by Collette Broady

Every so often, when the creeping anxiety of never completed to-do lists finally overwhelms me, I become convinced that my life is unmanageable. Perhaps you know the feeling: going to bed tired and waking up the same way, ready to snap at the next person who asks for a favor, resentful of all the responsibilities you shoulder, ready to make like Atlas and shrug the whole weight.

The last time it happened was in February. I was 10 months in to a split custody arrangement that has me single parenting four days a week and six months in on a year of an increased workload at one of my two churches. It didn’t help that my boyfriend and I had broken up just two weeks before Valentine’s Day, partly because we couldn’t find time to see each other. I knew that I couldn’t keep up the pace I was living, especially if I wanted someday to have time and energy for a long-term romantic relationship.

So, I sat down with my journal, my calendar, and a big box of tissues. I cried to God about how it was too much, how I couldn’t do it all, how I needed some direction on what to give up and who to give it to.

And in an uncharacteristically fast and orderly way, God answered my prayer. Within a week, I had a seven-step plan to get my life together. It’s too embarrassing to share all seven steps, but there were three that ended up making a huge difference: Establish a daily devotional habit. Become more compassionate with myself. Share responsibility for the success of the congregation with the members.

First things first

As I began to pray over my unmanageable life, I became aware of the reason I had agreed to take on so much responsibility in the first place. I was trying to fill an emptiness inside me with other people’s approval, trying to build my identity around being a good pastor, a devoted mother, a supportive friend, and a girlfriend.

I had entrusted the responsibility of my happiness to others, rather than giving it over to the Source of all joy. The establishment of a daily devotional habit, then, wasn’t just a means to quell my anxiety through meditation, but to ground myself in the One who loves and values me more than any other. God created me to be just as I am, to find my solace and satisfaction in her presence. God is the only one deep enough to fill my every need. As a pastor, I knew those things. I even preached them. But I needed to really believe them, to be convinced deep down by sitting daily in God’s radiance.

Grace is for me too

For nearly a year before the meltdown, I had been hearing people tell me I needed to go easier on myself. My therapist said it, as did my colleague at work, my parents, my friends and boyfriend. But I never really listened. I knew myself better than they did, after all, and how often I fail to live up to my own values and hopes. I finally understood that they were all right, and I was wrong, as I sat in spiritual direction that February. My director had asked me to imagine Jesus sitting beside me, speaking to me about myself. And as I tried to imagine Jesus, the voices of all those who had been telling me to extend as much grace to myself as I do to others issued forth from the mouth of Christ. It was as if I suddenly recognized that Jesus had been trying to speak through those who love me. I also realized that by arguing with them, I had basically been telling Jesus that he was wrong to love me like he does. Again, as a pastor, especially a Lutheran one, I should have known that God’s grace was for me, too. But again, knowing and believing were miles apart.

Taking (and giving up) responsibility

The more I gained clarity about my internal struggles, the easier it was to see how the externals needed to change as well. I realized that I had been taking responsibility for the entirety of my small congregation’s success, directing and managing the details of every major change we were attempting. I began to see that it was not only unhealthy to do that, but also unfaithful to my role as pastor. I am called to equip the saints of God for ministry, not to do it for them.
So, I began to make lists of all the things that I was doing at that church and to separate them out into the things that required my training and leadership, and those that could (and probably should) be done by someone else. Then, with fear and trembling, I presented those lists to my congregational leadership. Much to my surprise, they said they were aware of the problem and were just waiting for me to say out loud that I couldn’t do it all. And before we left that meeting, I had volunteers in place for nearly every ministry I wanted to hand off.

A life more than manageable

These months later, my seven-step plan is completed, and my life is so much more than manageable. The boundaries I developed out of desperation have led to a deeper awareness of God’s presence and love, a more vibrant ministry involving all of God’s people. My life is full to overflowing, not with anxiety, but with joy and gratefulness, with relationships from which I get at least as much as I give. And it is all because I learned to live within my own limits, to take responsibility for what is mine and let go of the rest.

Discussion questions:

1. Have there been times when your life felt unmanageable? What was helpful to you in those times?

2. Are you better at extending grace to others or to yourself? Why?

3. What do you wish you had more of or less of in your life? Have you talked to God about those desires?

Closing prayer:

God of grace, you love your people more than we can possibly understand, and we need you more than we are usually willing to admit. Find us in our desperate moments, and show us what we’re meant to be. Bring us to lives that are abundant with your presence, your joy, and your love. Amen.

Collette Broady lives in Mankato, Minn., with her son. She serves a partnership between a large, city congregation and a small, rural one.