Confronting Wonder Woman Syndrome: Female Pastors and the Pandemic

by Michelle D. Williams | October 15, 2020

The role of the pastor has shifted in the age of coronavirus. As churches consider reopening and discuss strategies for a safe congregational return to worship, there is a heightened sense of anxiety. Safety concerns, liability, finances, grieving congregants, conspiracy theories, and mounting pressure to open are just a few of the issues facing clergy. It does not matter what gender you are; if you are a pastor right now, these are challenging times. However, there are some specific observations that can be made about how the pandemic has affected female pastors and what we can do to cope.

What Female Pastors Are Facing

Recently, I called to check on a former student who pastors a healthy congregation of around 120 people in New Hampshire. She is married with two children (ages ten and thirteen). She is also bi-vocational, working as a licensed professional counselor. She was fortunate that her husband works in technology, and they were able to move to an online church format with relative ease. She was able to begin Zoom and Facebook live services quickly. However, by the time I called, the toll of pandemic life had caught up with her. This pastor had two parishioners die during quarantine, both of non-COVID-19 related illnesses.

She said to me, “Something has to give. I can’t keep up at this pace.” Her responsibilities included:

  • Conducting two church services a week (Bible study and Sunday morning)
  • Caring for grief-stricken parishioners she could not visit in person
  • Planning alternative funeral services
  • Tending a virtual client list that was exploding due to pandemic anxiety
  • Homeschooling her children
  • Cooking/providing three meals a day for her children and husband who were all at home
  • Pastoral care with a congregation that counted on her to provide spiritual direction in a world that suddenly seemed directionless

By the time she finished listing the ways her roles had shifted overnight, I felt overwhelmed, too! Here is what I told her: “You are right. Something has to give.” Even now, I hear these words reverberate in my mind and have to examine my own life. The problem is that we say this, we know this. But how often do we let things go?

Identifying “Wonder Woman Syndrome”

“Wonder Woman Syndrome” would have us believe that anytime there is an issue, we can swoop in and save the day. It says that we who are called to lead and happen to be women have been equipped to deal with any and all situations that come our way. We have to show up (immaculately dressed and perfectly poised). We have to encourage (with gentleness of demeanor). We have to be nurturing (because, of course, we’re women and that’s what’s expected). We have to bring home the bacon (after we’ve navigated virus-ridden grocery stores), fry it up in a pan, serve it (every time someone in the house is hungry), and clean up afterwards. We have to ensure that our crowns don’t slip, our congregations don’t suffer, and our families appear well-rounded (ha!).

“Wonder Woman Syndrome” would have us believe that our worlds would crumble without our “superpower.” It would have us believe that our bodies are indestructible and that we are the only one people can turn to in crisis. So, we should sacrifice our own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being for the sake of the many. This, my sisters, is simply not true.

In fact, according to Rev. Dr. Jacqueline T. Dyer, professor and director of Simmons University School of Social Work, our brains are not designed to deal with all of this at the same time, and this experience is called cognitive overload. The effects of cognitive overload are similar to our responses to grief. Some of these symptoms include anxiety, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and depression.

This pandemic has forced us all to be creative and adapt to new realities. It has exacerbated an age-old issue for women clergy: our tendency to overcompensate. Too often, we’ve felt the need to overcompensate for being underappreciated, overly critiqued, and unfairly discriminated against. This overcompensation takes many different forms. We feel we need to prove our calling to our colleagues, congregants, family, and friends. Hence, we don our capes and often overpromise, overcommit, and overextend ourselves.

As clergywomen, we tend to go into “fix-it mode” when a crisis hits. However, we can’t live in a sustained state of fixing it. We are many months into an unprecedented time in history. We’ve adjusted the best way we know how. Now we need to ask: have we adjusted in healthy ways?

How to Survive and Thrive

According to Dr. Dyer, in order to reduce cognitive overload, “we have to reduce our decision-making strain by delegating where we can.”1

Invite guest speakers to teach and preach. Commission your associates to preach, teach, pray, and make phone calls. Adjust household roles with your partner. For goodness’ sake, delegate!

Along with delegation, here are a few additional suggestions for ways to cope with the “Wonder Woman Syndrome” in the age of coronavirus:

  1. Decrease activity. Like I said to my former student, something has to give. In times of crisis, we have to make sacrifices. Just like the government determined what is “essential work,” we must determine what is essential to the immediate well-being of our families and our churches. Let your house be dirty. Have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. Adjust your expectation that things have to be done a certain way at a certain time.
  2. Acknowledge your own loss. Take time to grieve the things that you’ve lost in this pandemic. Social distancing means loss of alone time for some of us. If you are used to having your own space and time to prepare sermons but suddenly must share that space with the other members of your family who are usually at work or school, this is a loss. Social distancing means you haven’t physically touched or seen some congregants. This is a loss. People you know or have known are dying in unprecedented numbers. This is a loss. Rituals have changed and are changing (graduations, funerals, birthdays, etc.). This is a loss. It’s okay to mourn the way it used to be.
  3. Prioritize self-care. I know this seems counterintuitive, but it is essential. In times of crisis, you must bolster your immune system. Dr. Dyer says, “Your resilience needs to increase. You can’t keep taking withdrawals out of an emotional/spiritual bank that you haven’t made deposits into.” This is particularly true regarding maintaining our spiritual practices.

Now, more than ever, we need female pastors who are connected to the True Vine. We need pastors whose source is not their ability to swoop in and fix it in their own strength but who point us to the One who has proven to have the power to save us, over and over again.

Notes

1. Jacqueline T. Dyer, “Leadership and Grief: A Conversation with Pastors,” (Zoom webinar, Massachusetts Council of Churches, May 6, 2020).

Photo by Wan San Yip on Unsplash.


Related reading:
Women in Ministry, Reclaim Your Time!
Love in the Time of Coronavirus: Tips for Egalitarian Marriages and Families in a Pandemic
How to Find an (Egalitarian) Therapist