3 things to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed

Apparently, the last post (“9 signs you may be at your limit”) struck a chord with a lot of people. I think many of us felt at least a few of the indicators, and have felt that the way we’re doing life right now isn’t the way we’d like to do things for the rest of our lives — nor would it be sustainable.

Question markThe next big question that several people asked was: “What can we do about it?”

Here are some ideas (learned from others!):

1. Audit your time. Many of us feel overwhelmed but can’t place our finger on exactly why — we might point to something broad like “Work’s a lot right now,” or “There are too many people to try to catch up with.” A helpful exercise — one taught me by my brother Clem — is to actually sit down and look at how you spend your time. You may discover, as Clem did when he did this a number of years ago, that you’re trying to pack too many things into a finite number of hours. So consider:

  • How much time does work take?
  • How much time do you have after that?
  • How much time do you spend watching Netflix or TV shows?
  • How much time do you have to recharge your batteries?
  • How much time do you give to your family?
  • How much time do you spend with God?

2. Differentiate between a busy season and a busy lifestyle. This is something my counselor mentioned to me, and I found it a really helpful distinction. Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us there’s a time for everything, but it can be hard for us to discern whether we’re ‘just’ in the middle of a particularly busy season of life or whether we’re living in an unsustainably busy way.

Snow on the doorknobOne question to ask yourself is, “Is there a discernible end to this season?” Christmas and Easter are particularly busy times of year for me, but I know that once those days pass, things will calm down (a little). Just as there are signs when seasons change (like, for instance, oh … the snow stopping when it’s time for spring), busy seasons should have clear indicators of when they’re ending.

However, if you’re thinking that your busy seasons just keep following one another, you’re probably living in the Southern California of life — where there’s only one season, and it’s busy. And if it’s unsustainably and unhealthily busy, you may need to re-prioritize and practice saying no (even, and especially, to good things).

3. Establish healthy rhythms of life, building in time for things that give you joy. Whether you’re currently in a busy season or engaging in an unsustainably busy lifestyle, there are some helpful rhythms to practice to move toward a healthier, fuller way of living. Ruth Haley Barton lists a few in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership:

  • Work and rest. Learning how to sabbath is key to counter the workaholic busyness of our culture without descending into laziness; and if you’re in this for the long haul, learning to rest is indispensable. (Click here for more on sabbath: “In the beginning … rest.“)
  • Engagement and retreat. There are times when we press forward, starting new initiatives, beginning new projects, taking on the challenges of life and work in a broken world; and then there are times when we step back in order to recover, to recuperate, to heal the wounds caused by those challenges of life and work in a broken world. Remember that the weight of the world does not weigh on your shoulders; remember that God is at work — he was long before you came onto the scene and he will be long after you’re gone.
  • Silence and word, stillness and action. “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable,” reads Proverbs 10:19 (which Ruth quotes). Too often we jump straight into sharing our thoughts or leaping into action without first being silent and still before God to hear what he might want for us, or even to figure out what we really think or want to do. Should I engage in this new venture? Should I say yes to this possibility? Should I voice my opinion or say what I think? Learning to live out of a deep reservoir usually involves pressing pause before pressing play.
  • Self-knowledge and self-examination. It can be tempting to think that once we’ve taken enough tests (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Strengths Finder, etc.), we can just rely on our instincts or our understanding of who we (think we) are. But the call of Jesus is constant and continual discipleship, learning and relearning how to do life with God. Psalm 139:23-24 should be a constant refrain in our lives: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
  • Finding a way of life together. Our inclination is to be self-sufficient, to find more and more ways not to need others (buy all your own stuff, have your own back yard, etc.) but the way of Jesus is one in which we do life in community. If you aren’t already, find a local church to plug in to, join a small group, cultivate connections in which you give life to others and others give life to you.  Don’t lone-wolf this. (Yes, I made that a verb.)

Life is constantly changing — new technologies (or TV shows) to distract us; old friendships fading away, new friendships popping up; quitting a job, finding a job; finding new hobbies, forgetting to make time for old hobbies; families growing and shrinking.

Listen to the words of Jesus:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

This is our God. This is the life he invites us into.

There isn’t a formula that allows us to plug in certain data and come up with the secret to good living — but part of what makes life worth living is the sometimes-arduous, never-boring, ultimately-rewarding process of becoming the kind of people who are actively seeking to live as God would have wanted us to live; the journey of learning how to be more like Jesus; and the privilege of having the Spirit of God help us do that with peace in the busyness, with joy in the brokenness, with hope in the pessimism, and with focus in the anxiety and freneticism and stress.

“Take heart,” Jesus says, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).


9 signs you may be at your limit

I came across this list a couple months ago, when a friend mentioned it in his sermon, and I was hooked. Convicted. Guilty as charged.

It made me realize that I had allowed myself to slide back into a life of ‘productive’ busyness, where I tended to react to things rather than thoughtfully respond, and so I began to  rebuild some healthy structures and rhythms back into my life.

It’s written specifically for folks in ministry but I think it applies just as much to others.

From Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (104-105):

  1. Irritability or hypersensitivity. Things that wouldn’t normally bother us (such as a child’s mistake, another driver cutting us off in traffic or a coworker’s irritating habit) put us over the edge. We may or may not express our rage outwardly, but inwardly we are aware of reactions that are all out of proportion to the event itself.
  2. Restlessness. During waking hours we might be aware of a vague sense that something is not quite right or an even stronger feeling of wanting to bolt from our life. When it is time to rest, we might find ourselves unable to settle down and sit quietly or fall asleep. Because we are overstimulated, our sleep may be broken, marred by too much mental activity or disturbing dreams.
  3. Compulsive overworking. “Overwork is this decade’s cocaine, the problem without a name,” says Bryan Robinson, who has written widely about the phenomenon and estimates that as many as 25 percent of Americans have this addiction. “Workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he writes, “that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an overindulgence in work — to the exclusion of most other life activities.” This compulsive behavior can also manifest itself in a frenetic quality to our work. We might find that we are unable to stop or slow down even when that would be appropriate — like at night after dinner or on vacation. A compulsive leader is one who — for some reason that he or she cannot quite name — has no boundaries on work, checks e-mail late into the evening, and is unable to unplug completely to go on vacation, to enter into solitude or to spend uninterrupted time with family.
  4. Emotional numbness. When we are pushing our limit, we may notice that we can’t feel anything — good or bad. It takes energy to experience and process a full range of human emotion. When we are “at capacity” we literally do not have the energy to engage the full range of human experience, including our emotions. In addition, we might be afraid that if we did stop and experience our emotions we would be overwhelmed, and who has time for that?
  5. Escapist behaviors. When we do have a break in the action, we might notice that increasingly we are succumbing to escapist behaviors (such as compulsive eating, drinking or other substance abuse, spending, television, pornography, surfing the Internet) and don’t have the energy to choose activities that are life-giving (such as exercising, going for a walk or bike ride, connect meaningfully with friends and family, enjoying a hobby or interest like playing an instrument, cooking, painting, drawing, writing poetry, playing sports, working with our hands, reading a good book). This becomes a vicious cycle, because escapist behaviors actually drain energy from us — energy that we could use to make life-giving choices — and then we just get more and more lethargic.
  6. Disconnected from our identity and calling. More and more we find ourselves going through the motions of doing ministry but disconnected from a true sense of who we are and what God is calling us to do. Increasingly, we find that we are at the mercy of other people’s expectations and our own inner compulsions because we lack an internal plumb line against which to measure these demands.
  7. Not able to attend to human needs. We don’t have time to take care of basic human needs such as exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, going to the doctor, having that minor (or major) surgery we need. Even such simple things as getting the car washed, picking up the dry cleaning or staying organized seem impossible to accomplish, indicating that we’re pushing the limits of being human. We may also notice that our most important relationships (family and friends) are routinely being short-changed.
  8. Hoarding energy. When we are running on empty, we can have the inner experience of always feeling threatened, as though exposing ourselves to additional people or situations would drain the last of our energy or the energy we are trying to conserve for what we think is important. We might actually become overly self-protective and even reclusive in our attempts to hoard the few resources we do have. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz call this defense spending.
  9. Slippage in our spiritual practices. Practices that are normally life-giving (solitude and silence, prayer, personal reflection on Scripture, journaling, self-examination, caring for the body) become burdensome, and we don’t have energy for them even though we know they are good for us. We might even find that we are so accustomed to using God and Scripture for ministry purposes that we no longer know how to be with God for ourselves personally. We know that there are things we need to attend to in God’s presence, but we truly do not have the energy or the will. Over time, this becomes a symptom and also a source of our depletion.

She writes later (111, emphasis added):

When we refuse to live within limits, we are refusing to live with a basic reality of human existence. There is a finiteness to what I can do in this body. There is a finiteness to how many relationships I can engage in meaningfully at one time. There is a finiteness to time — how many hours there are in a day, how many days there are in a week and how much can be done in those blocks of time. There is a finiteness to my energy. There comes a time when I am tired. There comes a time when I am sick. There comes a time when I am injured. There are times when I am reminded that I am human — a finite being living in the presence of an infinite God. God is the infinite one. God is the one who can be all things to all people. God is the one who can be in all places at once. God is the one who never sleeps. I am not.

Our unwillingness to live within limits — both personally and in community — is one of the deepest sources of depletion and eventual burnout.

If this resonates with you — as it did/does with me — it might be time to make a change or two.

God is not in any particular hurry …

God is not in any particular hurry to get us to the Promised Land. He is much more concerned about the transforming work he is doing in us to prepare for greater responsibilities of freedom living.

– Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 94

When Leaders Let You Down

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church.]

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck writes in his book The Road Less Traveled that one of the stages of growing up is “giving up the distorted images of one’s parents,” in other words, realizing that they’re not perfect. This also holds true for other leaders in our lives—we learn that our political leaders, our youth group leaders, our mentors, our teachers aren’t perfect. This isn’t always a bad thing, because sometimes we feel like our leaders let us down but it’s actually because we had unrealistic expectations of them—such as being perfect, such as never making mistakes,  such as not doing everything you want them to do.

(Pretty much nobody I know does everything I want them to do. That doesn’t make them failures; that makes me have to examine what kind of expectations I’m putting on them!)

David Yonggi ChoSo I’m not talking about that kind of let-down. I’m talking about those situations we’ve all experienced where we’ve been let down by some kind of failure on the leader’s part: just this week, Pastor David Yonggi Cho, the founder of one of the largest churches in the world—750,000 people, and he’d been pastor there for almost five decades—was found guilty of embezzling almost $12 million; I’m talking about that kind of let down. I’m talking about:

  • a father who wasn’t present—physically or emotionally,
  • a pastor who had an affair,
  • a youth leader who ended up turning away from God.

Those are the ones that are most devastating, right? But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic: a small group leader who wasn’t present when you were going through something, a supervisor or boss at work who doesn’t listen or seem to care.

Everyone can relate to the feelings of hurt that come with being let down by a leader, the damage it can cause to our trust in people, the effects of unease or fear of commitment that maybe still linger to this day as a result. Our experiences of leaders letting us down will impact us for the rest of our lives. The question is whether we allow them to help us grow or to hold us back, whether we allow God to work and twist and weave them into something beautiful or whether we simply try to ignore them, which can lead them to turn into resentment and bitterness and mistrust, which will in themselves keep us from living full and wholehearted lives. And who doesn’t want to live a full and wholehearted life? That’s what God wants for us, after all. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life to the full.”

It’s real important for us, as we go about the work of restoration and rebuilding, as we invest in our neighborhoods and hopefully see them change for the better, to address this question of what happens when leaders let you down—both on a personal/individual level and on a communal/systemic level. If we don’t learn how to deal with being let down, we’ll end up getting increasingly cynical and jaded and disconnected, and we’ll burn out and check out and get out, and nothing will ever change except that we’ll have scars that we try to hide or we don’t want to talk about but that make us wince every time we move. Or worse, we’ll end up hurting the people we end up leading in the same ways we were hurt by those who led us.

The people of Israel knew what a crisis of leadership looked like; the prophet Ezekiel wrote:

34:2 Woe to you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.  5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.  6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

The people of Israel knew what it meant to have shepherds who did not care for them, to have leaders who let them down. And we do too, right? It’s pretty easy for us to think of folks who clothed themselves and fed themselves and built themselves up on the backs of the people they were charged with leading; we can think of leaders who dominated rather than cultivated, who wounded instead of healed, who abused instead of cared for, who neglected their responsibilities. We could all share stories of how we’ve been let down, of the wounds we still carry.

  • Your pastor was power-hungry and dominated others; that’s why it’s a wonder you’re even part of a church now—when pastors ought to be some of the most trusted people.
  • Your father—that most primary of relationships—was abusive or maybe wasn’t even present at all, and that’s carried over into your relationship with God; trying to see God as Father doesn’t conjure up good feelings at all, when it should be the most natural idea in the world—Abba, the word Jesus used for God, is one of the first words a Jewish child learns to say.
  • Maybe something happened to you as a child that you blame God for, that you see as a failure on God’s part, and so you’ve been shaking your fists at heaven all your life, instead of knowing the comfort of a God who wants you to live life with him.

In John 10, Jesus said:

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Right before this passage is that line in John 10:10 that I referenced earlier, where Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full.”

One of the things that marks us as Christians is that we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Lord = the one who leads us. The one we follow. The one to whom we submit ourselves and our lives. The one who will take our broken hearts and heal them, who will cradle our wounded souls in his hands and nurture them back to health, who will take our tattered, ratty, dirty pasts, our shame and our sorrow, and somehow make something beautiful out of them. The one who will never let us down.

Three parting words:

1. While we don’t always get to choose the leaders in our lives—our bosses, our parents, our older siblings—where you do have some control, seek those who are Jesus-centered, humble, and willing to apologize. Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with mentoring relationships and accountability relationships with people I know are human, with people I know will mess up, but ultimately the goal is not perfection but faithfulness, and I know they will encourage me and keep me accountable in my walk with Christ. One of the most impactful moments of the last few months was when my dad apologized to me for not responding well during a conversation we were having. My dad is one of the wisest, most gracious, most humble, most Christ-centered people I know, and to read his words—“I knew my heart was not right, and I am sorry”—meant the world to me.

2. Seek to be those who are Jesus-centered, humble, and willing to apologize. Jesus is the framework not just for what a good shepherd looks like, what a good leader looks like, but for what a good human being looks like. This is not only the life we are called to, like it’s some kind of duty, but the life we were made for: a life of vulnerability and courage, a life of love and faith and hope and joy, a life partnering with God in his great story. Don’t miss out.

3. Ultimately, this is about Christ. Put your hope in Jesus. Human leaders will disappoint: politicians will turn out not to be who they claimed to be; parents will lose their temper, fathers will be absent, mothers will enable; bosses will try to build themselves up at your expense; small group leaders will be unfortunately oblivious, pastors will let you down. Christ will not. Trust in him as Lord, as your leader, to walk with you in whatever you’re going through, to lead you through this journey of life. Trust in him as your healer, to bind up the wounds, to soothe the scars, to heal the trauma. Trust in him as your restorer, the one who sought the lost and never gave up on the wandering. Put your hope in Christ, the good shepherd, the coming king, the leader who will never let you down.

Learning to lead through weakness and failure

MeadowkirkWe had our Leadership Community Retreat this weekend, a time that saw almost 100 of The District Church’s leaders come together to be poured into for the coming year.  It was a tremendous 24 hours, full of spiritual renewal, rest, and rejuvenation; fun times with friends, sledding and playing football in the snow; and just general fellowship among the small group leaders, ministry team leaders, and other volunteer leaders of our church.

Two main takeaways:

  • Matthew Watson: our weaknesses don’t disqualify us. In fact, our call is to embrace our weakness, so that we might boast in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
  • J.R. Briggs: instead of allowing our failures to lead to rejection and then to shame, we need to yield to the gospel, acknowledging that someone else has the right of way, leading to a reminder of our acceptance by God not based on any achievement but because of his great love, and knowing that we are honored by the King as he welcomes us and adopts us into his family.

Of course, there was much more, but I’m still processing!