A little over a year ago I was about to go into my busiest season of ministry and I was feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and spiritually dry. I knew I had to do something quick. My pace of life was completely unmanageable and unhealthy. We had three young kids, one of which was still nursing many times through the night, so I was operating on very little sleep. I had my full-time ministry at the parish. Then I was finding myself spending most of my days taking people to doctor’s appointments and other trips, including entire day trips to immigration court in Louisville. Sometimes when I would come home and tell Chris which day our baby and I had to leave at 5am to take another trip to Louisville he would say, why can’t you just say no? I couldn’t really answer.
I had gotten great advice over the years from my pastors, colleagues, leadership experts, etc. that I need to focus on what only I can do to be the most effective and make the biggest difference. I totally agreed. I would do better at setting boundaries for a while but then inevitably I would find myself saying yes to people when I really meant no. Haven’t we all experienced that? Before we know it, we’ve committed ourselves to something and we immediately regret it. That month I reached a breaking point and God intervened. I share my journey here in hopes of saving new ministers from the struggles I had and to help seasoned ministers know if you’re feeling like I did, there is hope!
Here’s what helped me:
I took a break: Chris encouraged me to take a mini-retreat, even if I had to bring the nursing baby but at least get away and spend some time in prayer. So, the baby and I went to St. Meinrad for a couple days.
I listened to trusted friends: A few months earlier I had started meeting monthly with some trusted colleagues to support each other in life, family and ministry. When I shared vulnerably about my spiritual and emotional dryness and they asked me, if you could do something just for yourself, what would you enjoy? That question cut to my core because I couldn’t think of a single thing. I had totally lost myself in what others wanted and needed from me.
I was open to the tough questions: I didn’t ignore these tough questions I couldn’t answer. I sat with them, I spent some time reflecting on them. One day, Chris sent me a reflection from Codependent No More and every single point was like a perfect description of what I was doing and feeling. For example: “Codependents may: find themselves saying yes when they mean no, doing things they don’t really want to be doing, doing more than their fair share of the work, and doing things other people are capable of doing for themselves.” Yes! There’s a name for what I have! Maybe there is a solution too!
I found support: I connected with a local 12-step group for codependency. I found other people who struggled with the same things. I started the process of self-discovery in the 12-steps. I heard in our readings that a gift of the program is: “We found that others were doing for themselves what we thought we had to do for them.” That was exactly what I needed!
I went deeper: I found out through working the 12 steps the reason why I could never get a handle on my crazy schedule. I had come to define myself by what I did. If I wasn’t the one who fixed everything for everyone at all times, then who was I? I had to do some soul-searching and prayer until I actually started to believe that God made me enough and loves me for me, not for what I do.
I changed my perspective: I had convinced myself that the Gospel called me to the sort of self-sacrificing that I was doing. But my recovery, prayer and trusted friends helped me to see that what I was doing was really about me wanting to play the role of rescuer. One colleague helped me to see that it’s actually more self-effacing to remove yourself from the equation. Jesus did not do everything alone – he chose 12 close followers to train and sent out 72 at one point. So I tried it. I started teaching the Spanish-speaking parishioners I was helping how to communicate directly with the doctor’s offices and ask for phone interpreters. I started taking myself out of the middle whenever I could. I encouraged and taught and mentored. It was amazing! All of a sudden, my phone was no longer ringing off the hook every two minutes, people really were doing for themselves what I thought I had to do for them!
Do you find yourself saying yes when you mean no? I had a colleague share with me the other day that she could not take someone to their doctor appointment and it got her so stressed out. She knew the kids really needed to get to a doctor so she spent the entire day trying to find a ride for them. Right before the appointment time she called the woman back, deflated and disappointed to tell her she had failed. Guess where the woman was? In the doctor’s office! Her husband had come home early to work to take her!
In ministry we so often feel that we have to respond to every request or perceived need that comes our way. It’s hard to feel that we “deserve” to take care of ourselves.
For me, I could not set healthy boundaries until I got to the root of the problem: my faulty beliefs about myself and my identity. When I started letting Jesus heal those wounds of never feeling enough, it got better! I am much more confident in saying no when I need to which has given me the freedom to say yes to the things that only I can do – nourish my relationship with God, take care of my health, do the ministry where my gifts are best used and that I am responsible for, raising my children and sharing life with my husband.
God our loving Father created you and me exactly as we are, and we are enough in Him. May he give each of us the grace to believe that and minister out of that security.
Have you struggled with setting healthy boundaries in ministry? Share things that have helped you in the comment section!