The Need is the Call – Overcoming Overwhelm

Overcoming the Overwhelm: When a Call Feels Like Too Much

As people of faith, we have no shortage of spiritual figures to whom we can look as models of hearing and heeding a call from God. There are countless examples (some of my personal inspirations below in “Go Deeper”) in the Bible, within the Catholic tradition, and across other faith traditions or growing out of different foundations altogether. In recent weeks, Into the Deep authors Mary Ann, Monique, and Beth have shared some of their own experiences of call and vocation, and I imagine you can name ordinary people in your own life whose stories have touched yours. While we often focus on their “yes” responses to God’s call and to the needs of their world, it is easy to gloss over the challenges, doubts, and overwhelm that these people likely felt and that many of them voiced (some quite eloquently) on the path of living out the call God gave to them. Whether it was feeling too young or unskilled, sensing a magnitude of need far beyond their capabilities alone, being looked down upon because of gender, race, class, etc., or something else altogether, so many of those we lift up as being faithful to their call have stumbled, second-guessed, and felt ill-equipped for the mission before them.

From my earliest days as a hospital chaplain working in Labor & Delivery and the NICU, I recall a particularly trying shift where I had accompanied several families through immense grief and loss. In processing with a seasoned colleague, I said, “Maybe I’m just not as cut out for this level of pain as I thought I was. Maybe I can’t carry the stories of others in this way.” She sat with me, letting my words fill the room for a bit, before offering her own insight: “Maybe you’re not. But if you decide that you are, just remember, you’re not responsible for fixing the pain or grief you encounter. You’re responsible for being there with people through their deepest valleys and helping them feel God’s presence. God will fill those other needs they have through the people God sends.” 

Discernment, prayer, education, spiritual direction, an awareness of my own strengths and gifts–all of these things led me to tend to the seed God had planted within for pastoral ministry as a chaplain. Yet on days like the one described above, it sometimes felt too much, like I was in over my head. I was thrown into desolation, temporarily unable to feel grounded in God and in my call. I was overwhelmed by the brokenness we experience in our shared human experiences, by the tragedy of violence, by the unfairness of disease and accident, by the injustice of health inequity (and I still am). But recalling my colleague’s words helped me feel more resolute in God’s invitation to accompany and walk with others through their darkest moments. She recognized my sense of being overwhelmed, but she also reminded me that I wasn’t in this work alone. 

One of the things that my own journey as a chaplain has revealed to me is that responding to a call isn’t a one-and-done thing. Saying “yes” doesn’t mean that I will always feel affirmed in every moment of living out a call; in fact, there will be times that are full of exhaustion, of questioning, of second-guessing, of wondering if I should switch gears altogether. The sense of overwhelm that I can vividly remember feeling on the day described above has certainly diminished with time and experience, yet it creeps back in different, often subtle ways, and I am invited to renew my “yes” in the face of doubt and trial. I find this true in calls of partnership, parenthood, friendship, and church and civic involvements as well. And I recognize that some of the same things that helped me say “yes” initially are the things that keep me going when I’m overwhelmed in any of my calls–among them, prayer, spiritual direction, therapy, processing with colleagues/my partner/friends, and journaling. These moments are where I am reminded of the core of who I am and where I am brought back to those initial tugs on my heart and soul from God, inviting me to something deeper. 

Somehow, when I’m able to step back from those moments of feeling overwhelmed and take in the bigger picture (often retrospectively), I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunities I have. I’m thankful God has equipped me, that Ignatius’s own insights have helped fill my toolbox, that I even have the headspace and heartspace to deeply reflect on the invitations and opportunities extended to me. The overwhelm, the insurmountability, somehow morphs into gratitude that God knows me better than I know myself and calls me to be a small part of building God’s Kin-dom on earth.

Going Deeper

Read about the lives and experiences of some of those who have heard a call yet felt uncertain or overwhelmed at different points in pursuing it. Some possible considerations include: 

  • Biblical examples:  Jeremiah, Elijah, Naomi. Mary (Mother of Jesus), Jesus and Paul
  • Saints & Modern Day Catholics: Servant of God Dorothy Day, the four U.S. churchwomen martyred in El Salvador, St. John of the Cross,  Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, St. Oscar Romero, and Greg Boyle, SJ

In times of feeling overwhelmed, consider incorporating some of these Scripture verses into your prayer, or use them as mantras as you continue to engage with your call.

Explore the tools of Ignatian discernment further, perhaps focusing on the discernment of spirits and on desolation and consolation in light of uncertainty and overwhelm. 

Photo by Jachan DeVol on Unsplash

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Kristen has been deeply shaped by Ignatian spirituality during her time as an undergrad at St. Louis University, a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize City, and a graduate student at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago. She has worked in Catholic parish ministry, community organizing, spiritual direction, volunteer support and formation with Jesuits Volunteer Corps, and ministry with people with developmental/intellectual disabilities. She spent her most recent professional chapter as a pediatric hospital chaplain and now works in chaplain research. Kristen is passionate about accompanying others through the highs and lows of their lives and spiritual journeys and about joining with others to co-create a Church and world with greater justice, equity, and inclusion for all. She lives in Chicago with her spouse Patrick and their three young sons.

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