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Saying “no” to some ministry opportunities allows us to respond with a vital “yes” to others.

How can we not feel overwhelmed? The scope of life's problems—personal, local, and global—is too wide and too deep to imagine that they could be anything but overwhelming. And our constant access to media means we are swamped with details. At times even the little things pile up, causing us to feel ineffective.

This is particularly challenging for people who work or volunteer in the church, who often find themselves responding to a wide range of needs, including situations that seem too big to be handled by the church. The water is up to our necks, and we cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

There is, on the one hand, our personal response to the needs around us and the burden it produces in our minds and spirits. And then there’s the calling of the church to provide practical, timely responses to those needs. How do we understand the experience of being personally overwhelmed alongside the painful existential reality that has always burdened humankind and will never just melt away? How do we live life well and serve faithfully in the midst of turmoil?

In these overwhelming realities and the feelings they produce, we are given a potent opportunity to join our lives with Christ. We are called to suffer and surrender—to suffer gracefully and to live by the Spirit, to live by faith in the circumstances we currently experience. We can’t wait for circumstances to change to begin standing firm in the gospel of peace.

But it may help to look carefully at why we feel overwhelmed and then pay close attention to how we cope so that we can grow in our capacity to live fully alive, even when life is daunting.

When Ministry Is Overwhelming

The experience of being overwhelmed in ministry is complex because the problems we face are sometimes enormous—and we are also complex. Sometimes we are overwhelmed because we’re interacting with an individual or family whose needs are never-ending, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed because we aren’t managing our time and resources well. Sometimes we feel burdened because we think that we have to address every request or because we try to act alone, without accountability. Still other times we feel the water rising up to our necks because we’ve been ignoring the need to take care of ourselves. Our sense of being overwhelmed might eventually be expressed in cynicism or “numbness,” irritation with people and situations, loss of hope, feeling ineffective in ministry, and feeling distant from God.

When this happens, we may need to step aside for a while to catch our breath and receive healing. Congregations may need to agree to periods of reduced activity to provide rest for pastors or volunteers. We may think that we can push through and keep ministering even while we’re deeply tired, but exhaustion and burnout, left untreated, can result in situations that require significant intervention and cause pain to others as well as to the ones who are overwhelmed.

Biblical examples tell the story. After the prophet Elijah cried out, “I have had enough, Lord!” (1 Kings 19), he finally lay down under a broom tree. It was then that he received the food of restoration and encountered God, full of mercy. And Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, spoke this word of caution to the man chosen to lead God’s people: “The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:18). Jethro went on to give Moses directions about setting up structures to handle all the demands. Moses, we’re told, “listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said” (v. 24). Leaders, including pastors and volunteers, are invited to heed the wisdom of others. Our neglect to do so may contribute to our exhaustion.

Working with Others

One of the gifts of our church structure is that we already have networks for accountability. But we have to rely on them to function well. This means working with others. It’s not as efficient as acting alone, but doing so can provide greater encouragement and synergy. When we make efficiency one of our primary goals—whether we realize it or not—we risk the possibility of missing what God intends to teach us through collaboration and trust. And when we’re caught up with doing things “just right,” we might also miss out on the invitation to cooperate with the Spirit, who not only choreographs our movements in ministry but also instructs us on what must be done rather than all that could possibly be done.

Consider the scenario my congregation faces. Nearly 90 years old, it is located in an area of Vancouver known for its gentrification. However, there also exists a largely under-resourced population in our neighborhood: refugees, single-parent families, transient students, and people on the street. Within a hundred feet of our church, a six-story building is being constructed to house the Immigration Services Society of British Columbia. It will accommodate resettlement agencies and services for immigrants and refugees, all of whom have significant unmet needs to which we could possibly respond.

Our elders and deacons have engaged in long discussions about how to handle all of the ministry opportunities, because in some cases we may have “bitten off more than we can chew.” Understanding that we cannot address every need, we have chosen to focus our energies on doing a few things well. We have accepted that we have to say “no” to some possibilities in order to respond with a vital “yes” to others.

Practical Steps

So how do we know what we should focus on?

There is no program or formula for finding out exactly how to avoid burnout or how to minimize the feeling of being overwhelmed. But there is an approach. And that is to carry with us the memory of being joined with Jesus, whose life and death and resurrection casts a glowing light over every situation. We’re simply called to be children of that light, to stand in it and reflect it wherever we are. We’re called to look like Jesus and smell like him.

When that becomes complicated, the assistance of a coach, mentor, spiritual director, or counselor may be helpful in identifying areas of growth, both for individuals and for congregations.

We can also take practical steps. Our deacons recently took an inventory of all the resources and needs within our own congregation by passing out a survey after a morning church service. We then matched an inventory of the congregation’s skills and gifts with specific unmet needs. Instead of rehearsing our previous narrative of scarcity and limitations, we are able to frame our ministries in terms of availability and abundance.

Our congregation also implemented the restorative practice of a “listening circle.” Someone trained in restorative justice practices led us through a conversation that allowed us to complete a policy outlining our commitment to respond to one of the significant needs in our neighborhood.

The ability to discern what is best and to respond with wisdom and compassion in the face of overwhelming situations can also be taught. Leaders who are empowered with training and education are less likely to feel as if they’re sinking. Empowering takes place as pastors and church volunteers attend workshops and receive gift assessments and encouragement. Entire congregations can receive training in prayer and in understanding how the Spirit works.

In the end, what we really crave is the Spirit’s power in our lives. As we relinquish our anxiety—both personal and corporate—to God through prayer, as we remember our identity as Jesus followers and receive the peaceful guidance of the Holy Spirit, our responses are transformed. We become more capable of loving people wisely.

And when we’re reminded that the extravagant gifts we have in our baptized identity and eucharistic worship are the antidote to burdened living, we will be released with sudden joy in the face of otherwise daunting scenarios. Our bedrock confidence comes from knowing that the One who sits upon the throne, who reigns with grace and truth and gives us the identity of being overcomers, invites us to participate in the hope-filled reign of God.

For nothing is impossible with God.

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