Having worked with women for many years, I have found that when you ask a woman to talk about herself she will most likely start her story by telling you about her family. We women often identify ourselves by our most important relationships, and consequently have an ongoing conflict between maintaining healthy relationships and nurturing our own identity.

As a fully-trained-but-part-time ordained minister who also works full-time as an executive assistant while raising my youngest child alone, I should be able to share trade secrets on how to balance work-ministry-family relationships while pursuing one’s calling. I wish. But, the truth is, I need people around me who will challenge me to seek balance. Many people have a family member who provides that challenge, but for me that “family” member can often be found in my faith community.

Family relationships, either family of origin or family by choice, inherently challenge us. Some of the challenges force us to make better, healthier choices. Some of the challenges force us to learn something new about ourselves or about someone we love. All of the challenges can teach us about grace, if we train ourselves to look for the lessons.

When I was younger, I had a fairly successful run with my own business, but I could have been even more successful if I had learned this lesson sooner: no one succeeds alone. I have a predisposition to do things myself so that they are “done right.” I used to think that was one of my better qualities, but since those days, I have learned about sustainability and how it’s nearly impossible to sustain anything worthwhile by yourself for very long. Let’s face it, even Jesus recruited at least twelve people with whom to work. And they surely didn’t do everything right.

One of my most challenging family relationships taught me this little jewel: you can’t make other people do what you want them to do. You can’t love them or hate them into doing anything. You can’t push them or pull them into doing what you want them to do. Who even says what you want someone else to do or to be is “right?”

So, how do those two lessons in sustainability and being “right” play out in my ministry? For the most part, they serve to remind me that we all work most effectively when we work together. With that in mind, as a minister, I look for ways to connect with other ministers whose calling and focus aligns with my own – in both the obvious and not-so-obvious ways. When I remember that God created us with the freedom to choose what we do – even in the way we respond to God – then I feel somewhat comforted when people I love make choices that look and feel like rejection or plain old rebellion. That kind of love is outrageous. It forgives things that we naturally find impossible to forgive. God’s love is eternally hopeful.

Our closest relationships will challenge us. But if we accept them as challenges toward love – love modeled by Jesus and in the very act of creation – then we will grow in grace. And the inevitable benefit of growing in grace is enjoying healthier, happier relationships!

Sandy Stillman-Alvin is the minister of music and worship at Heritage Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and recently launched Opening the Door to Hope, a ministry to families dealing with the effects of addiction.