Surviving Pandemic Fatigue

By Bishop Mike Ainsworth

Pandemic fatigue is a sobering reality. We all hoped that COVID-19 would be under control by now. Emotionally, the increasing surge in COVID-19 positive cases locally and throughout the country, is provoking anxiety and cause for discouragement. Continued uncertainty is hard to handle. I heard someone say recently, that we are running a marathon without knowing the total distance of the race. So, it’s hard to pace yourself when you don’t know when you will reach the finish line.

Organizations and businesses are facing the effects of this on employees, and the impact it will have in the months to come. Some experts say that 2021 will be a year many organizations will see a much higher than normal turnover. They predict that those who have been considering a change have put the decision on hold to get through the pandemic. They don’t want to add more instability to their lives in the middle of an already chaotic set of circumstances.

The ongoing question many in ministry are asking is, “What long term impact will the pandemic have on Pastors, congregations and ministry volunteers?” Some, I’m sure, will be beyond our ability to control. We must commit those things to prayer and trust the Lord who knows best. Others, particularly those things that relate to us personally, are well within our ability to control. “Ministry Burnout”, for example, is avoidable. It will, however, require detection and action when signs appear that this is happening in your life.

One minister recently commented on his blog that he felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins (the title character and protagonist of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel) who said he was “…thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The pastor admitted that it wasn’t just the pandemic, although that would be enough. Other “stresses” of 2020 that have intensified he and his congregations’ struggles, include the widespread economic instability, social unrest, the contentious presidential election and a running list of record-breaking natural disasters. These, he said, have threatened unity, encumbered ministry, and hindered outlook and vision.

Some time ago, former lawyer and Connexus Church founding pastor, Carey Nieuwhof, shared nine things he personally experienced in ministry burn out. I hope they will be helpful as you consider the needs in your own life. Here they are in his own words:

  1. Your motivation has faded. The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vaporized or become self-centered.
  2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was nearby.
  3. People drain you. Of course, there are draining people on the best of days. But not everybody, every time. Burnout often means few to no people energize you anymore.
  4. Little things make you disproportionately angry. When you start losing your cool over small things, it’s a sign something deeper is very wrong.
  5. You’re becoming cynical. Many leaders fight this one, but cynicism rarely finds a home in a healthy heart.
  6. Your productivity is dropping. You might be working long hours, but you’re producing little of value. Or what used to take you 5 minutes just took you 45. That’s a warning bell.
  7. You’re self-medicating. Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.
  8. You don’t laugh anymore. Nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.
  9. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. Sometimes you’re not burnt out; you’re just tired. A good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. But you could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign you’re burning out.

Last fall, I read two very helpful books by Gordon MacDonald. Ordering Your Private World and Rebuilding Your Broken World were incredibly helpful (and timely) in addressing the need to focus on the call and the need for a well-disciplined life. In his book Ordering Your Private World, MacDonald asks the reader a question that caught my attention, “Are we going to order our inner worlds, our hearts, so that they will radiate influence into the outer world? Or will we neglect our private worlds and, thus, permit the outer influences to shape us? This is a choice we must make every day of our lives.” I couldn’t have known how important this advice was in helping me make some important changes in the face of what was ahead.

Coping with extended problems, like the pandemic, requires long-term strategies. I’d like to offer a few questions for you to consider that I think may help combat the fatigue that we all may be feeling as we approach the Christmas season and prepare for a new year:

  1. What are you doing to take charge of your own well-being now and in the future?
  2. When was the last time you planned some time off to recharge and refocus?
  3. In what ways could you benefit by taking a vacation from news and social media?
  4. In an era of social isolation, have you discovered and utilized new (and old) ways to connect with others (including family and friends)?
  5. If you find yourself becoming depressed or struggling with how to cope, are you prepared to ask for the help you need?
  6. Have you made time each day to devote to the important spiritual disciplines of bible reading and prayer?

I would like to conclude with one of my favorite passages of scripture. In it, the psalmist declares his confidence in the Lord. It is really a celebration of the providential care of God over our lives. Here is Psalm 121:

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Psalms 121, KJV

Please know that Trisha and I pray for you, our ministers and congregations, every day. We love and appreciate you and your family! If there is anything I can do for you, I am here to help!

Because of Calvary,

Mike Ainsworth