Pastors, in following a calling to shepherd and care for others, sometimes face a temptation: to be all things to all people. Of course, no one—not even the most gifted and skilled and charismatic pastor—can please all people all the time. Truth is, sometimes the job descriptions of a pastor—or the expectations people can have of their pastor—are so vast and all-encompassing that anyone in that position is destined to disappoint someone. As a pastor, I’ve wrestled and struggled with the weight of other people’s expectations (real or perceived).
But facing the expectations of others isn’t a reality only pastors face. I’m guessing you’ve dealt with this too. Employer’s expectations, parents’ expectations, a spouse’s expectations, your kids’ expectations—no doubt you can add to this list.
And so because of this we each need to learn a valuable lesson: learning to live within our limits.
Limits are a reality we all have to live with. Doing this now means not doing that now. Being this person means we can’t be that person. We can’t be all things to all people. We simply can’t.
Let’s observe some obvious things. I will use myself as an example.
I’m a man. I’m a husband and father. I’m a pastor. I’m 48 years old. I was born in NS and now I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, even though I lived in New Brunswick for most of my life. I was raised as a Roman Catholic even though I am now a Baptist. Everything I am circumscribes what I can do and who I can be. My circumstances do likewise. For instance, because of all this, I cannot be a medical doctor, lawyer, artist, or psychiatrist. I also will never live in Europe, South America, or Australia.
In other words, I can only be and do certain things.
Maybe I can put it this way, the longer we’re around and the more life decisions we make, the more limitations we have. Before meeting my wife and getting married, presumably I was less limited when it came to relationships. Though, honestly, it didn’t always feel that way! And, similarly, before becoming a pastor, I had fewer limitations. I could have gone in another direction.
But then I think, really? Am I sure?
Because even before God opened the door to pastoring, there were already limits on what I could do. My educational experience was a limitation. My skills and experiences were a limitation. My circumstances at the time were a limitation. Even what I believed I could do, how I felt about myself, was a limitation.
Indeed, there are things outside of all of our control that form limitations we have to live within. Most of these concern our family of origin: inherited illnesses, how our parents raised us, where they sent us to school, what their finances were like, etc.
Think of all the traits you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, etc. You are, in part, who they are and were.
Now, before I go any further, let me point out that having these limitations is not a bad thing. Limits are the conditions within which we find ourselves and the specific ways in which God designed us. They are they way we are.
That’s not to say everything about our lives is written in stone and that we can’t make (and could not have made) different choices. All of our choices, though, are the result of limitations already a part of us and our lives.
It’s actually within these limits—and learning to live within them—that we learn what genuine freedom is. Because living within our limits means living as who we actually are.
Even as a pastor, I have limitations. All of my other limitations shape who I am as a pastor. Honestly being self-aware of my limitations is also what can help me avoid the trap of comparison. While I can always learn—and need to learn—from other pastors, I can never be that other pastor, or become this or that person’s favourite pastor.
Once again, it’s not just pastors who compare themselves to others. Kids compare themselves to their peers, usually unfavourably. Parents do likewise with other Moms and Dads. People working in the same workplace do it too. We can even compare ourselves to the neighbours living across the street.
We each have plenty of opportunities to think less of ourselves through this wonderful comparison game! Of course, it’s a never-ending game. But playing it will eat at your soul. It will wreak havoc with your life. And so if you insist on playing this game, therefore, you’ll never ever be who God created you to be.
Here’s the thing: learning to live within our limitations means learning to accept ourselves, to be gracious and patient with ourselves. It means living into our created in the image of God selves, into the fullness of our identity in Christ. Ultimately, learning to live within our limits means learning what it means to be who we actually are—which is never—thank goodness!—what others want or expect us to be.