The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A pastor confessed to his church he was tired, and he planned a break. Then, the coronavirus hit D.C.

Because of the coronavirus, the Rev. Howard-John Wesley films his Easter Sunday sermon Wednesday at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. He said he was eager to come back from his break and help his congregation weather this crisis. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

After 30 years of preaching, the Rev. Howard-John Wesley confessed to his congregation in December that he needed a break.

“I feel so distant from God,” the fourth-generation Baptist preacher admitted in a sermon that was shared widely across social media.

Wesley, 47, has led the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., for the past 11 years. On Jan. 1, he started a sabbatical during which he was planning to tackle some goals, including setting up better routines for sleep and exercise and seeing mentors and old friends.

Easter was supposed to be his first day back.

But in March, as the novel coronavirus began to spread across the United States, Wesley began dialing into meetings, helping to make decisions on closing public worship, sending the staff home and adjusting to online services.

Wesley will make a return to the pulpit Sunday, but not in front of his 4,500 members. On Wednesday, he taped his Easter message in front of a camera and empty pews. Gone were the “amens” that frequently echo through the church.

“It’s nice to see people excited to see you,” he said in an interview. “The coronavirus has robbed from all of us that ‘Let me hug you, I’m so happy to see you.’ ”

Churches across the nation shut their doors just as the holiest season on the Christian calendar was underway. For many people of faith, not being with their church members has been fraught, especially during the approach to Easter. Pastors report a surge in calls from congregants who have lost jobs, face the loss of homes or who just feel spiritually adrift. And while ministers are trying to provide care to their parishioners, they also must figure out how to keep their churches running when members have cut back on tithes and donations.

Matt Bloom, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who leads a program designed to help caregivers such as pastors, said a survey of 10,000 pastors found that one-third were in a state of burnout — and that was before the arrival of the coronavirus. Female pastors and those of color reported more burnout and fewer resources.

“Burnout and stress are insidious. It percolates in ways pastors don’t notice,” he said. “It’s going to be building, building, building until it hits them.”

People are often surprised to hear that those in the clergy could get burned out, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University. There’s an attitude, she said, that God could protect pastors from burnout.

Wesley said his time away served him well, but that he was eager to come back and help his congregation weather this crisis. The majority are African American and the virus has disproportionately killed those in black communities. He is looking for ways to protect his church, get members tested and find other resources to keep them financially afloat.

“It’s reminded me of the obligation of the black church to reach into corners of black communities that the government and traditional resources won’t,” he said.

The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate

Wesley knew there would be changes upon his return, but he never imagined that everyone would be making such major adjustments to their lives.

While he was on sabbatical, he took four cooking classes and began a pescatarian diet. He set boundaries for how many hours he would spend in the church’s office. And with the help of a sleep therapist, he’s sleeping seven to eight hours a night — instead of just four, which had become his standard — by decompressing, avoiding wine and keeping his room cooler.

He took social media off his phone and mostly stayed away from it — especially when he was with his 16- and 13-year-old boys.

“I’m not going to allow myself to be tempted to miss this moment because I’m on my phone,” he said. One of his sons told him, “I’m glad I got my daddy back.”

He was “devastated” when his gym and yoga studio closed in March because he was finally finding a good exercise routine, but he still goes on runs.

“Sabbatical was not just about checking boxes and crossing finishing lines, it was about establishing new habits and patterns,” he said. “That’s ongoing for the rest of my life.”

Wesley had planned to return to a 300-person choir and a 30-person dance team to celebrate Easter at Alfred Street Baptist. But on Sunday, they will see his recorded sermon. Instead of a preacher’s robe, Wesley will have a “sweatpants and T-shirt Easter,” where he will watch other services from his couch and have Communion with his family at the kitchen table.

He may not be face to face with his church members on Easter, but they will still be connected.

And when the world emerges from the isolation of social distancing, Proeschold-Bell said, pastors will be needed for a flood of memorial services to remember people who died but couldn’t be properly remembered. The key for pastors, she said, will be to prevent emotional exhaustion.

“When they lose sight of the fact that they’re a full person, clergy start to feel demoralized,” she said. “When the relationship between clergy and congregant is transactional, it can be, ‘I’m here for a sermon; I’m here for a blessing.’ ”

Wesley said that for a lot of people stuck at home, this time of isolation can be a chance to reconsider their own patterns.

“A friend of mine said I went on sabbatical and the whole world had to follow,” he said. “I think it’s a God-given opportunity for people to make adjustments in life.”

Read more:

Pastors talk a lot about death. Now covid-19 is forcing more to prepare for their own.

In life’s last moments, U.S. clergy minister to the sick and dying via FaceTime and Zoom

Florida sheriff charges pastor who kept megachurch open, said closings are for ‘pansies’

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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