spiritual companions, and hobby and exercise friendships.

Stay connected with those you love intimately. Resist the temptation to take your closest relationships for granted. That will undermine the long-term health of those relationships. Instead, address loneliness before it sets in by connecting deeply.

Be careful to resist the tendency to ignore, deny or dismiss your needs of any kind. Remind yourself that any need you deal with in an unhealthy manner opens up a vulnerability to temptation. Give yourself permission to be affected by the challenges of the situation and address your needs in the moment.

Enjoy healthy sources of humor, sip your coffee slowly, listen to jazz, play your instrument, do art and read a fun novel or biography. Nurture gratitude and actively refuse fear and panic. If you know your Myers-Briggs Personality Type or your Enneagram number, use that insight to be the healthiest version of yourself, addressing the shadow sides of your personality.

Seek God’s presence and involvement in all you are responsible for by cultivating breath prayers, so you can be in an attitude of prayer continually. Recognize and acknowledge beauty and goodness wherever it can be seen. Grieve with faith by putting your confidence in God.

Times like these help us to recognize that what people need most comes from God, not us. But, we do have the privilege of reminding them of that. Nurture collaboration with other ministers and ministries, refusing competition that might have existed before.

In fact, identify what you admire and respect of other leaders and humbly learn from them. Refuse superficiality and legalism, genuinely making more time for the Lord to speak to you. If you have never engaged in the classic disciplines of the Christian faith like silence and solitude, and devotional Bible study, do so now.

Studying for sermon preparation is not the same as employing your contemplative imagination as you reread the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, seeing yourself as the person Jesus is forgiving and healing.

Empower other paid or lay-leaders to lead by coordinating a plan to share, or even hand off, responsibilities appropriate to their gifts and maturity. By prioritizing being accessible you entrust others to contact you when you are most needed and sustain your physical, emotional and spiritual resources, so when you get there you actually minister meaningfully.

Make and keep your appointments with your spiritual director, your counselor, your medical doctor, dentist and physical therapist. In fact, address your medical needs especially if they include pain or interrupted sleep. Remember, God meets us and blesses us where we are, not where we wish we were.

No time is too late to turn your situation over to God and listen afresh for his quiet whisper. Your schedule will still be full, but the planning, preparation and prioritizing I am recommending will equip you to minister well. You will be awake enough to be present and aware enough to be meaningfully working alongside God in what He is busy doing in each life and each ministry opportunity you encounter.

Ten Years Later

Ten years after our time at Camp Bucca, I bumped into my chaplain friend who was now an instructor in the basic course for chaplains just entering service. We had a joyful reunion and he introduced me to his students, by saying this is the Army chaplain I told you about who very likely saved my life.

It turns out that he took my counsel that day in Iraq and used it in every applicable situation thereafter. Now, he was passing the same healthy battle rhythms to these young chaplains who were headed to their own exciting but challenging ministries.

Pastor Linda Norlien
Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) US Army, Retired