A COVID memoir

I wrote this for a science fiction fanzine. But it also works well for this blog.


Two years before the pandemic hit, we started living in a graveyard. Not right in the middle of the graves—there was a low stone wall that separated our house, the cemetery office, and the parking area from the graves. But we lived inside the tall iron fence that separated the cemetery from the residential area surrounding it, and each evening an electric motor would start up, slowly driving the big iron gate along its track, shutting us off from the rest of the world.

It might sound a little creepy, but it was actually a very pleasant place to live. We lived in the old caretaker’s house, which was over a hundred years old. Neighbors walked past our house during the day, taking a walk in the cemetery, because it was only open space in the neighborhood. We could chat with the cemetery supervisor, and we got to know some of the members of the cemetery’s board of directors. At night when the gate closed, we had our own private five acre back yard. And, as we liked to say, the neighbors were quiet.

I’m not the first to notice that life during the pandemic felt like living inside a dystopian sf novel. That we lived in a graveyard made it feel even more like a novel. And it felt especially dystopian at the end of the summer, when the sky turned bloody reddish orange.

Continue reading “A COVID memoir”

Four years

Four years ago today, on Friday, March 13, 2020, the state of California shut down schools across the state. I was then the minister of religious education in Palo Alto, Santa Clara County, California. Since our congregation decided to tie our education programs to whatever the public schools did, that meant we too were going to move all our programs online effective immediately. And on that same day, Santa Clara county banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, so our congregation moved Sunday services online as of the following Sunday.

Complete lockdown happened three days later, as most Bay Area counties issued a stay-at-home order on March 16. A state-wide shelter-in-place order was issued on March 19.

Houses of worship were considered “essential services,” so I could get out of the house and go to work a couple of days a week. But it was definitely creepy commuting to work on Highway 101. The week before, all four lanes in both directions would be packed with cars from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. In the first weeks after the shut-down, at times I’d see no other cars on the road. It reminded me of this passage from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year: “…the great streets within the city [of London], such as Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate Street, Cornhill, and even the Exchange itself, had grass growing in them in several places; neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring roots and beans, or peas, hay, and straw, to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual.”

Singing after COVID

The annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp singing convention is being held this weekend. The organizers are requiring a same-day COVID test for all singers, and with that public health protocol in place I decided I felt safe going to sing today (but not Sunday when I have to be at church).

These Sacred Harp conventions are a bit of an endurance test. The singing starts at 9:30 or 10, and continues to 3:30 or 4 with an hour for lunch. It’s a whole-body immersive experience.

Before COVID, the Western Massachusetts convention reportedly got as many as 400 singers. COVID seems to have reduced the numbers somewhat. Today, I did a rough count and came up with about 175 singers in the room at one time.

Only about a dozen of us were wearing masks. I had my N-95 mask on the whole time. I skipped the potluck lunch because it would have meant sitting at close quarters with more than a hundred other people for most of an hour with my mask off. The post-COVID world is all about calculating the odds, and determining what risk you’re willing to tolerate.

I enjoyed singing in the morning. But after lunch, I realized to my surprise that I was beginning to feel a little bit anxious. It was no problem to control my anxiety. But after about an hour I had a further realization: controlling my anxiety was taking enough of my attention that it wasn’t as much fun to sing.

So I left early.

A panoramic view of the singing, with over 150 people visible in the photo.
What it looked like from the back row of the bass section

Why clergy are quitting

A group of social scientists at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research have been investigating the impact of the COVID pandemic on organized religion. They have just issued a new report titled “‘I’m Exhausted All the Time’: Exploring the Factors Leading to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” A PDF of the full report is available here.

One key finding in this report is that in the aftermath of the panedmic, the number of congregational clergy who are both considering leaving their current position and who are thinking about changing careers keeps increasing. We’ve been seeing some of this in Unitarian Universalism — I personally know of several UU ministers who have not only left their congregations, but who are now transitioning to a new career.

I participated in this study — I have no idea how they found my email address, but they sent me the survey forms and I filled it out. Now that I see the results of the report, it turns out that I’m in the minority of clergy who still love their jobs and who have no intention of leaving ministry.

But the fact remains that many other clergy are leaving the profession. It remains to be seen what effect this has on organized religion. Will it have a positive effect, in that new clergy come along whose expectations for the profession are more aligned with the new realities of congregational life? Will it have a negative effect, by reducing the pool of qualified ministers such that too many congregations can’t find qualified leadership? Or something else entirely?


Carol and I got the latest COVID booster on Monday evening.

By mid morning on Tuesday, I had a headache. Carol texted me saying, “So tired.” After my last meeting ended at 2:30, I went home. We spent the day on the couch, went to bed at 8:30, and slept twelve hours. This morning we’re both back to normal.

COVID is here permanently. Which means we now have to plan for a booster sick day at least once a year.


I received a long email today from a research group called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.” The email began:

“Dear Pastor, Greetings! This past spring, you or your church completed a survey for the national study entitled Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.  At that time you were willing to be contacted for follow-up questions. In that survey, we found that 51% of clergy had thought about leaving the pastoral ministry. This was a considerable increase from our earlier survey. Because of this finding, we wanted to better understand the challenges clergy were facing. Religious leaders have suffered especially hard due to the pandemic and the many other challenges in our changing society. This short survey specifically addresses clergy health and well-being….”

So I took their survey. First they asked a lot of questions about the congregation (e.g., our average annual attendance went from 68 in 2018 to 48 in 2022). Then they asked questions about me: Am I employed full-time or part-time? How’s my financial well-being? Do I doubt that I am called by God to ministry? (Left that one blank, that’s not my theology.) Am I part of a clergy support group, do I see a shrink or spiritual director, do I still pray as much as I did before the pandemic? (Yes, and yes, and I pray as much now as before the pandemic which is not at all.)

The survey ended with two open-ended questions: What’s the biggest challenge in my ministry right now? and: What do I find most satisfying in my ministry? I was able to say that my biggest challenge, and also the most fun part of my job, is coming up with creative ways to respond to the rapidly changing world around us while maintaining the integrity and traditions of a 275 year old congregation. Then I was able to say that pretty much everything is satisfying, because I love my job.

Yep, I love my job. I was surprised at how positive I felt. I know that quite a few Unitarian Universalist ministers have left pastoral ministry, and that many others are unhappy with the way pastoral ministry has changed. Not me. I feel excited and energized.

Huh. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

Screenshot of one of the questions from the online survey
Questions from the survey. Have I ever doubted that I was called by God to ministry? I left that one blank. Have I ever seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry? Not since 2020. Have I seriously considered leaving this congregation for another one? This was kind of difficult to answer, since I just started serving this congregation in 2022, and I left my previous congregation for reasons unrelated to COVID — so I answered “never.”

The ongoing effects

Last night I was trying to explain to Carol about the lingering effects of COVID burnout on the helping professions. She pointed out that many trends that were supposedly caused by COVID were simply existing trends that accelerated during lockdown. But I’m pretty sure that it actually was COVID that contributed to increased burnout in the helping professions.

The healthcare professions are an obvious example. During the first year of the COVID pandemic, doctors, nurses, and others who worked directly with COVID patients saw an increased workload, and an increased risk of infection. There were also healthcare professionals who had a very different experience of COVID — I knew a dermatologist who saw a substantial decrease in their workload during lockdown, although that decrease brought separate concerns of declining income, etc. On the whole, though, a significant number of health professionals left their profession, and reports are that there’s still a labor shortage in much of the healthcare system.

Mental health professionals saw their workload peak a bit later in the pandemic, as many people began to have mental health problems isolation caused by lockdown. We’re still seeing a high rate of depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental health problems, and mental health professionals may still be feeling overwhelmed by the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic. The end result is that someone seeking mental health care can wait weeks for an appointment.

I know less about other helping professions, but I suspect that other professions also saw increased burnout. For example, it seems likely that many social workers — depending on their specialty — also experienced burnout during COVID due to increased workload and increased job pressures.

This brings us to clergy. From what I’m seeing and hearing, clergy are also subject to COVID burnout, just like the other helping professions. In 2021, 42% of clergy reported considering leaving ministry. I suspect there were several reasons for this. Sociologist Scott Thuma has outlined some of the stresses on clergy during the pandemic: increased conflict in the congregation, increased demand for food and other assistance, increased mental health problems, and learning new ways to do ministry. I’ve watched as more Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers than usual have left the profession over the past couple of years. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn other UU ministers are just quiet quitting.

Beyond all this, all people in the helping professions can experience the trauma or secondary trauma that everyone in society is experiencing. The epidemic of mental illness that began during lockdown continues today — we’re all feeling the effects.

I know I’m still feeling the effects. I had to put in some extra hours this week. This is normal for ministers; some weeks we have to work long hours, other weeks there’s less for us to do. Pre-COVID, I had no problem working a few extra hours. But this week, those extra hours really tired me out; I don’t have the reserves of energy I used to have pre-COVID.

I don’t have a call to action for you. Nor do I have an easy solution for clergy burnout. Nor do I mean to imply that clergy somehow have it worse than anyone else in society. I think my only point is that we all need to be understanding of each other’s ongoing stress, as the effects of the pandemic continue.

Is that what’s going on?

I was talking with someone about how we were both feeling a bit out of sorts — little things like getting appointments slightly wrong, nothing really serious but constantly annoying. We both had good reasons for feeling a bit out of sorts (for my part, I moved, started a new job, my partner’s father died). But I’ve heard quite a few other people say they feel the same way. So I said to this other person, The pandemic emergency officially ended a couple of months ago, but I feel like it’s still lingering on; I mean, this time last year, we were still in partial lockdown. This other person said, It’s like we all have PTSD. I said, I’m not a clinician, I’m not qualified to diagnose PTSD, but I think you might be right.

I’ve been researching the race riot that happened at the high school in my hometown in 1978 (I hope to have a blog post about it on the 45th anniversary of the actual event). Part of my research led me to a 2002 oral history interview with Phil Benicasa, for many years an elementary school principal in Concord. I never knew him, but my younger sister worked as a reading tutor in his school for a few years, and always had good things to say about him as an educator.

So here’s what Phil Benicasa said about parents and education back in 2002, not long before he retired:

“[S]omething is going on with the youngster who comes to our door in kindergarten [in 2002] as opposed to the youngster that came to our door 20 or 25 years ago. They are nowhere near as well prepared for the conventions of learning as kids were some time ago. I think parents are confused about parenting. I think kids therefore are confused about their role as children. In 1975 if you took the chunk of time out of my week that I spent doing discipline, 80% or 90% of that would have been at the fourth and fifth grade level, and more often than not it was mischievous sort of stuff. It was the kind of stuff that you could chew out a kid for and send him out of the office and chuckle about what it was that the kid had done. Today 80 to 90% of my time in discipline is spent in kindergarten, first, and second grade. That’s astonishing. And it’s not mischief. There are really a tragic number of kids with social and emotional baggage that they are having great difficulty casting off….

“I think parents have bought into the business about, the sooner my kid learns to read, the better they’re going to be. If my kid learns to read by age 3, that’s a direct line to Harvard. That’s absolutely nonsense. There are so many more important things that need to be learned before they get to us [in elementary school]. You know that business, ‘everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten’? — to clean up after myself, to share, to listen to others, to wait my turn, not cut ahead — all that’s true. Generally speaking kids had much of that in place before they arrived in the door.… [K]ids are not coming to school in kindergarten as well prepared to take advantage of what it is we are offering than they have been in the past. That means we have to modify what we are offering.”

Three obvious caveats — (1) This statement represents the observations and opinion of just one educator. (2) Phil Benicasa’s observations were limited to Concord, a predominantly White town in New England. (3) The demographics of Concord’s schools changed from 1975 to 2002, from an economically diverse cohort of children, to a nearly homogenous upper-upper middle class cohort.

Yet even with these caveats, what Phil Benicasa said back in 2002 resonates with what I saw in a different educational setting, religious education in Unitarian Universalists, back in the late 1990s. But I was working with the same upper middle class predominantly White children that Benicasa worked with. To use a current catchphrase, I felt children in the late 1990s were often deficient in social-emotional learning. I don’t know why that was true, but it was.

Things have changed since 2002. I’m no longer in religious education, but I still see the same upper middle class predominantly White children that I’ve been working with since 1994. Up until the COVID pandemic, I felt that children became more able to fit in to structured social situations. Some of that change came from a bit more social-emotional learning, and some of it came from children simply becoming more compliant with authority.

I also felt that some of that change came at the cost of children’s mental and spiritual well-being. In the years leading up to 2020, I felt that I saw increasing amounts of depression and anxiety in children; at least, in the populations I worked with. Children had internalized the message that they need to do everything they can to gain (as Phil Benicasa put it) “a direct line to Harvard.” And, to quote him again: “That’s absolutely nonsense.” What you do in elementary school or middle school is not going to get you into Harvard.

Then the pandemic hit. The pandemic accelerated some of these trends. To succeed at online school, kids had to become even more compliant. And the rates of depression and anxiety went up even faster, as near as I could tell. But the pandemic also meant that children lost a lot of ground in social-emotional learning. We’re barely out of the pandemic, so it’s too early to know if children will regain that lost ground or not. The pandemic also meant that children stopped participating in extra-curricular activities that promoted social-emotional learning, programs like Sunday school. Participation in sports keeps rising, but while sports does tend to make children more compliant, in my observation it doesn’t do much to improve social-emotional learning.

The pandemic also accelerated a trend I’ve been watching when it comes to the spiritual development of upper middle class children. The upper middle class consists of the “cultured despisers of religion,” so spiritual development tends to be low on their list of priorities (spiritual development won’t get you into Harvard). The upper classes limit spiritual development to meditation, mindfulness, and yoga — which are considered worth doing because they allegedly help children tolerate stress better. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga mostly seem to work to make children more compliant. Nor do they address the root causes of children’s anxiety and depression; instead, they simply cover them over.

I’d like to say that Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education would help advance children’s social-emotional learning, improve their mental health, and (instead of making them more compliant) help them discover who they are and what their purpose is. But I’m less than impressed with the way most UU congregations implement their religious education programs. Most of these programs today seem to be run for the convenience of the staff and the child-free lay leaders. As an example, think of the many UU congregations that set monthly themes for worship services, then force children’s religious education curriculum to follow those themes regardless of the developmental and educational needs of the children. The adults come first; the children are supposed to be quiet and comply with the needs of the adults. No wonder UU religious education enrollment has been plummeting in recent years.

I don’t have a happy little conclusion for this blog post, except to say I’m worried. I’m worried that the selfishness of Unitarian Universalist adults is driving children away. I’m worried about children’s mental health, and limited social-emotional learning. I’m especially worried about the way children are being make more and more compliant — this in a time when fascism is on the rise.

(See also this post on why Sunday schools are declining.}

Worshipping online

At First Parish in Cohasset, where I serve as minister, 10-15% of our Sunday congregation each week attends online. This percentage is probably typical of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.

A recent study shows that in Black churches, the percentage is much higher. As reported by Religion News Service (RNS): “According to the Pew Research Center, Black Protestants outrank all other U.S. religious groups in choosing to worship outside of brick-and-mortar locations, with 54% saying they took part in services online or on TV in the previous month.”

African Americans were hit hard by the COVID pandemic, and many remain wary of in-person worship services. Although J. Drew Sheard, a bishop with the Church of God in Christ who was interviewed by RNS, points out, “That fear does not seem to prevail when they go to sports activities or the mall…. But they have been invoked with fear that you can catch COVID at church.” I can relate. I still have many COVID-related fears, and I’m still wearing my mask in church; the fear is still there. I completely understand why some Black churchgoers don’t want to show up for in-person services

Besides, I really do like online services. I like being able to attend Sunday services while sitting on a couch in my jammies drinking tea. That’s about as good as it gets. On the other hand, my favorite part of Sunday morning is social hour, and I don’t care for online social hours. So personally, I like having both options available: both online and in-person services.

I’m betting that online access to worship services is here to stay. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in New York, puts it this way: “The impact [of the pandemic] is not over yet but we see signs of church being normal…. [But] normal is a fluid word. Normal is change. Change is normal.”