In the Grip of Overwhelm

o·ver·whelm: a verb: to bury or drown beneath a huge mass; to defeat completely; to give too much of a thing to someone; to inundate.


170844aWe have all experienced leadership overwhelm. Most of us diagnose it as the absence of time. If we just had more time we could get this all done. Overwhelm isn’t really about time.

Overwhelm is a spiritual condition. It results from striving for control and is rooted in an attitude of scarcity. It stems from too many needs we believe we alone can satisfy, uncertainty about our future, fear about our own capacity to succeed, and energy invested in particular outcomes.

Moving out of overwhelm requires two things. It requires yielding control of outcomes and it requires the rediscovery of spaciousness. It begins here.

Yielding Control

At the risk of adding to your already demanding “to-do” list, here are eight simple but challenging steps to bring you out of overwhelm, and back into a stance of open-handed wonder.

1. Empty Yourself. Do something to declutter your mind and create emotional space. We all have different ways of doing this. Personally, I have to clean off my desk and create a list of everything that is buzzing around in my scattered brain.  Once it is written down I can quiet down and temporarily let go, because I know I won’t forget something important.

You must find your own way towards emptying. Perhaps it is confession, or prayer, exercise or coloring. Whatever your process, take time that you don’t think you have to empty your mind.

2. Become silent/still. Breathe and become aware of God’s presence in and with you. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Silence is restorative in and of itself. It invites us to be present-centered, letting go of both the past and the future and embracing the fullness of right now. Stillness invites calmness and peace, out of which you will be able to listen for clarity.

3. Acknowledge your control needs. Overwhelm is essentially about trying to be in control of things that you can’t control. Most of our control needs stem from the ego-self or false-self, the self that is invested in looking good. A desire to look competent, to avoid being blamed for bad outcomes, to appear strong, good and wise. Acknowledging this, we are free to shed the false self and step more firmly into thinking with our true self, the self that is grounded in God.

4. Surrender expectations. Most leaders in a state of overwhelm have conditions in mind that will signal their success as a leader. “I thought we would be debt free by now. I expected attendance to grow when we added the second worship service. I believed that firmer accountability would bring this employee into line.”

As you become aware of your unstated assumptions, you can release those expectations and free yourself from the burden of control. You can resume a state of wonder and let things happen of their own accord, without your wrestling them into existence.

Rediscovering Spaciousness

As you let go of the need for control, you are ready to adopt a more spacious and abundant attitude about everything at your disposal.

5. Examine deadlines. Most of the deadlines we feel up against are artificial creations that we have established, or that others established for us and we blindly accepted. We can simply ask, “What is real about this deadline? What is at risk if this decision doesn’t happen today, or if the event doesn’t get scheduled right now?” Since we have already surrendered ego, we are no longer concerned with the need to look good. We can begin thinking more expansively about the possibilities and real needs of the people and the organization.

6. Focus on what is yours to do. If you are honest with yourself, much of what is on your plate could be done by others. We cling to tasks because it is just too much work to delegate, we don’t know how to delegate, or we don’t trust others to do things the way we would like them done.

Recovering from overwhelm requires that you get clarity about that which only you can do. You are the only person who can have accountability conversations with the people you supervise. If you are the lead clergy, you are they only person who can provide oversight to the preaching platform of the church. You are not the only person who can recruit volunteers or extend pastoral care. Get clear about what is yours to do, and delegate the rest.

7. Let it be. I am regularly humbled by the inbox atop my desk. In this box I store open items that demand my near-term attention, tasks I can’t get to right now but don’t want to forget.  I work off of the top of the pile, resolving issues as time allows.

Over time this inbox tends to grow. Every couple of months I clean it out and I am reminded of items at the bottom of the pile that I never actually completed. The world did not come to end when I failed to attend these urgencies. Some things simply resolve themselves when we look the other way.

8. Embrace the gift already given. “The Spirit of truth abides with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:17). Overwhelm wants us to believe that we are alone and incompetent, in danger of going under for the last time. This is a falsehood. We have within us a capacity and abundance that comes from God. Our task it to let go of control and rediscover the spaciousness and wonder that is already ours for the taking.  

The next time that overwhelm rears its ugly head, look it in the face and stare it down. You do not have to be owned by the feeling that everything rests on your shoulders. Your resources and your capacity are boundless!