“Would you like to just be a participant in Bible study next year?” My co-leader’s words flooded me with both relief and shame. I was relieved because I found myself — as in many seasons of my life — hopelessly overcommitted. I was also painfully aware that I hadn’t been able to give my best effort to everything, including leading that Bible study. That’s where the shame came in.
This was the third time in a month where, seeing how thinly stretched I was, someone had offered me an out. My overcommitment had become obvious to others, and I was sensing a pattern.
How I got here
I did not set myself up for success. Last fall, along with leading a sixth-grade ministry with my husband one night a week, I also committed to help lead a Tuesday night women’s Bible study, participate in Moms Group, and be part of a Monday night small group.
I quickly realized the pace wasn’t sustainable along with work and my responsibilities at home. By January, I was burned out. I felt guilty if I wasn’t productive every waking moment. But when I looked at my full plate, I couldn’t figure out what to cut. Everything seemed important.
Steve Watters talks about the cost of overcommitment in his article “Clear Decks.” The nautical concept of “clear decks” is to be prepared for action by maintaining an uncluttered ship deck. Watters talked about how his grad school professor Dr. Hubert Morkin showed him how to apply this to his life.
“This is the tough part,” Morken explained. “The Bible talks about pruning away branches so that the tree will be more fruitful. Cutting hurts, but it brings growth.” He told me about a friend who had accumulated a lot of commitments to good things, but no longer had room in his life for new opportunities from God. “I told him, ‘You have to routinely evaluate your commitments to make sure your life isn’t cluttered with activities that are no longer fruitful.’ You have to be willing to cut those things off so that you can grow in other areas.”
I think this is the major cost of living in a state of overcommitment. In my case, others eventually made those “pruning” decisions for me (and I’m grateful they did). But as I look back on the whirlwind of this year, I recognize some things I have lost, such as the opportunity to invest in a relationship with my neighbor or be more engaged with my children. Also, without time for self-care, I haven’t always been able to give my best. I’m capable of more quality contributions when I’m not overextended.
Moving forward, I want to be more proactive about clearing my deck. If you’re in the same boat (get it?), here are two principles that may help you steer in a better direction.
Schedule first what matters most. I received this advice from author and family camp director Matt McGee. Each of us has values and priorities. For example, I desire to make a spiritual impact on the next generation, both in my home and through the church. As I evaluate the commitments in my life, I can easily see those that match up with this priority and those that don’t. Basing my schedule on my priorities can help me see commitments that don’t belong.
I can fill my calendar with “good things.” But the goal is to discern the best from the good and also leave some margin for opportunities that pop up, such as a divine appointment with someone who’s not on the schedule.
Don’t do someone else’s ministry. This applies specifically to our engagement with the good works God has prepared for us. Part of my overcommitment was fueled by a belief that if I didn’t do the thing, no one else would. But a mentor reminded me that before taking on a commitment, it’s wise to pause and ask if a service opportunity is meant for someone else.
During the past few months, this principle has helped me evaluate whether I need to be the one to jump in. God has made us a body for a reason, that we each may fulfill our individual functions, contributing to the whole. As I realize I can only do so many things with excellence and dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can release some good things to the care and oversight of others. I’m not going to lie — this doesn’t always feel good. It can feel like a demotion or failure. However, it clears the deck so I’m ready for the assignments God has for me.
Living in a place of overcommitment will always cost you. It may cost you your health, emotional well-being or relationships. It may show up in an inability to seize new opportunities that crop up.
Summer feels like a clean slate. Over the next three months, I plan to evaluate what commitments I’ll take on next fall. One thing I know is I want to clear the deck for all God has for me.
Copyright 2022 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.