It’s been my favorite word for the past 28 years. In 1993, when Gary and I were introduced to the leaders of First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as their new co-pastors, I said to myself, “Oh, my. I hope we can do this!” Having served several small and medium-sized churches before that, I tried to prepare myself for the enormity of this large downtown congregation. At the same time, we had three elementary and middle school-age children who also needed our attention and encouragement.
I learned a new word during those thirteen years. Overwhelmed. Have you ever been tempted to sweep everything off your desk in frustration and stomp out of the room? Have you ever felt as if you could not keep up with the demands of your job? Do you yearn to connect with God’s peaceable kingdom?
Overwhelmed. The word has accompanied me like a shadow throughout my ministry. I don’t think I have ever not been overwhelmed in ministry. Much of that is due to my own nature of always wanting everything to be done well and in a timely way. But life often interferes. Babies are born, children stray, jobs change, illness forces us to slow down, and we say “yes” to too many things, some but not all of which are beyond our control. The expectations of congregations can seem unrealistic at times, and balance escapes us.
Since the beginning of COVID in March of 2020, I have heard many of our clergy also talk of being overwhelmed, feeling swamped, crushed under a heavy load, or overcome by too many demands and unrealistic expectations.
As a bishop, one of my primary roles is to be a pastor to the pastors. I did not fully realize how critical that aspect of my call was until our clergy were faced with completely reinventing their ministries when in-house worship was not possible because of COVID. I cannot begin to express my deep appreciation to our clergy and laity for the creative ways in which you have continued to witness to the love of Jesus. You have continued to reach out to those needing care and discovered new ways to come alongside those who have lost all hope. Still, in the midst of faithfulness and creativity, so many of us feel overwhelmed.
In a recent article titled In the Grip of Overcome, Consultant Susan Beaumont writes, “Overwhelm is a spiritual condition. It results from striving for control and is rooted in an attitude of scarcity. Overwhelm stems from too many needs that we believe we alone can satisfy, uncertainty about our future, fear about our own capacity to succeed, and too much energy invested in particular outcomes.” Beaumont’s article prompted the following thoughts around what it means to be overwhelmed and how we can celebrate hope.
1. Let go and do the things you love to do.
How do you resist the impulse to “fix” everything that seems to be broken at this moment? Can you focus on what is most important for you to address in your work or personal life, let go of unrealistic demands placed on you by others, and make time for the things that give you life?
2. Become silent/still.
One of the most difficult tasks of being human is knowing when to step away from enslavement to your to-do list and focus on the invitation to “be still” and know that God is God. Taking time for meditation, prayer walking, and spiritual reading and writing connects us with God’s intentions for our life.
3. Set priorities.
In order to live fully and serve faithfully as Christ-followers, we must prayerfully discern how God is calling us to set parameters around our service. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:17 (CEB), “Nevertheless, each person should live the kind of life that the Lord assigned when he called each one. This is what I teach in all the churches.” With God’s leading and the encouragement of family and friends, we can all use our unique gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.
4. Speak truth to power and maintain inner peace.
Jesus understood the stress and pressure of everyday living, As he went about his ministry, Jesus no doubt experienced overwhelm, aware that he could not help everyone, nor please everyone. Yet Jesus was able to minister to the least, the last, and the lost by speaking truth to those in authority and maintaining an inner peace in the assurance of his belovedness.
5. Stay connected.
Right now Gary and I are spending a week in Arizona with my three siblings, their spouses, a cousin, a nephew’s wife, and one of our children. Every year at this time we gather together to play golf, hike, run, swim, eat, and maintain a connection with one another. We started this tradition after my parents died. They had traveled to Arizona for many years on vacation and were always thrilled when other family members joined them. We spent a wonderful evening together last night, reminiscing about my mom and dad, telling stories, and thanking God for the gift of family, even in the midst of so much “overwhelm”.
6. Acknowledge your need for control.
Beaumont writes, “Overwhelm is essentially about trying to be in control of things that you can’t control. Most of our control needs stem from the ego-self or false-self, the self that is invested in looking good. A desire to look competent, to avoid being blamed for bad outcomes, and to appear strong, good, and wise. Acknowledging this, we are free to shed the false self and step more firmly into thinking with our true self, the self that is grounded in God.”
7. Celebrate hope.
Is it any coincidence that hope is what will finally see us through? What do we do when we are feeling overwhelmed? And how do we balance the needs of our congregation with the necessity of caring for our own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health?
We’ve all had times in our lives of being overwhelmed. Yet, among all those experiences, these last two years of Covid-induced fear and isolation have been one of the most intense. We have had to reflect upon our personal spiritual practices and take inventory of our resources and means of coping. Through it all, I trust that we have been thrown back upon the root and source of all our strength and hope: our God revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who is the source of our faith, our hope, our love. Time and again, I’ve thought of this old and always-true hymn:
His oath, his covenant, his blood, Supports me in the ‘whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.