Below is an interview with Associate Chaplain of the United Methodist Protestant Community at American University (and my husband), David Finnegan-Hosey, on the fidelity of limits.
This interview was inspired by real life circumstances. David and I were married in September, by November we had already moved and started three new jobs each. With this rapid onslaught of life transitions came stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and depression. When we finally came to terms with our limitations things began to change. We’re now just starting to have a rhythm to our lives that feels sustainable. Together and individually we have taken time to reflect on our priorities and created space for unstructured time to play and rest. David, in particular, has done a lot of thinking about this topic. And after many conversations about what led us to a breaking point, I wanted to share some of his thoughts with you. While we speak from a particular context, we hope some of this will resonate with you and set you on a path towards making better choices with how you expend your energies.
Leigh: Why do we need limits?
David: Well, we’re human. I think we have limits as humans. I know that sounds obvious, but because we all have them it is important we be open about them. I feel like we [progressive ministry types] throw around a lot of theological buzz words, like “incarnation” or “embodied,” but embodied means limited, contingent, flawed… So to say we are embodied or that we live incarnationally implies that we are limited.
Leigh: How do you see ministry leaders over extending themselves?
David: What I tend to do is say “yes” to everything until the point where I say “no” to everything. Henri Nouwen makes the distinction between what is urgent versus what is essential. We often get caught up with what feels urgent without being able to discern what is essential.
Leigh: Why do you think this is such a difficult concept to internalize?
David: Addiction. I think busyness is an addiction. We know it is bad for us but it gives us a buzz, and its something you cant do just a little of, and if you put it down what else are you going to do?
Leigh: What has been your experience with bumping up against limitations?
David: Ha! Well, I went to the hospital a bunch of times [in 2011] so… I mean I have bipolar disorder which, among other things, involves a certain level of mood instability that has to be managed, including having a support network. But it’s easy to forget that I have a limitation because it’s not a visible limit. And I think that’s true of a lot of out limits, if we can’t see them they’re easy to forget about.
Leigh: Do you think there is more pressure on people who undertake ministry as a profession?
David: Yeah, but I think it’s kind of a two-way street. On the one hand, people tend to project stuff onto pastors. But on the other hand, I think people who take on this profession want to see ourselves as useful and able to help. Henri Nowen says the greatest temptation for Christian leaders is to be relevant. So we take in what people project onto us and then we embody it. I don’t know what comes first, both work together… Then you end up with these two voices: one says you have to be and do everything. The other voice says you are worthless, that you can’t do anything right. They seem like opposites but they are really the same thing, trying to isolate you and cut you off from community. Whereas the good news is that we are all called into ministry exactly as the limited, contingent humans we are, not as anything else.
Different people believe different things about baptism, but in the Methodist tradition we are all ministers by way of baptism. One of my favorite quotes from William Placher is that the test for entrance into the Christian community is baptism and any infant can do it! In other words, there are no qualifiers. The principal test for entrance is exactly your dependence and need for the community, and you are minister by virtue of that. The training we [professional ministers] do sets us up to take on certain roles and types of ministry, but only in a very limited way as it turns out.
Leigh: Is there a difference between how people who identify as male experience the consequences of constant overwork, versus female identifying persons?
David: I think there are some small differences. Brene Brown says that women experience shame as this complex web whereas men tend to describe it as a narrow box. For women it’s about looking like you have it all together, for men it’s about not looking weak. But it seems to play out in similar ways. In either case I think it is a sort of unwillingness to admit we need help or that we can’t do it alone.
Leigh: Do you think there is a tradition or model that seems to help people set healthy limits and boundaries more than others?
David: Not a tradition in the sense of a denomination or group, but I think the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer stands out. It’s so interesting how we all know that, but have a hard time accepting it. You know? We all know we ought to spend more time in contemplative prayer but we struggle to set aside space and time to do it. It would be interesting to look at job descriptions for ministry professionals and see how many mandate contemplative prayer.
I’ll tell you two stories: When I was going over my learning goals for my first ministry internship I set a goal for myself to keep a sabbath. Interestingly, one of my mentors said, “That’s not really a learning goal, that’s just a thing you need to do on your own.” But why not? Why shouldn’t that be learning goal number one?
Another story is from an interview I had to discuss the possibility of being ordained. Because I have a mental illness a lot of the questions this group had for me were about that, i.e. what doctors do you see? What is your care plan? Are you seeing a counselor? etc. Finally one of the people on the committee —a lay person— said to me, “Do you pray?” She said it in a way that reminded everyone in the room that this is why we are here. Do we ask that of our leaders? And the thing about prayer is it’s not a measurable thing. I suppose you could measure how many hours you spend in prayer, but it’s not a budget or a number of people in the building. Prayer doesn’t make for a good metric.
Leigh: What are the consequences of ignoring this practice?
David: I think there are obvious ones, such as fatigue, burn out, drop outs…. And then there are the stories you hear about people turning to addictions or affairs. But deeper than that it’s like: what are we about? What are we about as the Christian community? I often hear people talk about spiritual practices as breaks from the hard work of ministry. But the work of ministry is the spiritual practices. Abiding is the work of the church — that’s what we are about. We are branches of the vine bearing fruit, not farmers.
Leigh: Who do you think models a prayerful pattern of life in the scriptures?
David: Jesus. Next question.
Just kidding, but here’s the thing: Jesus gets killed, but not at the first opportunity. He escapes death on any number of occasions before he is killed. I think it is [Quaker mystic] Thomas Kelly who says you cannot die on every cross, nor are you called to. I think it’s easy for Christian ministers to think they need to die on a cross, but Jesus doesn’t run off looking for the cross; he is who he is and the cross is just a natural consequence of living as he did.
Another story that comes to mind is in Acts 17, where Paul and Timothy are in Thessalonica. They stay at the home of a guy named Jason, who is later dragged before city council for harboring radicals. The authorities accuse him of harboring people “who have been turning the world upside down…” He’s called out for his participation in this radical act, but all he did was host some couch surfers.
As followers of Jesus we sometimes set out to be the heroes of the story, but what if I’m not the hero, what if Im just a Jason? If I’m not careful I can easily get sucked into this really competitive James and John thing, where I want to be at the right hand of Jesus even if it means dying. But Jesus hasn’t necessarily asked me to die on that particular cross. It might be, like Jason, something much simpler. To be clear, I don’t think the culture of the Bible parallels the culture of busyness we have today. I don’t think the issues the disciples faced are like those of late modern capitalism.
Then there’s the inequality of busyness. Justo Gonzalez tells this story of going to a Church made up of day laborers. The scripture for that day was the 10 Commandments. In the sermon the pastor referenced the command to work six days but refrain from work on the seventh, the Sabbath. He asked the congregation to raise their hands if they had worked 6 days that week. No hands went up. Five days that week? No hands went up. Four days, a few hands. Three days, a few more hands. Clearly these people were eager to work but had been denied the opportunity to work. The pastor asked, “what does it say that in this society we cannot follow the law of God?” Under capitalism they have the opposite problem. Their problem is wanting to work and no one will give them work. So the gospel speaks different things into different contexts. It has something to say to in the 1st century and it has something to say in different contexts now.
In one of Paul’s letters he says “…those who don’t work don’t eat.” Today I think he would tell us, remember you are just working to eat. We have to let other people have a share of the work.
Leigh: Wait, are you saying our worth isn’t wrapped up in what we accomplish??? What is our worth wrapped up in then?
David: Our status as the beloved of God. In the gospel there is a key moment when Jesus says, “Who do you think I am?” Peter says messiah, the anointed one. And the way modern Christians read this story is that Peter was right. Way to go, Peter. But right away Jesus is like, “I’m gonna suffer and die and maybe don’t tell people that.” Peter says “Nahhh, Jesus, your gonna be great, your gonna do all these great things,” and suddenly Jesus calls him Satan! And then in the next chapter Jesus is transfigured and God says, “This is my beloved son.” So what is important for Peter is that Jesus is this Messiah and he is going to do all this great stuff. What God says is, “This is someone I love very much.” Peter is continually disappointed by this right up to the point where he denies Jesus. He can’t wrap his head around the fact that it’s more important that God loves Jesus than what Jesus can succeed at doing.
Leigh: So do you think there is something sacred about being bored?
David: Yeah… yes I do. Because otherwise there is no space in our day to be interrupted. If everything we do is of equal importance and there is no room for distraction, when do we have time to be interrupted? I think God interrupts and God allows for interruption.
Leigh: What’s the difference between being bored and being idle?
David: Hm. I’ll tell you what the difference is for me. I don’t know if this is true for all people, but when I’m idle I am checking Facebook. Idleness stops be from being aware of what’s going; It’s being distracted. Being bored isn’t the point, being mindful is the point. And if we are mindful, we are able to be aware of what is the essential thing that is going on and calling out to be done, versus my tendency to seek entertainment or to procrastinate.
Leigh: :::Burp:: Woah, sorry.
David: Krista Tippett doesn’t do that!
Leigh: My bad… Anyway, I have a question I want to ask you. Actually, it’s a question I want to ask everybody now. I heard an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber where she talks about her favorite class in seminary, which (unsurprisingly) was a homiletics class. She says the teacher was the “anti-Nadia,” an older white conservative guy with a very black and white understanding of Christianity. But, she says, his was her favorite class because when he preached the gospel you felt like something was at risk. So, when it comes to the gospel, what’s at risk?
David: What’s at risk… Our very ability to have a relationship with reality. Because, yeah — Satan is a liar.
I mean if this is true; if God created the world out God’s love; if Jesus comes to us to show us what God’s love looks like in the flesh; if God’s vulnerability and solidarity wins out even over death, but without firing a shot, then everything we walk around believing and saying and acting on is a fundamental part of reality. So what’s to lose is the universe. We have eveyrhting to lose. And these super high stakes is why grace is so important. Because at the very same time I say “What’s to lose is everything,” God says, “Here, you can have it, it’s free.” It’s the highest stake game in the world, but you can’t lose if you just play it.
Leigh: It’s rigged.
David: Yeah… yeah… In everyone’s favor.
To read more from David, visit his blog: Foolish Hosey