By Sue Magrath | Sacred Mountain Ministries
There was a time, not too long ago, when my life had become an avalanche of being too busy, taking on too much, and imagining that my calendar could hold up under the burdens I had forced it to carry. It couldn’t. Ultimately, my calendar collapsed completely, and I had to begin pushing aside the rubble in order to see the light of day. It was hard work, but there came a time when I was finally able to crawl out from under and realize what I had been missing while I reaped the consequences of compulsive over-commitment.
It’s not that I haven’t known this was coming. I did. I knew fairly shortly after one crucial decision, one casual and unconsidered commitment that proved to be one “yes” too far in my already overburdened life. The old saying, “Sin in haste, repent at leisure,” took up residence in my head for the entire year to which I was obligated. And I did repent. Daily. Since then, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I got myself into and how it happened. The answers I’ve come to might be just as pertinent, if not more so, for clergy.
I know that I am not alone in my difficulty with saying no. There are a lot of clergy who suffer from the same ailment. It seems to be a common trait in most members of the helping professions. And there is no shortage of books in the self-help aisle about saying no and setting healthy boundaries. But I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying no. I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about the hidden rationale we’re often saying yes to!
Case in point, when I said yes to this particular commitment, I realize now that I was saying yes to a paycheck, yes to recognition, yes to being needed, and mostly, yes to ego. I completely failed to check in with God before I made this decision. I did check in with my husband, and since he kind of likes it when I bring home a paycheck, he jumped on board without too much persuasion. But I didn’t check in with God, and I certainly didn’t check in with myself. If I had, I would have noticed that I wasn’t particularly excited or intrigued by this “opportunity.” It wasn’t something I had a passion for, and it wasn’t a role that was connected with what I see as my true vocation. So I said yes for all the wrong reasons.
Now, I’m aware that as a self-employed person, I have a lot more flexibility in what I do or do not want to do. But I think that clergy have more choices than they imagine. And I’m certain that you often get asked to do things that are not a part of your “job description,” however nebulous that may be. This makes it essential to examine the motivations, some of them less than conscious, that contribute to you saying yes to people and obligations that weigh you down and lead to over-commitment. (For those of you who are itinerating this year, now is a good time to begin this practice, starting your new appointment with good boundaries in place, before you dig in too deep with a new congregation.)
Once you begin to pay attention to the why of saying yes, you may discover, as I did, that many of your reasons have nothing to do with God or true vocation. My own list is long and includes saying yes to acceptance, recognition, appreciation, being needed, and being in control. I could go on. The reasons are myriad and vary with the individual. I know the ones that are most tempting to me, and I now realize that I have to stay vigilant if I don’t want a repeat of this pattern in my life. I know that I have to do something differently if I want my life to be different! I know that I actually have to take the time to discern whether a particular request or opportunity is something that God is calling me to. That means finding a way to get some space between the invitation and my answer.
I have discovered that my way of achieving space for discernment is to never give an automatic yes. I always need to tell the other person that I will have to think and pray about it first. Pray first. That has become my new mantra. And what will I pray? Something like: “Is this where God is leading?” “Is this something I’m passionate about?” “Is this congruent with what I perceive as my calling?” “How will this affect me, my family, and my spiritual life?”
But all these questions really boil down to one thing that is at the heart of the matter: “If I say yes, will I be saying yes to self, or yes to God?” I pray that this simple formula might serve as a guideline for you as well. Jesus taught, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” (Matt. 5:37a) And when you say yes to God, let it be a resounding YES!