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Sunday, September 10, 2006
On Limitation, Incarnation, Overcommitment, Creativity, Burnout and Boundaries
OK-- I'm back. . . . . I think.

I've been reflecting this summer and beyond about why people, particularly people in ministry, over commit. I do it. Don't you? It leads me to think a lot about the whole notion of "boundaries" and "self-care" and the entire industry built up around such things.

We've all done it haven't we. . . . . said yes to one or ten too many good things. Inevitably, it leads to the stress-filled, margin-less condition of life known as overcommitment syndrome. We do it for good and bad reasons. On the positive, we tend to over commit in serving others because the needs are just so astronomically massive. There are simply five oceans of human need out there and every need connects to a face, a real person, a priceless treasure whose potential screams at us to be released in real life. But this leads us into the main problem we have of failing to recognize our limitations.

Theologically speaking, we are getting into the big idea of Incarnation-- that God inhabits human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to save the World. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Incarnation is its limitation. Did you ever consider that God severely limited himself in becoming a person. Sure, we see elements of demonstrated OMNIscience, OMNIpotence, and OMNIpresence in the life and work of Jesus, but nothing like the OMNI would suggest. He was a single, obscure, poor, small town, prophet-preacher, with a marginal following in a map-dot nation for a few years. God could have chosen many more less limited frames to inhabit. It's also fascinating that God chose a quite limited era in terms of human history in that it was a decidedly unmechanistic, non-technological age.

So what does this have to do with overcommitment? Everything, for in overcommitting ourselves we defy the incarnation. We overestimate our ability and underestimate our limitation. The irony hiding behind this reality is pride. What if instead we overestimated our limitation and underestimated our ability? While this feels like humility, it is actually pride in sheep's cothing ala false humility. I think true humility is the divinely empowered accurate estimation of both abilities and limitations. True humility is the presence of Christ. Think about Philippians 2:5-11, perhaps the first great hymn to Christ, recounting the journey of one who had no limitations who took on seeming total limitation. But look what happens.

The amazing reality of the Incarnation is that in accepting its limitation the limitation is mysteriously and miraculously transcended. Through the gift of embracing limited ability, God gives a mysterious unlimited capacity.

Think through the story of the loaves and the fishes. Apparent limited ability becomes mysterious unlimited capacity. It is, in parable form, the very story of Jesus Christ. And this becomes the story of Christ in us. Now consider the Bread and the Cup.

This becomes the story of Incarnation and creativity. I recognize I'm not connecting all the dots here, but here's why I think this idea of limitation is so important. When we come to grips with our own limitation in the face of unlimited need something happens deep inside of us. We finally cease to believe so much in ourselves and begin to believe in God. When we begin to believe in God, rest becomes possible. Rest is the presence of margins. Think margins-- like the literal white space surrounding a page of text. The margins-- the white space-- this is the place of creativity. This is the place where one doodles the design of the next good thing in life. The margins of life are where creativity happens.

Concluding. And so Rest, and consequently margins and subsequently creativity are only possible for those who have not over committed themselves. Doesn't this help us understand burnout. Burnout isn't so much the inescapable presence of tiredness but the drudging absence of creativity.

Still with me? See where I'm going now with the boundaries and self-care approach to ministry? Lets think also about how technology counterfeits unlimited capacity thereby defying incarnation. . . . . more to come.
posted by John David Walt | at 9/10/2006 06:58:00 PM



Blogger DGH said...

Congrats! This blog post will become a Devo! (If that is OK with you! Thank you!) God bles syou and yes...but the ironic thing about technology, is that you are using it (techonology) right now to prove the point of how it "counterfeits unlimited capacity thereby defying incarnation", bu tin reality it is being used currently to do just the opposite in my life and those whom read this post...

Love ya!

10:41 PM EDT  
Blogger Omar said...

This would be a great text to add to any syllabus I have recieved while here at Asbury.

9:58 AM EDT  
Anonymous JP said...

Welcome Back JD! If you haven't, take a gander at Richard Swenson's book called Margins - one of the best books I've ever read. Really.

We overcommit because we confuse the fact that there are so many needs with the lie that we have to meet all the needs or live up to every person's expectations. Jesus didn't come to meet our expectations (warrior king) or really our needs (hunger, blindness, death, etc still are around, so He didn't wipe them out while He was here). He came to fulfill His purpose.

Ministers in particular are susceptible to the temptation that if we don't care for everyone, or try to meet every need presented, we are failing God, or what have you.

Maybe I just got lucky but one of my final "Theology of Ministry" assignments was to survey area pastors about their sabbath and vacation time (self-care). Regardless of the size of the church or denomination, or age of the pastor. Every single one said they didn't really take a sabbath, and vacations sometimes were co-joined with a work-related seminar. They all worked at least 55 hours a week, some 65-70 a week.
One said this, "If I had four full time staff and we all worked 80 hours a week, there would still be needs that needed to be met."

That stuck with me. This may seem naive or just too simple, but out of that experience I came away with this nugget: I Can Only Do What I Can Do Today.

I can't meet every need, nor do I have to, so I can be at peace with whatever I Did do/experience/minister in today because Nothing can separate me from God's love in Christ Jesus.
Well, that's my contribution to this conversation. Hope it was helpful!

12:29 PM EDT  
Blogger claude said...


thanks....from the fulltime/parttime youth director
dumas fumc

talk at you later

10:04 PM EDT  
Blogger eli said...

so many ways i want to say "amen," jd. but here are the quick shots.

one of my standard favorite questions to ask people is, "what is the best thing about being (fill in person's name)?" When asked the question in return I say, "knowing my weaknesses and incapabilities and not being condemned by them, but finding joy in God's acceptance despite them." I think this speaks to limitations.

second, jesus says, "I do nothing except what the father tells me to do." don't think jesus didn't see other worthwhile things to do. overstepping our limitations is an offense to calling. creativity often dies, or worse yet is perverted, when it is in our hands and not the father's.

1:21 AM EDT  
Blogger Amie Lou said...

Okay - this is more just comment love than anything. I did read your post but I am not much past the digesting stage. It has also been great to see you around campus again ;)


6:39 AM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

good conversation FARMStrongers--- keep it flowing. dg-- there is a way that technology can participate with the movement of the Kingdom--- and there is a way that it can counterfeit it. the trick is discerning the difference. i.e. turn these stones into bread. . . . .

we've got to talk some more about sabbath v. self care. i think they are different things entirely. more on that later. will be pondering the "i can only do what i can do today" thought. a deep one.

and claude rector--- my first friend-- next door neighbor from Dumas Arkansas-- live on FARMStrong--- i'm blown away. thanks claude.

i do only what is see my Father doing. . . . . great interjection-- this also says something about the notion of doing ministry from a context of deep friendship and not so much as a lone ranger. jesus did nothing by himself-- nothing. the fruit of the kingdom sprang forth from his relationship-- i argue a friendship-- with his Abba.

10:34 AM EDT  
Blogger Greg Arthur said...


That is helpful insight, especially wrapping up our struggles with the incarnation. I will chew on that for a while, because the question is how far do we take Christ' Incarnational ministry model as our own? Should we intentionally limit the scope of our ministries, the size of our churches, and our personal circle of influence. In some ways I would say yes, in some ways, it would seem no. But the point is well taken, less is often more. Especially when it comes to pride and commitments.


5:05 PM EDT  
Blogger b.h. swan said...

we need more poetry JD.

11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jamey said...

The other day I was driving out to a meeting across town in an already overpacked day when I heard the whisper of the Spirit showing me the unnecessity of my action. I turned around and picked my son Ethan up and treated him to lunch (it was his 4th birthday). I was going across town to invite some people to a seeker discussion group and apparently they weren't going to come anyway. That same day God connected me with someone who would in fact come, through no effort of my own the ministry work is done better than I could have done it myself. The joy of working in sync with the Spirit (and still having time to hang with the fam).

12:24 AM EDT  
Blogger DGH said...

"and there is a way that it can counterfeit it"

Yep I agree...just giving a little balence to the earlier post, ;)

"jesus did nothing by himself-- nothing. the fruit of the kingdom sprang forth from his relationship-- i argue a friendship-- with his Abba."

And his relationships with his disciples...and his friends that were not even Jewsih or Christian. Let me know if I am wrong...but I see his relationship with Daddy is primary...bt he intentionally allowed that relationship to flow through his surrounding community.

11:09 PM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

dg-- think through jesus prayer in john 17 and the way this is enacted in his disciples

my prayer, abba, is that all of them would be one-- just as you are in me and i am in you. may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

this prayer is for a deeply abiding mystical-missional union that is not compartmentalizable. the love of God and neighbor-- the friendship with God and others-- is one seamless garment.

what if instead of saying primary-- which implies a hierarchical list, we defined things more in terms of a center and a circumference. the center, in fact, defines the circumference. the list approach just defies reality doesn't it-- like saying I am going to put God first, family second and church third. in my judgment, that's an insane, unworkable lie that we have all bought into at some level.

the mystery opens up as we together approach the center--- the mission unfolds as the circumference ever widens in movemental friendship. just thinking aloud here. thanks for pushing me dg. you're a good theologian.

10:04 AM EDT  
Blogger Dan said...

JD- to someone who is just starting out at ATS and has one fear (the topic of this post), I find your thoughts refreshing and hopeful for me. I look forward to more of your posts in the future (and your guidance on campus).

4:41 PM EDT  

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