When we moved to Charlottesville to plant a church, we knew one whole person: our realtor. Soon after, we met our neighbors, who when we cheerily explained why we'd moved in, stared at us, speechless, as if we were aliens from another planet. Apparently church planting was going to be harder than I'd envisioned.
And it was.
We started a Bible study in our living room and despite how desperately I wanted our little church to grow at the time and how much fear I felt, I sometimes look back at those days with longing. We had no idea what we were doing, but we could invite our entire church over for dinner, and we were a happy little band of brothers and sisters.
Then the church began to grow. As we passed certain milestones, I began feeling pulled in many different relational directions. We could no longer have everyone over for dinner at one time, or even everyone a handful at a time. People were coming to us faster than we could know them all, but still we tried to know them all, even as we tried to maintain relationships with those we'd known and loved since the church's inception. From year 3 to year 5 of our church's existence, I lived in perpetual motion. At the same time, I couldn't figure out how to navigate all of the relationships, I constantly felt guilty that I couldn't be all things to all people, and my new normal became various levels of bone-tired.
The truth is that I didn't want to admit to myself that I couldn't do it all. I didn't want to disappoint people, so I searched for some magic formula that would enable me to do all the things and have all the relationships. More than anything, I didn't want to have say no. As a result, I became spread so thin relationally that I lost track of God's voice beneath the persistent human voices and felt devoid of purpose and joy.
I think many folks in ministry feel this way at one time or another, especially if they're leading or serving in a growing church. In a church plant, there is a low-grade pressure to be and do things how you've been and done things from the beginning, even when the church has evolved entirely.
When I looked around at my life during those years, all I saw were good things. A happy family and marriage. A growing church full of absolutely wonderful people. Opportunities to serve the larger church through writing and speaking. Personal relationships with women I adore to this day. In other words, all I saw around me was abundance. So why was I struggling?
One day my husband used the phrase "stewarding the abundance," and it stunned me with its accuracy. We'd been given an abundance of relationships, and we'd need to consider how to navigate them all in a way that honored others but also didn't move us away from what God had originally called us to do.
Perhaps you too feel spread thin relationally. Maybe you feel like you're juggling or you're trying to keep up with all of your roles and responsibilities. Know that God intends you to steward the abundance He's given--not resent it or fear it or worry about it. Steward it. Steward means making choices, saying yes and also saying no, and being purposeful and intentional in all the yeses and no's.
I needed to learn to discern God's leading again so that I could separate "best" from "better" and "good," relationally and otherwise. I had to go through the excruciating pain of learning to say no when I'd just been saying yes, yes, and yes. Here are a few things I've learned along the way:
Praise God for Abundance
If your ministry or your life has vitality, praise God. If you have relationships and friendships, praise God. If you have more coming at you than you know what to do with, praise God. Thank God for the influence and opportunities He's given you. Don't allow your heart to become embittered because of the pulling and pressure that come with the abundance. Don't allow yourself to swell with pride, thinking that you've done something to earn this abundance. God and God alone have given you what you have.
Check Your Heart
Are you spreading yourself too thin because of self-idolatry? This has been the case for me far too much. When I set myself up as a god to myself or others, I believe things about myself that are an affront to God and I act in ways that are detrimental and harmful. I will actually try to be all things to all people (omnipresent). I will try to fix everyone's issues (omnipotent). I will also seek glory for myself in the form of respect, admiration, and appreciation. When I recognize my position before God, I'm humbled and able to embrace my limits. I'm encouraged to trust God for my own needs, as well as the needs of others. I'm also reminded that my life is not my own but is to be poured out for God by serving others.
Clarify Your People Priorities
Ask God to give you laser focus on those people in your life He wants you to cultivate relationships with. After spouse and kids or roommate relationships, who are the people He most wants you to invest your life in? Who do you need to dive deep with? I've heard it said, "Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone." I've taken this to heart in the area of discipleship and leaders within the church.
Say Yes and Also Say No
One way to not become embittered is to learn to say a prayerful yes as well as a prayerful no. I've learned that a slow response gives me time to ask God about it. I'd gotten so used to saying yes that saying no felt uncomfortable and awkward, but when I knew it was a no from God, that made the discomfort worth it. And when it was a yes, it was an enthusiastic, joy-filled yes! (I highly recommend the chapter "Saying No" in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown for thoughts on how to say a gracious no.)
Cultivate Intersections Rather Than Being a Cul-De-Sac
Be a connector. Use your opportunities and influence to connect people with each other, with small groups, and with ministry opportunities. Widen the circle.
Plan Ahead for Friendship
Plan ahead for time with those you consider heart friends. Get those plans on the calendar ahead of church and work and whatever else demands of your time. Choose friends who encourage you to trust God and to rest but also to serve and work as unto the Lord. Deep friendship is jet fuel for the life-layer-downer.
None of this is easy, my friends. However, being intentional with your time and relationships, paces you for a lifetime of ministry to others.