When we moved to Charlottesville to plant a church, we knew one person—our realtor. Then we met our neighbors who, when we cheerfully explained why we'd moved in, stared at us as if we were from another planet. Apparently, church planting was going to be harder than I'd envisioned.
We started a Bible study in our living room. Despite how desperately I had wanted our little church to grow at the time and how much fear I had, I occasionally look back at those days with longing now. No, we had no idea what we were doing, but we could invite our entire church over for dinner. 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 once. There weren't even enough days in the week to host handfuls of people. They were coming to us faster than we could know them all but still we tried to know them all. And, we tried to maintain relationships with those we'd known and loved since the church's inception. From year three to year five of our church's existence, I lived in perpetual motion.
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. My "new normal" became various levels of "bone-tired."
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 say no. As a result, I became spread so thin relationally that I lost track of God's voice. His voice was buried beneath persistent human voices, all with their own needs and wants. I started to feel 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 do things like you've always done, even if the church has evolved entirely.
Standing in the midst of it, I would look at my life and only see the good things: a happy family and a strong marriage, a growing church full of absolutely wonderful people. The opportunities to serve the larger church through writing and speaking were prolific. Personal relationships with women I adore to this day were fruitful. In other words, all I saw around me was abundance.
So, why was I struggling?
Then one day, my husband mentioned "stewarding the abundance," and it stunned me. I'd been given an abundance of relationships but I also needed to navigate them in a way that didn't move me away from what God originally called me to do.
Perhaps you feel spread thin relationally too. Maybe you feel like you're juggling 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.
Stewarding means making choices; it means saying yes but it also saying no, in order for your answers to be more purposeful and intentional.
I needed to learn to discern God's voice again so I could distinguish "best" from "better" 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:
1. 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 from the pressure that comes with abundance. Don't allow yourself to swell with pride or think you've done something to earn this abundance. God and God alone has given you what you have.
2. Check your heart.
Are you spreading yourself too thin? This has been the case for me far too often. When I present myself as a god to myself or others, I begin to believe things about myself that are an affront to Him which is only detrimental and harmful to myself. 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. But 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.
3. Clarify your people priorities.
Ask God to give you laser focus on people in your life with whom He wants you to cultivate relationships. After spouse, kids or roommate relationships, who are the people He wants you to invest your life the most? Who do you need to dive deeper with? I've heard it said, "Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone." I've since taken this to heart in the area of discipleship and leaders within the church.
4. Say yes, but 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 discovered 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.)
5. Cultivate intersections rather than a cul-de-sac.
Be a connector. Use your opportunities and influence to connect people with each other. Perhaps you can connect others to small groups instead of being the only confidant. Perhaps you can connect others with ministry opportunities that help widen their circles. Whatever it may be, use what God gave you to be an intersection, not a cul-de-sac.
6. Plan ahead for friendship.
Plan ahead for time with those you consider heart friends. Planning ahead is the extra mile. It's intentional. Get those plans on the calendar and make them priority ahead of church and work and whatever else demands of your time daily. Your heart friends are friends who encourage you to trust God and to rest but also to serve and work as unto the Lord.
None of this is easy, my friends. However, allocating your time well in relationships paces you for a lifetime of fruitful ministry in others.