Pastor who took time off from pulpit because he felt far from God returns ‘refreshed,’ ‘renewed’

Howard-John Wesley
Rev. Howard-John Wesley. |

A megachurch pastor who made headlines last fall when he stepped away from his pulpit after telling his congregation that he was tired and felt far from God, says he is now feeling “refreshed” and “renewed” after a months-long sabbatical that has energized him sufficiently to now lead his congregation through the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s amazing how God has a way of preparing us for things coming that we could not have even seen. And as we now are faced with this pandemic of COVID-19, I’m grateful to God to enter this moment refreshed and renewed,” the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of the historic 10,000-member Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, said during a Palm Sunday address to his congregants. “I thank you and I want you to know that I’m excited to be back with you over these next weeks and months to share with you the word of God.”

Wesley surprised his congregation in early December with the news that he felt far from God, tired in his soul and needed to recuperate mentally and physically.

“You can’t pour out of an empty cup. It is very dangerous for your pastor to be on empty,” he told congregants of the 216-year-old church he has led since 2008. “I need to take care of me.”

Wesley was slated to be off Jan. 1 until April 1 but in an interview with The Washington Post he said the coronavirus upended that timeline.

He began calling in to meetings at his church in March as they made plans to end public worship and convert to engaging online and prepare staff for the transition.

Wesley also had to prepare himself to preach without a physical audience.

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

He said that returning to his congregation was important at this time especially when the coronavirus disproportionately impacts members of the black community which his church predominantly serves.

“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.

While Wesley has quickly gotten back into action at his church, he said his sabbatical was well spent establishing a healthier lifestyle.

He took four cooking classes and started a pescatarian diet. He set boundaries for how many hours he would spend in the church’s office and he now gets seven to eight hours of sleep each night instead of just four, he told The Washington Post.

Wesley is also spending less time on social media and more time with his family, particularly his 16 and 13-year-old sons.

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

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