Choosing the One Thing Needful

"But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:41-42

I've been reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  As I've been reading, I realized that he is describing the exact attitudes that lead to burnout in ministry. He says that the non-essentialist believes that:

  • They have to
  • It's all important
  • They can do both.

Very early in my ministry I was working at a boarding school for at risk youth.  I wanted to do it all and I wanted to do it all with excellence.  From the work projects around the house to my paperwork late at night, I approached everything as a maximalist.  I felt like I HAD TO, I mean this was ministry--I was working for God.

As you might guess, the one thing I neglected was my own self care. And it didn't take long to find myself with out much to give.  The chronic stress I was carrying manifest in my body.  I woke up several times unable to breath, my body covered in hives.

I had just gotten engaged and I realized something had to give.  I couldn't offer all of my energy to my ministry and still offer my heart to by beloved.  We put in our notice and left the ministry.

I wish I could tell you that I learned my lesson about how non-essentialism leads to burnout and have been an essentialist ever sense.  But my addiction to non-essentialism has been a hard habit to break.

For many of us, non-essentialism is a hard habit to break for a number of reason.  First, it takes time to figure out what is essential and what isn't-often this isn't clear at the beginning.  Second,  being busy can feel like being significant. Third, others value non-essentialism and the peer-pressure to comply can be great.  Finally, what's required to stop being a non-essentialist requires a healthy serving of courage and taking some real risk and making some real sacrifices.

McKeown argues that the Essentialist have three different attitudes.  They believe that:

  • They choose to.
  • Only a few things really matter.
  • I can do anything but not everything.

McKeown makes an excellent case for these attitudes in the first part of his book, and then lays out a system to implement the Essentialist life-style.  It well worth the read.

I found his case very compelling.  I'm committed to living with a quiet heart in a love-filled home, and from that secure base, making a meaningful contribution to the world as I help others be connected in marriage and resilient in ministry.  This vision will not be realized, if like Martha I'm distracted by many things. 

What McKeown is saying also applies to missions more broadly.  I wonder how much of the mission complex really contributes in the essential task of participating in God's mission in the world? I wonder if the critique of the colonial mission era needs to include that they were distracted by many things and forgot the one thing needful. I wonder if this era of Global Christianity will be different?

As you look at the day or week ahead of you, I wonder what non-essential burdens you are carrying?  What do you need to let go of completely in order to pursuit the one thing needful?