Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE

The following is an excerpt of the book, ‘Side by Side: Supporting a Spouse in Church Service‘ by JeaNette Goates Smith. To read the first half of this chapter, click here

Even when you know you’ll pay dearly if you respond positively to someone’s request for help, do you still find it difficult to be anything other than helpful? A high priest in one ward learned a great lesson about this. He offered to help one of the brothers in his high priests group build up a retaining wall that kept the brother’s property from sliding into the river it bordered. On a Saturday morning several brethren met at the river property, where a load of broken concrete had been delivered. The brethren were to pick up the blocks of concrete and place them on this retaining wall, so at high tide the property would not flood. A very enthusiastic and dedicated high priest, who was a little too old to be lifting heavy concrete blocks, threw out his back at this work party. He became the ward’s next service project.

The same principle applies to the father in the delivery room who can’t stand the sight of blood and faints on the hospital floor. He disrupts more than he helps. People who push themselves beyond their limits can become a burden to a ward rather than an asset.

A Relief Society teacher in one ward volunteered to help the Relief Society president move boxes into her new home. However, the next day her muscles were so sore from moving boxes the teacher did not attend church and failed to present her lesson. Such examples demonstrate the necessity of serving within your means. Unless you recognize, accept, and honor your limitations, you could become one of those people who needs a casserole brought into the home.

The story of the ill-fated 1996 expedition to Mount Everest, which took the lives of nine climbers, teaches us tremendous lessons in accepting personal limits. Two of the climbers who lost their lives in the Everest disaster were experienced guides. One seems to have lost his life because he overestimated his abilities. Scott Fischer had boasted that “experience is overrated” on Everest. “We’ve got the big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired,” Fischer said. “These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.” With this nonchalant attitude, Fischer enticed some climbers onto his team who, like their guide, did not acknowledge their own limitations. Then Fischer expended so much energy rescuing these clients and escorting them from upper camps (26,000 feet) to base camp (21,300 feet) that after he resumed the climb and reached the summit, he did not have enough energy of his own to descend the mountain. At 27,200 feet he died (see Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air, New York: Villard Books, 1997).

You may have legitimately earned the reputation for being your ward’s Wonder Woman or Superman. People sing your praises because you are so capable, so dependable. “Give an assignment to Sister Jones, and you know she’ll do a bang-up job.”

Turning down an assignment can be very difficult when doing so threatens your very identity. Those who thrive on the praise and admiration of others may find it exceptionally difficult to turn down an assignment. They may ask themselves, “Who am I if I am not infinitely helpful and capable?”

The truth is, however, that unless you pace yourself, you compromise your ability to perform to the level you might, had you not overextended yourself.

Honor Your Limitations

A little-known character in the Book of Mormon teaches us a big lesson about honoring our limitations. In Alma chapter 50, Nephihah, the second chief judge of the Nephites, dies. Verses 37 and 38 teach us two things about Nephihah. One, he filled the judgment seat with perfect uprightness before God. Two, he had refused to take possession of the sacred records. I don’t know why Nephihah refused to take possession of the records, but apparently doing so did not make him a wicked person. He fulfilled the judgment seat with perfect uprightness, even though he refused to keep the sacred records. He gave what he could but also acknowledged his limitations.

We learn from Nephihah that we are not evil people simply because we have limitations. We need not be ashamed of our limitations nor deny ourselves the rest we require.

Reveal Your Limitations

Some people are embarrassed that they have limitations. They feel guilty that they can’t do all the things that are asked of them. Rather than accepting their limitations and feeling content with themselves, even though they have limitations, they feel they have to apologize for their limitations. Do you find that whenever you have to tell someone “no” you generally include an explanation for your answer? You may say something meek like, “I’d love to but I can’t, because . . .” Notice that when you say, “I can’t” (as if you have no agency), the “I can’t” is usually followed by a reason: “because I have to work/travel/baby-sit/study.” Notice that you find it easier to say no when you have something else to do. It is difficult to simply say no without an excuse, legitimate or lame.

A devoted Church servant need not manufacture an excuse for saying no. Saints who are anxiously engaged in a good cause always have something else beckoning. And if you are anxiously engaged in good works, that something else is always good. Whenever you say no to one good choice, you are inevitably saying yes to another good choice. “No” never means, “No, I’m just going to sit around and waste time.” “No” inevitably means, “I choose to spend my time and energy doing something else of good report.” Think of yourself not as saying no to one person but as saying yes to someone else. Even when you plan to stay home and take a hot bubble bath, you are saying yes to yourself and your need to recuperate.

A couple came to my office seeking help with their marriage after an enormous fight. The wife worked at home as a draftsman, drawing plans for houses and apartment buildings. One Friday evening a builder had come over to pick up some plans she had drawn and had found some errors he wanted changed. The builder arrived around five o’clock and stayed and stayed. At 7:00 P.M. the builder was still hanging around the house. The husband was furious because the builder was taking up all of their family time on a Friday night. About an hour into the builder’s visit the husband started making snide and even rude comments. He embarrassed the wife in front of the builder, so she was angry with the husband for making such a fool of himself and of her.

In our counseling session the wife admitted that she has a terrible time saying no. She could not possibly tell the builder to go away and come back on Monday.

“I think I get it,” I told the wife. “You said yes to the builder, but in saying yes to the builder, you were saying no to your husband.”

“You’re right!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t say yes to both of them, but instead of saying yes to my husband, I said yes to the builder.”

She immediately turned to her husband. “I’m sorry,” she said, as sincerely as I’ve ever heard a person apologize. “I care a lot more about you than about him. I should have said yes to you.”

This burst of humility prompted the husband to respond with an equally appropriate apology of his own. He realized that embarrassing his wife in front of her client wasn’t the most effective way to persuade her to spend the evening with him.

You may want to make a list of your own that demonstrates that even if you say no you are still anxiously engaged in good works. Think of the last time you said no. Record the event in the column on the left. Now think of what you chose to say yes to instead. Record that incident in the right-hand column.

Now that you are supporting your spouse in a demanding calling you may be saying no to a number of volunteer opportunities, and yes to keeping the household running smoothly.

Perhaps you can’t think of a time you actually said no. Instead, think of a time you said yes even though you didn’t want to. Now recall what you could have done instead. The thing you would have preferred doing is the invitation you passed up. This is what you said no to.

The point of this exercise is to help you recognize that when a devoted Church leader says no, that does not make him a mean, selfish, inconsiderate person who never serves his fellowman. When you say no to one person, you actually say yes to another. Although the person you told no may be disappointed, the person you told yes will be elated.

By encouraging devoted Church leaders to say no when necessary, I am not for one second suggesting that Latter-day Saints become selfish and stop serving. Service to our fellowman ranks among the most virtuous of virtues. I am encouraging devoted Church servants to say no without feeling guilty, or without feeling the need to explain. There’s nothing evil about saying no to obligations that may take away the energy needed to serve in another capacity that is either a higher priority or something only you can do.

Removing the Guesswork

Because you are the only one who knows your limitations, you are the only one who can honor those limitations. You are the one who knows how much energy you have and how far that energy must extend itself in a given time period. You are the only one who knows when to say yes and when to say no, or to whom you can say yes and to whom you must say no. Those who ask your assistance do not know your circumstances. They do not know your capacity to serve.

A rumor circulated for a time that some cities would routinely put their homeless population on a bus for Utah because Latter-day Saints were so generous about taking care of them. I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I can see how it got started. Latter-day Saints are famous for saying yes.

A sister in one ward possessed a talent for decorating cakes. The mother of an Eagle Scout asked her if she could borrow an eagle-shaped pan to make a cake for her son’s court of honor. Naturally the sister with the pan said yes. Then the mother-of-the-Scout asked if the sister-with-the-pan could perhaps make the cake for the Eagle court. When one cake proved too small, the mother-of-the-Scout asked the sister-with-the-pan to make an extra cake for the court of honor. Of course the sister-with-the-pan said yes, even though she had company in town for her daughter’s graduation and was finishing up her own year as a teacher.

Devoted Church leaders, among all people on this earth, must grow comfortable saying no when situations push them beyond their means. You will be asked to serve by folks who are completely unaware of your limitations and may be astounded to discover such limitations exist. Since you’re the only one who knows your own limitations, you are the one responsible for keeping yourself healthy so you have the capacity to continue to serve.

A Tolerance for Trials

Admittedly, not all Church servants push themselves to the limits of their endurance and need to be slowed down. Everybody has a different level of stamina, both physical and emotional, when it comes to service. Some members with a low tolerance for trials can become easily overwhelmed and quickly feel incapable of serving.

However, those who receive calls to leadership positions either start with or soon develop a fairly high tolerance for trials and strong backs and thick skin. Some Church leaders have such strong backs and thick skin we wonder if they truly do have limitations.

Joseph Smith, who preached a sermon the morning after he was tarred and feathered and had one of his teeth chipped, represents an individual with a very high tolerance for trials. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who left on their missions to England while still suffering from the effects of malaria, had a very high tolerance for trials.

Believing, behaving, and serving Saints want desperately to obey Heavenly Father and, in doing so, serve their fellowman. Those with a high tolerance for trials are willing to give and give and give until they have nothing left to give. Such a sacrifice is  not helpful to the kingdom. It’s okay to give and give, but please stop short of giving until you have nothing left to give. Save some energy. This way you will remain useful and won’t become a service project yourself.

Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree tells the story of a tree who always says yes. Can I climb your branches? Yes. Can I sell your apples? Yes. Can I cut down your trunk? Yes. The poor tree has nothing left to give at the end of the story. The tree then offers herself as a seat to sit on. She gives and gives until she has nothing left to give. Now, that’s fine and dandy for the boy who sits on the stump, but what about the tree?

Does Heavenly Father want one of his children to sacrifice herself until she becomes a stump, just so another one of his children can see the world? I believe Heavenly Father cares as much about you and your health as he does about the person who may ask you to give beyond your means. You have a responsibility to take good care of you.

The biggest challenge that faces devoted and faithful servants is knowing when to say “when.” Even those who rate the highest on a “tolerance for trials” scale eventually reach their limits. Those who are valiant and true will give their last breath to build up the kingdom of God. However, you undoubtedly don’t want the next breath you take, or your spouse takes, to be the last. Thus it becomes necessary to serve within your means.