The psychological impact of COVID on ministers and members of the congregation

In recent formal and informal conversations with ministers and congregational members, I’ve come to the following conclusions.

  • The virus does not distinguish between ministers and congregational members. We have seen that in the media as well.
  • Participants (ministers and congregational members) stand in a different relationship to the church, yet they all stand in a relationship with themselves, other people and God.
  • All participants have a history with work and calling and stand in a relationship with work and calling.
  • Facing the virus, all participants are ordinary human beings, sharing work and calling, relationships and vulnerability.
  • Depending on the participant’s relationship with the virus, they may experience the impact similarly and differently.
  1. The move to telework

The concept of telework is not unfamiliar; thousands of people are working in that way; some may include ministers and some members of the congregation.  The impact of the virus made telework a familiar concept.  Telework has invaded dressing and dining tables, extending into the work/family context, crossing work/life boundaries, exceeding regular working hours and infringing on privacy. Parents and caregivers may experience more stress and lower productivity due to increasing role conflict.  The participant has multiple roles to fulfil.  In some households, parents still need to be the teachers, which could lead to much frustration, although there may be potential for bonding. Single and divorced participants may take more strain due to lack of support in fulfilling multiple roles.  Participants may feel overwhelmed by all the expectations from all the various and sometimes competing angles.

  1. Complaints about problems and stress

During the conversations with some ministers, members of the congregation and youth the following emerged.  Participants are complaining about experiencing more problems and stress.  Although participants usually managed to complete tasks, this has changed, resulting in experiences of frustration, diminished meaning, and restlessness.  For example, the ministers may be unable to attend to house and hospital visits.  They may also experience the emotion of frustration with being forced to change their approach to work (streaming of services).  Members of the congregation may also experience frustration with these changes; some may appreciate the modern and new way of being church.  Some participants may struggle to attend to their matters and planning; this may lead to experiences of losing control and anxiety.  Not knowing when the impact with end and whether a vaccine would be available contribute to experiences of uncertainty and fear.  Limited social contact, loneliness, low self-esteem, and motivation, being uninformed and limited feedback could exacerbate experiences of isolation and inadequate performance.  Some ministers revert to Facebook and Youtube “likes” for feedback; yet when those “likes” drop they experience stress and unhappiness.  Other participants may have been tracking “likes” in the past as well.  Participants experience relational pressure due to an expectation to be available to do work.  In some households, parents and children are sharing resources which could lead to performance anxiety, frustration, rebelliousness, and isolation. Unrealistic expectations from various perspectives do not help the participant in managing themselves and keeping their self-esteem intact.  With the easing of the lockdown levels, some participants expressed experiences of fear and possible shame of infecting others and their loved ones (especially with the thought that someone may succumb to the impact of the virus).  Some participants may seek refuge in faith, while others may honestly wonder about “where is God in all of this”; this may in some cases results in strengthening faith or alternative lead to experiencing an existential crisis.  Some participants long for physical contact with family and friends, especially where family members live in other provinces; as a result, some may have ignored lockdown regulations.

  1. Hospitalisation, funerals and life celebrations

Loved ones may be hospitalised for routine procedures or due to the impact of the virus.  Participants and loved ones may experience isolation.  Although most loved ones may recover, some don’t and pass away without the last opportunity to greet them.  The experience of loss is always intense, it is even more so now, as some farewell rituals could not take place, leaving the loved ones heartbroken.  Some families continue with funeral arrangements.  Other families elect to hold memorial services for later dates, sometimes months after the passing; this may contribute to extended grief following the celebration of life. 

Even holding wedding ceremonies have changed, some continue with the legal formalities and postpone the function; other couples postponed the event, and others got married before lockdown started.  Much of the glamour and excess associated with weddings have made way to the simple celebration;  this may lead to some participants focusing on the essence of marriage, yet, some may experience a feeling of disappointment.  Uncertainty about how to baptise babies and Grade 11 students making a public confession of faith is also under scrutiny. 

Grade 12 students wonder whether they would have a matric farewell party: leaving them with feelings of utter disappointment amidst a year of frustration, worry and uncertainty.  Leaders have not had the opportunity to lead their school or sports teams, complete disappointment. These students worry about whether they will be admitted to a university in 2021, whether the field that they are considering studying holds a future, intense worries, stress and uncertainty.  They even wonder about the necessity of attending school in the traditional ways and the need for school uniforms.  Some are resisting the use of social and not physical distancing from a linguistic perspective.  They also resist parental advice of not openly sharing their emotions; they find comfort in their peer group and interested adults.  They may be making sense of what is going on in their world, resisting some discourse and establishing their parameters of what is acceptable and not.

Participants are required to reflect and adjust their assumptions about “living and what life is all about”.  Adjustments may be made under protest and with resistance as a way of reacting to losses.

  1. Employer and employee relationships

Church councils and employers are regarded as employers, while ministers and some congregational members may be employees.  It may not be uncommon for employers to expect more from employees during these times, as the existence of the organisation/organism may be at stake.  From a pastor-centred church leadership model, responsibility is placed on the minister to ensure that the church remains viable; this puts unrealistic pressure on the pastor.  Stress may be due to unrealistic expectations and lack of support from the church council.  In other situations, the church leadership may collaborate to find solutions to their challenges.

In some cases, mainly where more than one minister is employed, the ministers may bear the bulk of the responsibility, which could reduce some pressure as it is shared – however, either the ministers or church council may prefer to place the burden on the ministers.  In other situations, the church council and ministers may work together as a team with the “Body of Christ” model, which is much more advisable.  However, not all collegial relationships amongst ministers and the church council are healthy nor supportive.  Participants may find themselves somewhere on these spectrums, with or without support. 

Congregational members may also experience the negative impact of the virus at work.  Examples may include: working fewer hours and receiving less income; losing their jobs, and restructuring and downsizing in organisations.  Given the interaction amongst participants, the minister may be aware of the latter.  The ministers may experience uncertainty and vulnerability about their own financial and congregational security and stability; this may lead to frustration, the pressure to perform, anxiety, shame, fear and even anger.

  1. Occupational and work-related complaints

With employers that may relentlessly be focusing on the financial bottom-line, the pressure on participants may lead to experiences of burnout, overextension, anxiety, stress and depression.  Some participants may experience these complaints more intensely if they find themselves in current relationships with other mental health complaints.  Employers are responsible for creating conducive work environments; it is not good enough to say to people, “you do have medical aid, use it”.  Church councils and other employer organisations need to take up this responsibility.  

  1. Dominant discourses

One wonders, “How is it possible that participants select to suffer in silence while living in a world surrounded by people and loved ones?”  Various discourses may convince participants not to elect professional help.  Here are some of these are the discourses:

  • I have to be strong; you have to be strong
  • You should keep your emotions to yourself
  • I have to perform, and then I am valued
  • I have to be correct, and there is only one truth, I should have all the answers
  • If people discuss complaints they just want to manipulate, don’t take it seriously; people don’t hear me, why talk
  • Stigmatisation due to medical discourses, what is normal is acceptable; otherwise, it is not acceptable; people are objects
  • Cultural, societal, social, economic scripts of what is acceptable
  • Religious scripts, if you ask for help, then there is something wrong with your faith, ministers and people believing in God cannot go for counselling.

It is so sad that these discourses at times prevent participants from reaching out for help.  To think that it may be more bearable to suffer in silence and darkness is so tragic.  Emotional and psychologically unsafe family, work, church, and societal contexts may contribute to experiences of powerlessness, helplessness and stigmatisation that could further isolate people.  In some extreme cases choosing death may be more bearable than choosing life. 

  1. Reaching out

Listen and watch comments in conversations and on social media.  Encourage loved ones and colleagues to see their counsellor, psychologist, medical doctor and psychiatrist.  In case of an emergency, take your loved one to a Hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation and referral to a wellness and wellbeing clinic.

  1. Reaching in

“Put your wellness and wellbeing mask on, before assisting someone else”.  Seek professional help.  Have open conversations with loved ones about your emotional experiences.  Focus on what is within your control and do that; let go of what you cannot control.  Adjust your schedule, planning and routines to accommodate competing priorities.  Life your live intentional, remain grounded by practising relaxation and deep belly breathing exercises.  Contact me at or visit for a referral to a counsellor.  Visit Glomedia and follow the program on the impact of COVID-19 on the basic needs of humans.

Has this been useful?  Send your feedback to

Elna Esterhuizen is a registered Industrial Psychologist and Specialist in Christian Pastoral Counselling

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