As more folks get vaccinated and COVID restrictions end, we all long for a return to normalcy. Still, leading congregations is hard work and may get harder as we pivot once again in response to changing circumstances. Some people and some congregations struggle even as good news comes. Part of our ministry will be to help each other move from languishing to flourishing.
A week ago, I visited a congregation that was very vital going into the pandemic. Attendance was growing, giving was strong, and new members were regularly joining. The place was flush with young families and children. This church has remained strong throughout the past 15 months—finances are still in great shape, folks have worked together well to adapt to new technologies and ways of being church. But as I was about to walk out to my car, an older man said, “Now all we need is to get back to normal and get everybody back.”
While I’m optimistic about this church’s recovery. I have a feeling that even for this congregation, things are going to look different moving forward. I couldn’t help but wonder who this man might blame if things don’t return exactly to the way they were in 2019. Just a month earlier, impatience to return to the way things used to be had boiled over in the church. A few members demanded that we lift all restrictions—even before the CDC, the governor, and the state department of health advised us it was safe. Even in this healthy, vital congregation, folks have been languishing in recent months and suddenly it all came out sideways.
Languishing to flourishing
An article by Sarah Fielding, Languishing Is the Mood of 2021, How to Identify It and How to Cope, discusses the history of the term languishing. Fielding quotes Shemiah Derrick‘s definition: “Languishing is apathy, a sense of restlessness or feeling unsettled or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy.”
Unlike a panic disorder or depression, languishing is a “series of emotions, not a mental illness.” But people may continue to languish even after outward conditions change: “Yes, 2021 has brought access to the COVID-19 vaccine for many and a small glimpse into the future. At the same time, it has emphasized feelings of waiting, of not having control over what the present looks like or what the future will bring.”
The New York Times, in an article by Adam Grant, picked up on the term languishing prior to the Fielding article. Grant describes “Languishing as a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Relief and bewilderment
As of today (5/20/21) I am two weeks past my second COVID vaccine and I am relieved—but more bewildered than ever. I went back to my fitness center this morning to celebrate but didn’t know if I should wear my mask or how far I should stay away from others. Congregations had to pivot very quickly when the lockdown first began back in March 2020, but how quickly should we pivot now, when the beginning of the end of the pandemic is less clear-cut than the beginning? Here are a few thoughts:
- Right now, great uncertainty and some anxiety persist. I expect that next fall will be the time when many congregations begin to take stock of who they are in the post-pandemic world and who will be with them as they set a new course for the future.
- This may be a good time to revisit your congregation’s behavioral covenant. It’s going to take all of us time to reflect on what has happened to us as individuals, as congregations, and as people living in the world—what we have learned through this? We still have lots of grief to process. Take time to remind your community to be tender with each other and to hold one another accountable in love.
- It’s okay for clergy and lay leaders to be direct in asking for what they need from their congregations.
- Remember to publicly thank those who have labored for the congregation’s well-being. Letting folks know you value their creative, diligent, and steadfast work honors those who have gone above and beyond and reminds those who are impatient that others have made great sacrifices to do the right thing on their behalf. Pastors, particularly, need to be thanked.
- Consider taking time for in-depth conversation with those who may be languishing. Some people who express impatience about the slow pace of reopening may feel other things below the surface.
- Be sure to get time away this summer.
Amid hope and optimism that our lives and congregations might get back to a new normal, some folks are languishing. A few congregations are languishing collectively. As we move together through this time may our prayers be that God will gather us up, strengthen us to deal with our needs, anxieties, frustrations, and pain—and show us once again how we can be the communities of faith that we are called to be.
Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.