This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

My ‘to don’t’ list

April Yamasaki, pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, B.C., gave me and other readers of her blog a great idea: an “I don’t do” list, alternatively called a “to don’t do” list.


An “I don’t do” list is “a way of making time for sacred pauses in life and ministry,” Yamasaki wrote. “The things we don’t do make it possible to do some other things.”

Sacred Pauses is also the name of Yamasaki’s recent book, which provides a guide for using times of rest — even relatively short ones — for deepening one’s relationship with God.

While others have shared similar ideas, Yamasaki adds the twist that making an “I don’t do” list effective means not feeling guilty about any of the items on it.

For most of my life I have been working at improving my ability to say “no.” Sometimes I offer to do things when I’m not even asked, in a helpful spirit that’s not truly helpful to anyone. In our communities, where the priesthood of all believers means we all participate in ministry, there can be a strong push to serve in as many ways as possible — and to feel guilty when we decline. So I especially appreciated the encouragement from a fellow Mennonite minister to claim not only what we don’t need to do but to let go of feeling bad about it.

For example, I don’t do fellowship set-up or greeter duty at church. I share my gifts of preaching and worship leading instead. Certainly I could do all of those things, but we don’t all need to serve in the same ways. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian community, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7). The tasks that are part of our life together are all valuable and honorable, but we can appreciate what we each do without all doing the same work.

Another reason to make an “I don’t” list is to resist our culture pulling our attention in so many directions at once. The final two items on my list recognize my need to resist that pull:

  • I don’t have my own smartphone, and I don’t use social media often outside of work.
  • I don’t need to be knowledgeable about or respond to every event or situation.

For the first item, I combined those two because I use both but I limit my time on them. Electronic devices and social media bring an overwhelming amount of information into our lives, whether it’s world events or personal tragedies.

We need boundaries. So if I am not engaged in a particular action, such as writing or editing an article or supporting an organization’s project related to a global event or situation — or if I am not the minister or close friend of someone going through a painful loss — I acknowledge the brokenness people are facing, and sometimes the injustice, and then I move on. It can seem callous, but it’s necessary to give my full attention when I do respond.

And that’s the point of making an “I don’t” list: to free us to give more of our time, energy and passion to the activities to which we say “yes.”

​It’s also a way to reduce stress, a danger to our individual and community health, so that we all can flourish.​

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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