With just weeks to go before Easter, Pastor Conley Hughes Jr. of Milton’s Baptist church welcomed his full congregation back to in-person worship for the first time in over two years.
Although the timing has more to do with public health recommendations than the liturgical calendar, the parallels are important, he said. “Easter is the great symbol in our faith of renewal and resurrection, of a sense of hope in what lies ahead. That’s how we are feeling now — a sense of hope.”
Hughes, who has led the church — officially, the Concord Baptist Church of Boston — for 34 years, sees this as a time of new possibilities.
“I don’t like the term ‘returning to normal,’ because I don’t think we will ever return to what was normal prior to the pandemic,” he said. “I think we will all be more aware of our health, more observant of what is happening in the world. We’re not so much returning to all that is familiar but rather beginning a new way forward.”
A nebulous connection has hovered between the COVID-19 pandemic and Easter over the past two years. There was former President Trump’s wildly optimistic prognostication in March 2020 that by Easter the following month, church pews would be packed with worshipers. To the contrary, for many that was the first holiday when they had to negotiate the absence of annual get-togethers with family and friends.
By Easter of 2021, vaccinations were becoming widespread, although churches in many places weren’t back in person. Still, optimism hung in the air — only to be dashed with the summer Delta surge and the late-fall arrival of Omicron.
But now it’s Easter again, and clergy all over Greater Boston are eyeing the approaching Holy Week with a mix of emotions.
“I feel that Lent and Easter have a particular resonance with COVID,” said the Rev. Leanne Walt, lead pastor at The United Church of Christ in Norwell. “In the season of Lent, we’re ushered into a wilderness of sorts. COVID has been our literal wilderness. This year will be our first indoor Easter service since 2019, and we’re experiencing Easter the way the disciples experienced it. For them, it wasn’t a joyful event. It was disorienting, unfamiliar, and a bit fearsome. The story of Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus after the Resurrection and not recognizing him – that’s how I anticipate I will feel this Easter. It will be very familiar and yet so different.”
For some in the ministry, it’s difficult to align the seasonal message of rebirth and renewal with the reality of widespread exhaustion in their field as in so many others.
“Pandemic burnout is very real in our profession,” said the Rev. Kelly Murphy Mason, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and clergy consultant in the Metrowest area. “In my denomination, we saw a record number of midyear departures. Turnover is normal, but usually it happens in June or July, which matches our church year.”
Mason, who departed from her position as a parish minister in Wellesley Hills last December, attributes it to the fact that “people feel themselves approaching their limits. It has a lot to do with the constant pivoting. That’s part of the weariness, what leaves clergy feeling so worn. Emergency plans, tentative plans, back to the drawing board each time the recommendations change. People go to their faith community for assurance, continuity, regularity. And those things are in short supply.”
“For the last two years, many of us have been charged with duties that were never before part of our jobs,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Mello, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline. “Virtual programming. Incorporating technology. Understanding air circulation and purification. All of a sudden, we have to be experts for our church community on all of those topics. At the same time, we’ve been unable to continue many of the practices that brought us into the ministry.”
For example, Mello said, just as important to him as delivering a sermon is standing in the doorway after Sunday service, chatting with his parishioners. “Asking about this person’s surgery; noting that someone else’s parents are visiting. That’s one of the ways my batteries get charged and my spirit refilled. We’ve had to do all these things we didn’t know that much about, and at the same time the things we usually do to nourish ourselves were taken away. It was a double whammy.”
But not all ministers have as much pre-pandemic context to draw upon. The Rev. Emily Garcìa, assistant rector at The Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington, is new enough to the profession that after this year she will have celebrated more Easters during a pandemic than not, and she is eager to observe the holiday in the company of her congregants.
“Easter vigil is the height of the entire church year for us,” she said. “Part of what I love about being a priest is that our job is to share the treasures of our tradition. Celebrating the Easter vigil in person once again will mean we get to do that in a very physical and sensual way, rather than just with words, as we’ve been doing for so much of the pandemic. We’ll light our candles and walk into the dark church singing. We’ll splash ourselves with holy water. We’ll hear the music, ring the bells, say hallelujah, and turn on the church lights. We’ll smell the flowers at the altar again.”
“I have had the opportunity to see the church wrestle with essential questions of who we are, as Jacob wrestled with God,” said the Rev. Brett Johnson, a recently ordained priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Beverly who was still a seminarian when the pandemic began. “There are some things we’ve done for a very long time and it’s time to let them go. We’re not flourishing carrying those things. Now we face the hard work of asking how we do flourish, and how we encourage all of God’s creation to do so. That’s our job as a church.”
“The past two years have changed me a lot,” mused the Rev. Victoria Weinstein of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn in Swampscott. “I live more on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. We have not been able to make assumptions or set expectations about what’s coming. There’s a lot of humility in that, and a great need to be flexible.”
Weinstein concedes that serving as a minister during the pandemic has been, in her words, “extremely challenging and difficult. The most draining thing about ministry during this time is that we have no more experience with the circumstances than anyone else does. Still, people look to us for wise insights. The pressure of needing to have something to say is profound.”
And yet Weinstein sees Easter as a reprieve from those expectations. “Easter is a beautiful ancient story about a divine gift of resurrection, of life out of death,” she said. “I rest and rejoice in this sense of Easter. This year I feel more in touch with Good Friday and the many crucifixions in our mix, not just because of the pandemic but because of our awareness of violence against Black people and the many manifestations of racism. The Easter story has become more profound and holy for me than it ever was before.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.