The following post was commissioned by a reader, Rachael, who asked me about discernment in knowing what friendships to invest in and to what extent. Rachael is single and works at a church in a transient city, where the opportunities for new relationships are many, and she does in fact have time for lots of coffee dates and such. How should she navigate her role and opportunities? I've answered in letter form below.
I'm thankful for your heart to serve and love others. I imagine in your role you are pulled in many directions and have countless opportunities for relationships, but you may have little time to stop and consider what a privilege it is to do what you're doing. You may also have little indication that what you're doing matters, so from one laborer to another, I want you to know how grateful I am that you're at the plow in your city, faithfully serving the Lord. When I get weary, I remember that God sees every unseen thing, and there is a harvest waiting when we all see him face to face. Press on, dear sister!
One of the challenges I didn't see coming when I entered ministry is the abundance of relationships I'd enjoy combined with the limits on my time. I tend to forget I have limits; I prefer to try to push through them or ignore them altogether.
But it's good to remember we have limits.
We're limited in time, energy, and in the ability to carry the burdens of others. God isn't impatient with us in our limits; he in fact created us with them. And so we must walk closely with him in order to follow his Spirit's lead in knowing when we serve sacrificially and when we may need to stop and rest for a moment. If there is anything I've learned in ministry, it's that I can't depend on myself, nor can I trust myself. I must ask him about everything. I must say a gracious no when he leads me to do so, no matter what the person I'm saying no to thinks of it. And I must say a joyful yes when he leads me to say yes, following through with my word always, ever ready to sacrificially serve in the name of Jesus.
One thing God has taught me as I've tried to followed his lead is that I must label my relationships rightly. A friendship is different than a relationship. A friendship is different than a ministry relationship. And when we're in many relationships and ministry relationships, it's easy to lose sight of these distinctions. Here's how I know it's friendship: it's mutual. A friend sees me as me, not "me" as a role or a job or as someone who has no spiritual needs. A friend draws out the "me" that makes me what I am. Armed with this definition, you probably see fairly quickly that you have many relationships and a handful of true friends.
God has additionally taught me to follow his lead with my time. As a married woman with growing kids and a career, my time is more naturally delineated for me. As a single woman with a career centered primarily around people, there are greater nuances you'll need to discern when it comes to your time. In other words, you're going to have to draw some lines for yourself. I would suggest taking the two categories I mentioned previously--ministry relationships and friendships--and consider how you can give yourself well to both. If you're not careful, ministry relationships (i.e. work for you) can overtake all of your time, whether your work hours or free. How can you carve out time in your week that's reserved solely for friendship? Pursue your friends, both longtime and burgeoning, in those times. And when it comes to the casual, "Let's get together for coffee!" from someone new in your church, keep some open and specific spots for those opportunities as well.
Of course, this is idealistic and rigid, and I'm not suggesting that you keep such firm boundaries that you aren't loving people well. I'm just suggesting that you be intentional with your words and how you define your relationships with others. And I'm suggesting that you be intentional with your time. It's not more spiritual to do ministry work all the time than to spend intentional time with people that fill you up. One of God's graces to us is the gift of friendship, where we're encouraged and challenged. We should enjoy this gift while we also serve sacrificially.
If you're following along, you'll know that this means we must learn to say no to occasional requests. Jesus said no. People who understand God has created them with limits say no. People who are trusting Jesus rather than themselves to be the Savior say no. We say no when it's time for a Sabbath rest. We say no when a request pulls us away from fulfilling our commitments or priorities. Again, this is where we must walk with the Spirit and know his leading. I can only know his leading when I take prayerful time before I answer a request, and this is something I've learned the hard way.
Often when I cannot give my time relationally, it's not because I don't want to. It's because I'm limited and because God has pointed out my limits and priorities. But one thing he's taught me is that my no is often someone else's yes. I would suggest to you that you could see your role as a connector or an intersection rather than a cul-de-sac. You know many women, so how can you connect a new woman with someone in the church who shares an interest or a challenge? Perhaps that one-time coffee could be an opportunity for you to help her find her way into the church. What a joy!
I hope that helps, dear sister! May the Lord bless the work of your hands and give you discernment as you go forward.