Beware the Journey Down

An Open Letter to Pastors

Dear Pastor,

You are almost to the end of the pandemic!  Praise God! 

Although we haven’t summited Covid Mountain quite yet, the peak is in sight.  During the weeks and months ahead, we reach the summit and begin the journey down.  As we do, I want to remind you of a lesson that all professional climbers need to be reminded of and one with potentially serious consequences:  Beware the journey down!

For all professional climbers, the allure of the summit is intoxicating.  They train hard, push harder and expend an exorbitant amount of energy to conquer the mountain.  With the expenditure of all remaining energy coupled with a lack of oxygen, climbers are at their most vulnerable during their descent.  This is why many accidents and deaths happen on the journey down.

I believe the same danger and truth exists for every pastor at this stage of the pandemic.  At the start of Covid with shutdowns and restrictions, there was the initial stress of adjusting, changing, preparing and pivoting.  Accompanying the stress was an adrenaline surge that fueled innovation and change.  Like the first phase of any climbing expedition, it was filled with a combination of exhilaration and trepidation.  In addition, like most immediate crisis moments, everyone rallied at the start.  However, as the journey carried on and now that we are close to the summit, everyone is exhausted, tired, and frustrated (even if they don’t know or acknowledge it).  As a result, we are at the most perilous part of the journey.

I regularly talk with pastors and denominational leaders from across North America and the consistent theme I am hearing is that pastors are exhausted.  Constant pivots, impact on the family, the weight of leading teams, and the responsibility of shepherding congregations from a digital distance have been difficult.  It has taken everything to get to the summit.  As we reach the peak of Covid Mountain I want to offer encouragement and warning as we enter the most dangerous section of the journey.  As you summit, celebrate God’s faithfulness in the ascent, recognized the impact of this last season on you and acknowledge the temptations and challenges ahead for the descent. 

As you prepare for the journey down, take a look and take stock.  Like all summiteers of mountains, look back, taking in the view and give thanks. Praise God for all He has done (in your life and in your church).  Write a list of all God has done in your life and in your church (do this personally and with your team). God has been faithful and has been working. You have learned new skills, your church has tried new things, you have learned key lessons and God has produced much fruit.  Take stock and give thanks!

Next, turn your attention to your descent and prepare yourself for the journey down.

As you descend, be aware of your vulnerability to react rather than respond.  When your energy levels are depleted, you will tend to impulsively react to situations and people rather than thoughtfully respond.  You have probably already seen this in yourself or others.  Be cognizant of this in your life, rest more, offer yourself grace, connect with friends, pray frequently, and press into your relationship with Jesus (the head of the church) in this season ahead.

As you descend, be aware of your increased susceptibility to sin.  The pain, frustration, and exhaustion of this season may lead you to unhealthy self-medicating through distraction and/or destructive actions.  Seasons like this turn flaws into fractures where the evil one finds footholds in our lives.  Recognize your increased susceptibility to this during the descent, keep short accounts, and find a trusted friend or counsellor to share your hurts, frustrations, and pain.

As you descend, be aware of the temptation to look for transition as a solution.  It could be that a change in roles, churches or careers might be the right decision but, in most cases during this season, it is not.  Transition away from something rather than to something is rarely a good decision.  Mountain climbers who experience mental and physical exhaustion on the descent can simply give up rather than find help or hope to carry on.  May you know, in advance, of this potential and choose to persevere and ask for help.

Recognize that this last year has been one of added pressures, making public health decisions for your church, increased critiques of you as a leader, and feeling incompetent at your “pivoted” role.  As a result, it may have led to experiences of anxiety and depression.  Don’t ignore this but seek help.  Find a professional counsellor (Clergy Care Network has great referrals) and work through the feelings, experiences and trauma you have experienced.  Don’t neglect this!  This has been helpful and healing for me at significant moments in my life and I know it will be for you!

As you prepare for the descent, ask yourself how you are really doing and enter the path ahead with an increased awareness that the greatest challenge and risk of this season is ahead and not behind you.  Beware the journey down!

Take a look from the summit to see what God had done but also recognize that the journey down will be precarious.  Watch your step, trust in Jesus, and take it one step at a time.

With you on the journey,

Bryce Ashlin-Mayo

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