Learning to say no

At least once each year, I will reach a state of mental exhaustion, where I am running largely on fumes and stubbornness. I last felt that way in mid-October. I was serving as a staff member at a men’s conference in Kentucky and I had nothing left to give. I was grateful for the leadership; a few of them checked in with me, encouraging me to make sure to care for myself.

Admittedly, these times are largely the result of my own choices. In October, I chose to go to Kentucky two weeks after returning from Nashville, with intermingled ministry work in between. I choose busyness, increasingly aware of its toll. I love my day job. I work as a clinical neuropsychologist, so I spend my days helping people unravel why they think, feel, and act the way they do. I help them to understand their brains so that these things begin to make sense. But I am also a pastor, what some call a “bi-vocational” or “tentmaking” pastor. I felt called to this work before I had ever even heard the term “neuropsychology.” I serve my church with joy. Though working with the embodied brain is a remarkably unique and fulfilling career, it cannot hold a candle to helping people to know Jesus better. I am privileged to preach frequently, every few weeks on average. I just finished four weeks in the pulpit, first teaching on “daily rhythms” and then preaching one of my favorite series ever (truth-goodness-beauty). But just as neuropsychology involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work, so too does pastoring. There is preaching, of course, but also sermon preparation, spiritual direction, meetings, and prayer for the congregation.

I was reflecting with my wife this morning that each of the last four days, I have been out of the house by 6:00AM or shortly thereafter, and I am typically home by 5:00. I do not envy my medical colleagues who must do evening and weekend call. However, this time of the year, evenings are often occupied as well–high school group, life group, leadership training, and Friday church when we decide to go. Certain weeks, it’s hard to catch my breath.

Having said all that, I am increasingly recognizing how elements of my personality contribute to these patterns. I am a 2 on the enneagram, which suggests that I like to help. At its best I can be encouraging, giving, and other-centered in a way that is not self-damaging. However, I can also have a hard time saying no to people. I thrive on needing to be needed. I am a people-pleaser. When attending to the needs of others without caring for one’s own needs, a host of difficulties may arise from bitterness to physical illness. I am also sensitive to the potential effect upon family, the people lest likely to express their desire for time with me.

As I continue to learn about myself, I recognize that one of the most important spiritual disciplines I could practice would be learning to say “no,” to recognize that I do not have to be…even cannot be…all things to all people. Time is finite. If I fail to set limits if I do not prioritize my commitments, if I do not learn to say no, I fear the damage will not be limited to me alone.

Why do I share this? Perhaps in hopes that you will pray for me. Perhaps in offering me grace when I say to no to you. Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement, to myself principally, that I too am finite.

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