Editor’s note: This reflection is adapted from Rahberg’s book, “Enduring Ministry: Toward a Lifetime of Christian Leadership.”
It took less than three minutes for a summer storm to tear through my family’s farm in Southeast Minnesota, damaging at least 50 trees.
I was there, waiting for the winds and crashing to stop, along with a dozen young people and two other adults who had arrived for a retreat not 15 minutes before.
I, for one, was shot through with fear that the children in our care might be hurt. I could not think of a way to keep them safe. I could not tell them with certainty how long the storm would last, or with honesty that everything was fine. At the same time, I was saddened by the destruction of our precious trees.
What the adults could do, and what the children most needed us to do, was lead. We gathered the children in the main room, then calmed our voices to answer their nervous questions. We explained that the power would likely go out. After the storm began to lessen and the power did go out, we set to the adventure of preparing tacos by flashlight.
We adults -- like the children -- were encountering our limits, those places where we are overcome with feelings like fear and sadness, those moments in which we must discern whether to reach beyond or to accept the end of our known capacities.
When we face the limits of our strength or patience, we come to know more fully the boundaries of what we can easily do and be. Perhaps a storm has shaken our sense of safety, or ambiguity has pressed against our certainties, or weariness has revealed that we have been striving for too long.
Part of effective Christian leadership is learning when to test and when to accept our own limitations. This encourages those around us to do the same.
Respond to life honestly
Circumstances that take us to the edge of our known selves also push us to choose how we respond.
Christian leaders who are always powering through may miss a gentle invitation from the Spirit. We are vulnerable when we’re near the end of our capacities, and this may help us accept reality with greater humility.
Sometimes becoming more honest about our limits is quite straightforward, such as in this story from the early Christian tradition:
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man then said, “Shoot another,” and he did so. Then the old man said, “Shoot yet again,” and the hunter replied, “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then the old man said to him, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” (Benedicta Ward, trans., “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” Cistercian, 1984)
As a spiritual director, I hear Christian leaders express similar needs. Some tell me their vacations were not quite as restful as they had hoped; others, facing a busy season, say they are weary even before the rush begins.
As these limits become visible to us, what healing is the Spirit wanting to work in our lives? How do we stop before we break our bows?
We learn to treat our limits as close friends:
Start with a sense of friendship. Too often, we view limits simply as obstacles or inconveniences to overcome. Instead, it’s important to acknowledge that they are real and basic measures of our humanness that will be our lifelong companions.
Practice patience. Acknowledge a limit you are facing and welcome it. Begin the friendship today with a sense of gentleness, patience and lovingkindness.
Listen closely. What wisdom is offered by encountering this particular limit at this particular time?
Speak with integrity. Be as honest with yourself as possible, because it is at this intersection of listening and speaking that we discern our most faithful steps forward. Ask yourself: Should I reach beyond or accept the limit before me?
Anticipate a long friendship. The ease and transparency of deep friendship emerges only over many encounters. There will be times to celebrate and times to forgive. Trust that each encounter nurtures the bond.
Exercise loyalty. This friendship with your limits has meaning for daily life, because it affects the choices you make. Do not leave this friendship to rare moments of silent retreat, but walk each day with this companion in full light.
I continue to grow in friendship with my own limits since that summer storm.
For months, I have kept working slowly and carefully to remove hanging and fallen trees. I slip away from normal duties to the tree farm, where I find anew exercise and fresh air -- and many encounters with my limits.
Some of the tangles are simply too dangerous for me to approach with a chainsaw. A downed tree here or there reminds me of the sadness I still have or the fear and helplessness I will not always be able to punch through. The cleanup will take years.
So I work and pray, and sometimes I get tired and frustrated. And yet chipping away at an overwhelming project helps teach me humility. At the end of every tiring day, I have to let go of the work that is not yet done. I have to find a way to celebrate whatever small thing was accomplished that day by grace and good faith.
This helps me discern in other areas of my life when to reach beyond and when to accept my limits, as the person God is calling me to be. All of this is shaping the vision of Christian leadership that I take back to my home, my workplace and my friendships.
I would not wish for anyone to endure a violent storm. But I do pray that you too may find a way to befriend your limits for the sake of ministry.
Questions to consider
For further reflection
Should you like to start befriending your limits on a more practical level, I suggest trying one or more of these exercises:
- Pray with 2 Corinthians 12:9.
- Imagine a time when you were challenged at the edge of your comfort zone. What behaviors or circumstances helped you then that may also be relevant now?
- Choose a story from your life about facing some limitation. Write or retell the story with a compassionate narrator. What does the narrator observe in you, and how do you notice yourself responding?
- Begin experimenting with a self-care protocol. What are three steps that, if taken regularly, would help you care for your spiritual bow? Which one is essential and could begin today?