In April 2021, I read an article that nailed exactly how I was feeling. The article–“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”–talked about the so-called “middle child” of mental health, a place between thriving and depression. Author of the article Adam Grant described languishing as joyless and aimless, stagnation and emptiness. The languishing person may not be completely out of energy and hope, but they don’t feel vibrant either. The languishing person trudges through the mud of life, feeling a little bit empty and a little bit weighed down.
When I read Grant’s description of languishing almost 16 months ago, I felt like he had written it about me. Life in a pandemic was like walking around with a cinder block on my head. I woke up each day wanting to move beyond the way I was feeling, but every step felt too heavy. I felt validated knowing I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. I also believed that if enough of us were feeling this way, eventually a day would come when we weren’t feeling this way any longer. If all of us were languishing, maybe we could help each other find joy again.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with pastors gearing up for the beginning of their fall ministries, and I’ve noticed something alarming. Almost every pastor I’ve talked to is still languishing. Or, worse, they’ve moved from languishing into despair. The stories go something like this:
“Before COVID, our ministries were growing. We noticed new people participating in the life of the church, and our volunteers had energy. COVID caused all of that momentum to stop in its tracks. Now, over two years later, we are maybe 1/3 of what we were, 1/2 on a good day. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to where we were.”
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all reason for this decline in church participation either. Some people felt abandoned by the way their churches responded to the COVID crisis. Others still haven’t been able to worship safely in person due to chronic illness or compromised immune systems. Some people simply fell out of the habit of participating in the church, and others took stock of how involved they were in all the many things and decided they were doing too much. And, to be frank, pastors aren’t the only ones who are still languishing. So are many of the people who used to be active in the life of their churches. These people are exhausted and struggling to find the energy they once had. A growing number of people are also dealing with long-COVID, and they simply aren’t able to keep up the pace of life they had before the pandemic.
All those months ago, I felt validated to know I wasn’t the only one languishing, but what are we to do if we are still languishing a year and a half later?
- Be Gentle with Yourself – We have been through a lot over the last several years: a pandemic (which doesn’t want to loosen its grip), escalating political divisions in the United States and around the world, increasing violence and a growing sense of unease in public spaces, juggling home and educational responsibilities. Some of us had to figure out how to home school while also working from home. Some of us dealt with illness, and the effects of that illness may be lingering. Many, many of us lost loved ones over the course of the last 2+ years, and in many ways our ability to grieve as we normally would was taken away from us. If you are languishing–or if you have moved to burnout and hopelessness–be gentle with yourself. You have been dragging the weight of the world around with you everywhere you go. No wonder you are exhausted.
- Ask for Help – One of the most challenging things about this pandemic has been the forced separation from one another (physically). If you are struggling, reach out. Make a counseling appointment. Tell a friend how you are feeling. Tell someone what you need, and then let them help you. I know most of us would vastly prefer to give help to someone than to receive it, but you know that saying “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?” Think about it. Is that even possible to do? It’s not. Let someone lift you up, and later when you are in a better place, you can lift someone else up who needs it.
- Say No – About 12 years ago, I had surgery to remove a large thyroid mass. That surgery injured my vocal nerves, and it made me lose my vocal stamina. I had to say “no” to preaching, “no” to public speaking, “no” to doing all of the things I used to do because if I didn’t, I would never be able to say “yes” to those things again. In this season of languishing or burnout, we have to say “no” in order to say “yes” to our wellbeing.
The challenging part of this for pastors? Many of the people we used to rely on as volunteers are going to be saying “no” to things they used to say “yes” to. We need to hear and honor these “no” voices. By helping our people to set good boundaries, and by setting good boundaries in our own lives, we will find our way to health and wholeness together.
- Adjust Your Expectations – All those ministries you had to stop doing during COVID? They didn’t all get started at the same time. Little by little those ministries were added in response to the needs of the congregation. You do not need to bring all of them back this Fall. Pick one or two things that are priorities and lean on those. See how that goes. And then you can consider adding something new. Resilience doesn’t mean ignoring what we’ve been through and resuming “business as usual” overnight.
Ministry in this COVID-changed landscape means being adaptable. Part of what needs to change is our expectations. Besides, I think what we most need at this stage of the pandemic is to be together, to listen to each other, and to respond to where we each are in our lives. Maybe we don’t need 47 different Bible studies (did we ever need so many programs?) as much as we need to share our lives with each other.
- Listen to Each Other’s Stories – When we reflect on how much we’ve lost in our congregations over the last two years, we might despair, and we might be tempted to think we’re the only ones in this situation. Listen to your colleagues. Ask the people in your churches what things are like for them because churches aren’t the only places struggling to find any kind of normalcy. Listen, not to “one up” but to empathize and understand.
Even though we can’t right all of the wrongs or fix all that’s broken, there is something empowering about learning we aren’t alone in our situation. We may not be able to fix everything, but we can walk with each other along the way, and that is its own kind of healing.
If you are still languishing, you aren’t alone. If you are burned out, there are so many others who feel that way too. I hope we can find the courage to come together in our struggles and lift each other up. I am convinced that better days are ahead, but I know we can only get there together.