The Things That Take Leaders Down

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I'm delighted to share a guest post from my friend Sarah Cunningham. What I love about Sarah is that she's a big dreamer with ambitions and ideas and goals, but she's also a deliberate dreamer, someone who is mindful about her relationships and her well-being and about how her decisions might affect the most important things in her life.  As someone who gets overwhelmed at times by the "industry" of Christian publishing, I look to people like Sarah to remind of what's most important. 

Sarah has a new book out that brings her wisdom to those working in ministry or nonprofit organizations. This post provides some really practical ideas on serving well while staying sane. Enjoy! 


I wish I could claim it is only natural that I would be the one who wrote a book called The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good.

Due to how famously well balanced I am and all. 

Due to how I gracefully leap from one well-balanced pose to the next throughout life.


But the people who know me, particularly those who knew me in my save-the-world twenties, would no doubt write Rachel and set the record straight. They would rat me out for spending the better part of three years venting about 2,196 flaws I found in the church and life in general.

At least for me, balance has never been a permanent state—a way of being I arrive at once and for all with finality. Instead it is like a long-term vacation spot that I keep frequenting with hopes that maybe one day I will move there when I grow older.

I find balance. Then life—if I don’t let it grow monotonous, if I keep moving—is bound to produce some new challenge or weight, which inevitably imbalances me, and then gradually I find my way back to even-keeled.

It may not be much to brag about then, but at least it’s honest to say the path to writing The Well Balanced World Changer is growing more balanced as I grow, but it’s not quite well balanced yet.  

So out of my observations from living, sometimes balanced and sometimes not, I’d like to offer a few confessions about how life often grows tipsy and some ideas about how we might find our footing again. 

Even if we pretend we’re impenetrable, we all pay attention to what other people are saying.

The problem with that, of course, is that if we let ourselves feel good when someone approves of us, it bestows on them the authority to make us feel bad when they disapprove as well. In turn, we feel just awful in the moments when no one claps, when the room falls silent, when others dismiss us. If we want to dethrone our critics then, we have to first give up our own love for basking in the applause. 

Even if it seems like we can do it all, we can’t.

Some of us are pathological super heroes who thrive on the stress and drama of taking on enormous burdens or challenges.  We assess a gigantic task and decide yes, if we give it everything we’ve got, we can handle it. That may mean we can pull it off if we sideline everything else, if we stay up until 3 a.m. every night, if we eat three meals of crackers while we’re glued to our computer and if we take our laptops to the poolside.

But maybe the best question is not, Can I do it?, but Can I do it healthily? Can I do it and stay sane?
 Can I do it without my other priorities slipping?
Can I do it without neglecting the people I love?

Even the best of us drop some balls when we juggle too much. 

My car gets messy, laundry piles up, I skip self-care items like checkups or haircuts. I don’t paint my nails, I screen my calls, emails back up to oblivion. Each one of us has red flags on the path to burnout. Once we name these caution signs along the way, we are more likely to notice them falling. And once we notice them falling, we are more likely to do something to stop the domino effect to meltdown. So pause and identify them!

We take on too much responsibility for other people’s actions. 

We want to bear each other’s burdens, right? But here’s a little known secret. You can claim the right to manage someone else’s burden differently than they do. You can be wiser or smarter about how you hold it. You don’t have to let drama or emotions rule your world just because they do.

As people of faith, we’ve been called to rejoice. What kind of God would then insist you not only live all of your own bad days but that you also live bad days every time someone else has one? Can you imagine? Every day would be a bad day if knew enough people! You can care and love, but you are not responsible for other people’s emotions. You cannot make them happy. All you can control is what you let your own mind dwell on. So be careful, friends, what we dwell on, we become! 

We worry we’re missing that one thing God has for us.

Are you anxious because you can’t figure out “God’s will” on where to live, whether to quit your job, who to marry, what job to take? Don’t be. Anxiety is not God’s style. God’s will is not a maze and he is not a sadistic video game programmer who dead ends your life if you take a right where he wanted you to take a left. If you take a job in Georgia instead of Ohio, he doesn’t lose your file folder. His GPS doesn’t go down. If you marry Angela instead of Erika? He doesn’t stop inviting you to pool parties. He is not a catty middle-school girl. As long as you are seeking after him, he sees potential in every place you put your foot.

Even when we’re crystal clear in the beginning, our values drift.

What do you value in life? Don’t answer that. Don’t say it aloud or write it down. Just look at these three things: 1. What you’re putting your time into 2. What you’re putting your money into and 2. What you’re putting your energy into. That’s what you value.

Anytime life gets out of whack, it’s a pretty good bet we’re putting one of those three things in the wrong place.

We are aiming for long-term significance, but we get stuck in short-term worries.

You’re neck deep in some sort of drama over a work obstacle, a dysfunctional member of your community, or some other wrench in your organization. It seems life-shattering now, but it can be helpful to ask, “In ten, twenty, fifty years, how much will it matter?” If the value at stake would be noble and right in every era, no matter how old (or dead) you are, then fight for it. But reality is, most things we worry about won’t matter at all in fifty years. And if that’s the case, that’s probably about as much as they matter now too.

We lose our identity in our work.

You work in a non-profit or sink your life into a faith community or charitable cause. Good for you. That means your work is important and it has ramifications for many people outside of you. So when it produces endless lists of things you’d like to do, unending lines of needs, you are willing to sink everything you have into hitting those benchmarks, raising funds and awareness, getting that good work humming! It’s hard to keep momentum, but it is worth the strain. Our family and friends understand. Backed up housework or well balanced meals and exercise aren’t as important as spirituality, as orphans, as health care.

That is...until we’re so weary we don’t want to do it any longer and we crash. Then who helps these people? So stop already! Reverse this crazy idea that if you run yourself dry, you have given the most. You give the world the most if you’re alive and healthy enough to serve tomorrow.


Sarah is an author, idea junkie and Chief Servant to a four year old Emperor and his one year old Chief of Staff. She does freelance work organizing conferences and supporting publishers while drinking chai in Michigan.  Sarah's new book containing other similar wisdom she's collected from veterans of the faith and humanitarian arenas is now out. The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide To Staying Sane While Doing Good is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content at her book's Pinterest page. And you can contribute your own life lessons to an online collection of wisdom using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.


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