A new example of leadership: Learning to say “no”

Photo by Dahiana Waszaj on Unsplash

Ever since I was little, I had an idea of who a pastor was supposed to be. I had a few examples in my life growing up and, while they were good role models, they also taught me what not to do. As my mom says, “there are good examples of what to do and good examples of what not to do.”

One of the things these pastors did well was to be there for their people. They were present in everything. They would show up to youth events; They would feed us; They would send birthday cards; They would pray with you as you waited for surgery at the hospital. They were also the ones to show up with casseroles and ask you how you were doing. Their families were also involved in every aspect of church life.

This is what I thought it meant to be a pastor. That you pour your heart and soul into those around you. And while I still believe this, I also know that it is only one side of the story. When I entered into ministry, I did what I thought was best. I poured my time, my energy, my life into my call. I was there for every little thing.

It didn’t matter the hours I had already had at the office that week or the hours left in the week, I would be there in a second if someone asked whether that was going to choir concerts, spending weekends traveling between three sporting events, delivering a late-night pizza to feed the sorority members, or showing up to the hospital at 2 a.m. for a student. It didn’t matter, I would be there.

And then the fall of 2019 hit, and I couldn’t be there much like I was. I began to feel exhausted all the time. I was running on coffee fumes and still seemed like I was just spinning my wheels but not actually accomplishing anything. And then, my body told me what my mind had for a long time. It was time to slow down. Mainly because I had some heart issues, sparked by lack of sleep and stress. Also, because I was too tired to enjoy life in ministry like I used to.

Through all the tests and results, I thought I would be able to still do all that I wanted to do, but that became a dream. I learned that I needed to slow down and that I needed to change some things about who I was and how I operated. I began slowly to say no to things. I began to take time away. I began to set up boundaries that might not have been there before. Was it easy? No! Was it necessary? Absolutely!

And while I was living into this new reality about myself and the change it would have on my ministry, a global pandemic began. This continued to force me to make those decisions about what to do or not do, of what to say “yes” or “no” to, of ways to be as stress-free as I can be. It was something that we were all learning together.

In time, it became clear to me that I was also modeling what a healthy leader might look like. My students witnessed this transformation — they experienced the awkward boundary settings; They learned that their chaplain could say no to them; They learned that I would not always answer their text on the weekend right away.

From my failure to care for myself, my students learned some valuable lessons. They began to set boundaries. They worked on being in tune with their bodies and health. They practiced saying “no” to things and choosing the things that gave them joy.

I would never have thought that a global pandemic and a stress-induced health issue would cause me to evaluate my ministry, but I am glad that they did. As a result, I was able to change how I was present for my students. I was able to change the model and example that I offer them.

Before I would have felt bad that I couldn’t do it all. I would feel as if I was a failure because the generation of pastors that raised me seemed to do it all. But then I remember that I am not supposed to do it their way, I am to do it my way. And my way involves doing what I am able, taking care of my body and mental health, and letting those I serve know that I love being a part of their lives, but I do not have to be there all the time.

In this realization, I know that I am setting an example for my students. I hope they learn from me and this hard lesson to take care of themselves and, through that, set an example for others. Leadership is not about all the actions of doing for others, the type of sacrificial service that comes from the past. Leadership is about caring and nurturing oneself so that you can nurture and care for others. This is what I hope my students learned from me and continue to learn from me as we both live into this life together.

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