By Jamie Aten
Pastor, if you’re feeling like all those online calls and video conferences seem to be leaving you drained by the end of the day, it’s not just you. Zoom fatigue is real, and it’s compounded for those in vocational ministry.
Many pastors are now struggling because of what I’ve coined the virtual ministry fishbowl effect. This is leaving pastors feeling more worn out and drained in their ministry amid COVID-19.
Over the years I’ve regularly heard pastors discuss that being in vocational ministry sometimes feels like living in a “fishbowl.”
That is, it’s common for pastors to feel like their every word and action are under observation, being scrutinized, and regularly being judged by onlookers.
But because of virtual video communication platforms, pastors are now more accessible to others than ever before.
Moreover, these virtual communications are actually being broadcast online, and sometimes even filmed, meaning pastors are being watched more than ever before.
This can make it feel like it’s hard to let one’s guard down, leaving pastors feeling as though they always have to be “on.”
Virtual communication has further shrunk the little privacy remaining for pastors.
Listed below are reasons pastors may be feeling like they are living in a virtual ministry fishbowl leaving them feeling worn out and tired by virtual communication.
It’s also important to recognize that this virtual fishbowl effect is compounding daily ministry challenges, stress, and burnout during this unprecedented season of COVID-19.
In each section below I unpack some of the contributors that have led to the virtual ministry fishbowl effect. I also discuss what pastors can do to get themselves out of the “tank.”
1. Virtual boundaries can be harder to maintain than in-person boundaries.
Zoom, FaceTime, and other virtual video call platforms make it harder to draw boundaries. People get to see into your environmental context, where you live or where you’re staying.
This isn’t just about physical surroundings; it’s also more difficult to control interactions, especially if you’re staying at home with others.
For example, a person who works at an office likely has more control over the surroundings.
Yet, when working from home or socializing from home virtually, there’s a greater chance that others, like a spouse or child, may drop in and interrupt accidentally or even on purpose.
Tips for improving virtual boundaries:
- Remember the same electronic devices that allow you to conduct virtual video conversation often have a mute or camera-off function. Don’t be afraid to shut off your video from time to time.
- Interruptions often provide a glimpse into a person’s environmental context. If appropriate, allow those interruptions to be a part of the person’s overall narrative. Acknowledge interruptions and show yourself compassion in the same way you show compassion to others when things go wrong with their technology.
- Set appropriate boundaries by making sure you’re practicing healthy habits. It’s okay to turn down some conversations, to schedule further out, or to refer to someone else on your ministry team.
2. Social non-verbals are more difficult to detect and follow virtually.
With Zoom or FaceTime, for example, you can’t rely on body language for communication in the same way you might when talking with someone in person.
Sometimes there are sound delays, and it can get stressful in communicating or repeating yourself constantly.
It can sometimes also be difficult to pick up on inflections in peoples’ voices, which can make it challenging to understand the fullness of what others are trying to communicate.
It also makes picking up nuanced forms of communication like sarcasm harder to detect.
Tips for addressing social non-verbals virtually:
- Test and become familiar with the telecommunication platform prior to providing services to help anticipate non-verbals that may be harder to detect virtually.
- Convey empathy using verbal gestures.
- Make conscious efforts to understand and demonstrate verbal understanding.
- Engage in active listening.
- Be mindful of your tone of voice.
- Speak clearly and slowly; avoid convoluted language.
- If sound delays or connection are an issue, communicate that you may ask questions repeatedly and/or will be asking the person to repeat.
3. Social transitions become more complicated virtually.
Another reason all those online calls and conversations may be leaving you feeling tired and sluggish is because social cues become less clear.
It can be hard to know when “socializing” should end and the work or primary purpose of the call should shift.
When it comes to connecting virtually, a lot of people approach socializing with the assumption that the purpose of the call is to just talk and catch up.
This can leave you feeling like you’re having conversations online that don’t seem to be going anywhere.
In many cases, people are reaching out for virtual communication as a way of addressing loneliness, not necessarily because they need to discuss a particular topic or issue.
Certain social cues that are easily read in real life like boredom or frustration can be harder to detect virtually. Because of this, it’s common for people to feel pressure to fill silences and converse.
Tips for effective social transitions:
- Discuss intentions, goals, and any privacy concerns at the beginning of the interaction.
- Set time expectations and boundaries from the onset of the conversation.
- Communicate availability for any future follow-ups or who on your ministry staff might be a better fit for additional Zoom calls if needed.
New seasons brings new challenges
Like it or not, pastors are living in a new age of ministry. With new needs and technologies emerging because of COVID-19, pastors are experiencing new ministry challenges.
Pastors need to be proactive and creative in fostering virtual social connections during this time of isolation. But they also need to make sure that how they’re communicating doesn’t make ministry stress and burnout worse.
This is why understanding the virtual ministry fishbowl effect and its underlying social drivers causing pastors to struggle is more important now than ever before.
JAMIE ATEN, Ph.D. (@drjamieaten), is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois). His most recent book is A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press).