Leaders over-function when we do for others what they can—and should—do for themselves. Over-functioners prevent people from growing.
By Geri Scazzero
I meet thousands of church leaders each year as I travel and speak, along with my husband, Pete.
Many of them are busy. Too busy.
And I would venture to say most of the over-worked, under-rested church leaders I encounter are over-functioners.
We over-function when we do for others what they can—and should—do for themselves. Over-functioners prevent people, including themselves, from growing.
Wherever you find an over-functioner an under-functioner inevitably follows close behind. Over-functioning dangerously imperils friendships, marriages, churches, workplaces, and families.
I know this well. I was an over-functioner for many years.
I was the primary parent for our daughters. I took care of our home. I entertained groups from our church weekly and overnight guests. I lived as if I were super woman doing the work of three people.
Pete was an under-functioner at home because he was over-functioner at the church he pastored. He did the job of three people at our church. He lived as if he were Superman.
But my overfunctioning at home made it possible for Pete to over-function at church. As I began my journey into an emotionally healthy spirituality, I realized I was the problem, not Pete.
If I wanted Pete to stop under-functioning at home, I needed to stop over-functioning.
Over-functioning is more than simply a bad habit. It is a weed whose deep roots can often be traced back through generations in your family of origin and the thorny branches reach far out into our workplaces, ministries, parenting, marriages, churches, and friendships.
There are at least five deadly consequences of over-functioning in ministry.
1. Over-functioning breeds resentment.
The story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10 is a story of over-functioning. Martha gets caught up in the demands for preparing an important meal for some very distinguished guests, Jesus and His 12 disciples.
Martha is angry and resentful, especially at her sister Mary, who sits enjoying the company of Jesus. Martha is too angry to enjoy Jesus herself. Martha’s over-functioning is cloaked in the guise of caring for the needs of others.
However, in trying to accomplish too much, she not only loses sight of herself, but of the very purpose of all her hard work to welcome and care for her guests, including Christ himself.
Thinking back to Jesus and His beautiful invitation to Martha to be at rest: “You are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41-42, CSB), I began to realize that this invitation was also for me.
And for you, too.
2. Over-functioning perpetuates immaturity.
Moses sat before long lines of disgruntled folks trying to settle the seemingly endless disputes that arose among them. He was so overwhelmed and exhausted that it never occurred to him that there might be a better way.
It took an outside person, his father-in-law, Jethro, to point out the obvious that what he was doing wasn’t good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work’ was too heavy for him. He couldn’t handle it alone (Exodus 18:17-18).
Moses’ life changed dramatically when he followed Jethro’s advice and appointed judges to hear most of the disputes until he allowed others to take up their legitimate responsibilities.
Moses himself was an obstacle preventing the healthy growth and maturity of his people, but old habits die hard. Later, in Numbers 11 the Bible describes how Moses’ over-functioning gets him in trouble again.
When the people of Israel blamed Moses for their unhappiness with the food rations, they didn’t want to struggle with learning to trust God’s promises. Instead, they demand a rescue from their pain and Moses readily takes full responsibility to save them.
Unfortunately, in doing so, he not only engages in self-destructive behavior, but also ensures the ongoing immaturity of his people.
The question Moses needed to ask himself way back when is the same one we need to ask ourselves today: Do we really love others?
Are we hindering those we lead from taking healthy risks for growth and achievement? Are we fulfilling all the tasks needed for a successful small group or ministry—instead of delegating those?
When we over-function, we allow church to become a spectator sport in which a few carry the weight of responsibility for the many.
3. Over-functioning prevents you from focusing on your life’s calling.
At the end of his life Jesus said to God, “I have glorified you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4, CSB).
It’s doubtful we’ll be able to say such a thing at the end of our lives if we’re over-functioners. God had a plan for Christ’s short, earthly life and He has a plan for your life and mine.
However, if we’re focused too much on doing what should be delegated to others, we’ll be easily sidetracked and miss out on the unique calling God has for us. When we over-function in service to others, we often under-function for ourselves.
We lose sight of our own values, beliefs, and goals, which is precisely what happened to Moses. He became so preoccupied with the problems of his people that he lost the focus of his own life’s calling.
It’s sobering to think about what might have happened to Moses and the Israelites if Moses had not been willing to listen to Jethro and stop over-functioning.
Sometimes, like Moses, we are too close to a person or situation to discern if our efforts to provide care are hurting or helping.
We must regularly ask ourselves: How am I being faithful to the life God gave me?
4. Over-functioning erodes your spiritual life.
By the time Martha’s excessive caretaking reaches its peak she’s giving commands to Jesus. Her over-functioning not only prevents her from experiencing Christ’s love; it makes her resentful.
She believes she knows better than Jesus what Mary, her sister should be doing. Christ alone is the Savior. We’re called to trust and to surrender to His love.
When we cross the line and put ourselves in charge of running God’s world for him, we enter into dangerous territory into the very rebellion of our ancestors, Adam and Eve.
I know I’m over-functioning when I think I don’t have time to stop and be with God for this reason. Rhythms of Sabbath keeping, silence and solitude help me to resist this temptation.
God created us to work six days and to rest one. Because of my propensity to over-function Sabbaths are essential for me.
Are you able to accept God’s weekly invitation to stop and rest knowing that He is capable of running the world without you for at least one day in seven or are you on the “Martha plan,” over-functioning to the point that it’s becoming damaging to your relationship with Christ?
One of the great signs that you truly believe in God is when you rest in His sovereignty and saving power and resist the powerful temptation to over-function.
5. Over-functioning destroys community.
The stories of Moses and Martha provide clear pictures of how over-functioning negatively impacts communities.
When Moses was dealing with the food crisis the community atmosphere became so toxic.
And the situation isn’t much better with Martha. Imagine you’re one of the dinner guests trying to enjoy that great meal with Jesus while Martha stomps angrily around the room, muttering under her breath and staring daggers through her sister.
Our actions distort God’s original intention for community. When people function properly, according to God’s design, relationships are marked by love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.
When over-functioning and under-functioning are present, relationships are marked by dissension, blaming, helplessness, anger, and despair.
Over-functioners believe they know what is best for everyone, and in doing so they invade and limit the development of others.
Over-functioning employers discourage initiative and creativity when they move in quickly to rescue employees rather than allow them to struggle with their own problems.
Over-functioning church leaders and members who always serve and fill empty slots for volunteers without sharing their own limits and weaknesses reinforce under-functioning in others.
Healthy community requires individuals take responsibility appropriate to their age, life stage, gifts, and abilities.
Breaking free from over-functioning is easier said than done. Offer this to God, asking the Holy Spirit for counsel and courage.
Consider talking with a trusted mentor or mature friend, and step forward into what God reveals to you when you are willing to quit over-functioning.