Oh, Right, Limits…

I hit the field with all the enthusiasm of a young career cross-cultural worker landing in an office desperate for reinforcements. My role was a good fit, and I immediately began training for my new responsibilities. And then a few more new responsibilities. And then a few more.

Within two years I learned that my specialty was picking up the job that was in shambles and getting it into some semblance of order. That meant I could pass it on to someone else and start cleaning up the next mess.

In my third year I started trying to do a full-time job I wasn’t qualified for with 25% of my time. For eighteen months straight. Because no one else could. If you had asked me if I could really do that, I would have agreed that it was impossible. But somehow the responsibility snuck up on me. A vacancy on the team, an unexpected “promotion”, a few missed deadlines that spilled into each other. By then a lot of mission time—and money—was already sunk into the project. I wanted to save it. I eventually settled for a more realistic but far more destructive goal that if the project failed no one could ever say it was my fault. It did, and it wasn’t. But I burned out in the process and discovered too late the degree to which I had risked my future on the field. Oh, right, limits…

I hadn’t respected my limits. I didn’t know what they were, and I didn’t think I needed to know. I focused on the output—a successful project—and kept trying to achieve it even as circumstances changed to demand more and more inputs—time and energy.

God put limits on us for two reasons—to protect us and to remind us that we’re not Him. He is infinite, we are finite. We have limits, He does not. And like a loving Father, He does not always rescue us from the consequences of ignoring those limits.

As I walked through a long and discouraging recovery from burnout, the Lord walked with me. He reminded me that, although I have limits, His love does not. In my unexpected, magnified and prolonged weakness, His grace was enough.

By His amazing grace, I returned to the field on schedule. I have learned a few tricks about limits—and had to unlearn a few. My new ideal is to focus on the inputs—limiting myself to the time and energy I can consistently invest in the work—and let the Lord take care of the outputs. Some days I manage that; some days I still get caught up in meeting certain goals at any cost and find I have overextended myself. But I am much quicker to recognize untenable situations and make the changes I need in order to return to working within healthy limits.

Recently a friend asked how I was and what I was doing to take care of myself. (We all need friends like her!) I responded that I am back to skating on the edge of burnout. Not because I particularly want to risk going there again, but because I don’t know any other approach than trying to do as much of the work as I can reasonably do, and I have problems with the definition of “reasonably”. Oh, right, limits…

But I am making some good choices. I have made exercise a priority… most weeks. I have learned to carve out time—sometimes even whole weekends—that I do not expect or allow myself to work. I bounce back and forth between creative, restorative rest and complete escapism. I have been honest with friends and family about the challenges, and they are praying for me.

It isn’t easy to live and work within limits, especially in the context of seemingly limitless needs. Ultimately it means trusting God with the big (infinite!) picture and stewarding the time and energy He gave us in a way that preserves our ability to contribute long-term. Because only when we live within those limits can we keep from trading His easy yoke for a burden He never meant for us to carry.

Now if only we can remember that on Monday!

What’s been your experience with taking on more than you could bear?

8 Comments

  1. Julie November 5, 2015

    I think that for singles sometimes it can be harder to recognize burnout coming because we don’t always have someone who watches our personal life closely enough to notice what we’re doing or not doing and warn us. (Now that I am married I’ve realized that that’s one helpful thing about having a husband.) One year when I was single I had a lot of extra responsibility at work and suddenly found myself coordinating the church Christmas program as well and really got very close to burning out. I had to tell the church leaders that I couldn’t do as much after Christmas, which was hard for me. I’ve also moved a lot in recent years, and have found that sometimes one of the best aspects of moving is a chance to reset the expectations on me and choose what I will or will not take on in the new season I’m entering.

    PS- I also wrote a post about limitations and how I’m realizing that they often are used by God to direct the course of our lives into what He will have us do. I’m not sure how to post it / make it track back to VA but here’s the link: http://www.simplicityandpurity.blogspot.com/2015/10/accepting-limitations.html

  2. Krista B November 5, 2015

    Julie, thanks for your comment. My previous post for VA was about some of the unique aspects of serving single. You are right that–married or single–it is SO important to have someone who will speak into our lives. I am grateful that the Lord gave me a friend and mentor who used her previous burnout experience to help me acknowledge and mitigate mine. Praying that you find (and keep!) a fulfilling balance in your current season.

  3. Lauren Pinkston November 5, 2015

    I knew when I saw this title, your post was for me. Great words! Desperately trying to create margin in my life as I pick up tasks that need to be done…

    1. Krista B November 5, 2015

      So glad it resonated with you. If you’ve recognized your desperate need for margin, you’re halfway there! The second half is figuring out how to carve it out and keep it, which is not easy. Blessings as you work through that process.

  4. Kari November 5, 2015

    Krista,

    Thanks for this. It is always so encouraging to realize you aren’t the only one! As someone who’s similar mistakes have lead me to a current state of burn-out, what advice do you have for the “long and discouraging recovery”. What did that process look like for you? What things promoted healing?

    – Kari

  5. Krista B November 5, 2015

    Kari, I imagine that burnout recovery is like a favorite chili–someone else’s recipe may not work for you, but a lot of the ingredients would be the same. For me the key “ingredients” were learning to rest, practical love/pampering by my family and home church, resources and support from my organization, reduced responsibility, physical exercise, enjoying the outdoors, and slow-paced spiritual renewal. With, of course, many missteps, mistakes and corrections along the way. You are not alone. Praying for peace and patience as you walk through this recovery.

  6. Monica F November 6, 2015

    How incredibly timely this post was for me!  Thank you!  At the end of every paragraph I was saying, “yep, that was me.  Yes.  Uh-huh. Yep!”  Having just been through a much needed sabbatical I can already feel myself wading out toward the ‘deep end’ because I’m just so used to doing everything, and going hard.  I need to ‘catch up’, or take on what no one else will.  Lately, I’ve been working so hard at protecting my time and taking care of me… I can’t let that slip away and get back into my old habits.  Your post helped me feel not alone, and I could totally resonate with it.  I wonder if we work for the same org- ha ha!

    1. Krista B November 7, 2015

      Monica, so happy that the post was timely for you. And glad to hear you got a much-needed sabbatical and a chance to “reset” some old habits. Praying for wisdom and encouragement for you in that process.

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