One Pastor’s Pandemic Story
By John Pennylegion

A recent Barna survey of Protestant pastors reports that 29% said they had given “serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year.” As a member of the PCA Administrative Committee staff, I speak with pastors nearly every day. I’ve heard the stress.

That’s what prompted this interview with John Pennylegion, senior pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. We hope Pennylegion’s words serve as both a window into the challenges our pastors have faced, and an encouragement that this too shall pass. – Larry Hoop   

Our State of Mind at the Pandemic’s Beginning

We entered 2020 brimming with expectations. The year had begun well. We had been in our building for just a few months, and new people were coming to the church. In late 2019 I told the congregation that I wanted us to grow in outreach, evangelism, and corporate prayer. I hoped that we’d become a people who not only prayed for each other but prayed with each other. And I wanted us to pray that we’d view our neighbors with compassion — that we’d be willing to enter into their lives, our hope would be evident to all, and that the Lord would give us opportunities to share the gospel.

That was right around the time we began to hear about the virus. Little was known at the time; many of us simply took a wait-and-see posture.

Early Steps in Response to COVID

In early March, Virginia’s governor limited gatherings to no more than 100 people. Weeks later the number dropped to 10. Clearly, this wasn’t simply going to pass.

We’re fortunate to have several medical professionals in the congregation. They understood the news and the science. So naturally, we leaned into them for advice.

By the middle of March, we decided to move to virtual worship. I sent a letter to the congregation, encouraging them to trust God and to be wise; to have courage and be considerate. This is the last paragraph of my letter:

“Let us not be brash nor foolhardy. Let us live with hope, wisdom, and love. Hope doesn’t mean cavalier, and wisdom doesn’t mean fearful. We want to live with courage knowing that God is in control. We also want to live with wisdom knowing that the world is groaning under the weight of the Fall. So, let us pray that we would have opportunities to display this hope and love to our neighbors, to those who are afraid, to those who are cavalier, to those, including ourselves, who need to know and be reminded that Christ the King is on his throne.”

Thankfully, the church was unified. And while virtual worship wasn’t ideal, we could live with it for the time being. In many private conversations, I reminded people — and they reminded me — of how kind the Lord had been to us. If this had happened 20 years ago, we couldn’t have worshiped together at all, and we’d have been even more isolated. There was a lot of, “I don’t love that we have to do this, but I’m thankful for how we’re approaching it and praying it will end soon.”

Changes to the Way We Minister

The three pastors on our staff met on Zoom each week to pray for the church and the needs of our people. Before long, my ministry was almost exclusively by phone. At one point I told someone that it felt like I had more phone conversations in one week than I had in the previous year!

Before the lockdown, we had done our best to foster a culture of physical presence. Most of my interaction with people was over lunch or meeting for coffee. The phone was for setting up meetings; now it was the primary source of connection. At first, it wasn’t awful. Everyone thought, “This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing. And soon we’ll be done with the pandemic.”

In addition to the calls, we’d send out periodic letters of encouragement and prayer. One of our members pulled together a number of hymns and a few scripture verses to go with them. An associate pastor put together a series of passages related to comfort, our youth pastor created virtual youth group meetings, and I sent out notes via our web communication tool — brief thoughts on lament, my appreciation for the church — things like that.

I felt the Lord was sustaining us, growing our dependence on him, and creating a longing in us to be together.

The Return to In-Person Worship

On June 7 we came back together.

Our regular worship practice is to have weekly communion. When we returned to in-person worship, we had communion for the first time in months. The last words I said before we came to the Table were: “The fast is over. It is time to feast.” Many, including myself, had tears in their eyes. We were thankful to be back together.

When we returned, we moved to two services so we could keep proper distance in our sanctuary. We continued to live-stream one of our services for those who were unable, or not yet ready, to meet in person. We’ve tried to strike a balance between those who want strict rules about gathering — 100% mask adherence for example — and those who wanted us to be more lenient.

Throughout, we’ve tried to emphasize that we are called to love one another more than our opinions. I sent a note to the congregation talking about how, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that “love … endures all things.” We don’t have to endure what is easy, I wrote. “We endure what is hard. Paul is telling us that to love is to endure — and sometimes that means enduring one another. When we disagree, when we are exhausted and worn down, we will seek to love — and not just those we agree with, but the entire body. This isn’t easy; I struggle along with everyone else, but this is what we’re fighting for — to endure.”

Dealing With Spiritual and Emotional Exhaustion

I started to feel the weight of all this as regulations began to loosen. And it wasn’t just me. The frustration and isolation and all the changes had been weighing on our people as well. Subconsciously, I had hoped that once we resumed in-person worship, it would only be a couple of weeks before we’d be back to normal. When that didn’t happen, the frustrations were harder.

Subconsciously, I had hoped that once we resumed in-person worship, it would only be a couple of weeks before we’d be back to normal. When that didn’t happen, the frustrations were harder.

By the middle of June, I found that most of my conversations were full of disappointment. It’s normal to experience these discussions as a pastor. It’s part of the call and something I love about my role. But now, the sheer number of hurting people was taking a toll. At first, I internalized it and thought people were mad at me, but then I realized they were mostly exhausted by everything that had been going on. They were grieving the losses associated with the pandemic and were troubled by the uncertainty of what lay ahead. They were frustrated, and I felt exhaustion setting in.

I started vacillating between anger and apathy — not towards people specifically, but toward anything — sometimes everything. I had trouble engaging in conversations; my mind would wander. Other times I held on to a conversation too long, fretting over what had been said and angry I couldn’t do more to help. Sometimes I was disappointed in myself: I didn’t have the answers and I couldn’t do much to help our hurting people.

Dealing With Negative Emotions

So, I reached out to a couple of counseling friends and shared what I was going through. Both of them — and my wife — told me to talk with a professional counselor.

Providentially, the clerk of my presbytery had just sent an email reminding us of the counseling opportunity that the PCA’s Retirement and Benefits, Inc. offered. I quickly looked into this.

When I shared with my elders what I was experiencing  — a friend referred to it as “compassion fatigue” — they fully supported me seeing a counselor. As I shared with people in my church, they were supportive, too. I didn’t get any push back at all. Everyone at Christ the King was okay with the pastor needing help. I was grateful. And I saw it as a sign of our corporate health.

And it helped, to have someone to talk to.

Other Helpful Resources

I’m also part of a pastor’s cohort — a group of nine PCA pastors who have been together for four years. Every day we text one another; we’re also on a monthly rotation where we talk with one other guy in the cohort to provide updates and pray for each other.

During the shutdown, we started doing semi-regular Zoom calls. Most of the time it was just to laugh, joke, and have a fun conversation. This group has been a lifeline for me. They pray for me, confront me on sin, and give honest feedback. It’s a group that is life-giving and full of joy. Next to my wife, these men have contributed to my spiritual well-being more than anyone.

Cycling has helped, too. I’ve been riding for about 18 months; during COVID, this was an outlet for me. I could go 20 or 30 miles without email or texts. That’s been a big help for me physically and emotionally.

Finding a Positive Path

I turned a corner as we moved into Advent. I’m not sure what it was —the counseling, the conversations with my cohort, the prayers of many — maybe it was all that, but the Lord gave me renewed energy, to the point that it was noticeable. At a lunch just before Christmas, a church member noticed that “I was back to my old self.” I was more joyful, he said. That surprised me because I hadn’t talked with him much about my struggles. The conversation encouraged me because it told me that the Lord had been working and that what I was feeling was visible to others.

On December 22, I tested positive for COVID. Thankfully, it was mild, but it threw a wrench into our plans for Christmas services. Even though I had to quarantine, I was excited about what the Lord might be doing. I think our church was too. There was a sense of hope, a renewed sense of anticipation.

Blessings Along the Way

One thing that has become apparent through this is our need for physical presence. Zoom, phone calls, video worship — all these things were necessary for a season, but they showed how important physical presence is, not just proximity, but physical touch.

Before the pandemic, we took that for granted; that’s no longer true. Through the pandemic we’ve rediscovered that we’re embodied creatures and that our physical connection is important — and a blessing.

A few months ago we started a 6:30 a.m. prayer meeting via Zoom. I told one of the other pastors that I wanted to start this because we’ve asked the congregation to love and care for each other, and that’s easier to do when you’re praying together. It’s not ideal on Zoom, but it has brought a small group together to pray for the needs of our church and the world.

Personally, I’ve found that as we’ve prayed, my affections for Christ the King have grown. That doesn’t mean we overlook our failings, but we can endure them with love because we’re praying for one another.

I’ve also learned to have a deeper trust in the Lord. When you’re seeing people regularly, it’s easy to function out of your strength. I didn’t realize how much I trusted my own abilities. But when I was feeling weighed down, my inadequacies were glaring. I realized then that if we were to grow and move forward, the Lord would have to do it.

Realizing anew that I had to trust him alone is a great blessing.

John Pennylegion is senior pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. His first book, “I Am: The Statements of Jesus,” is scheduled for release the week of September 6.

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