By Doug Talley
Life is demanding. That feels truer today than ever. I suspect every generation has said that. With each generation, the pace probably quickens, the demands mount, the stresses increase, and the capacity to recharge seems to decrease.
Pastors feel this, too – at least as much as others. Maybe more. Pastors do what we do not to make a living, but because we want to expand God’s Kingdom while we honor and serve God and others. In doing so we (and others) place some pretty high and often unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Without balance and margin in our lives, those expectations can, and eventually will, crush us. How do we keep ourselves emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and physically healthy in a highly demanding vocation?
As I talk with pastors and spouses, I find that balance and margin are a constant struggle. And many, I fear, are losing that struggle. We endeavor to keep up by eliminating balance and shrinking our margins. We falsely tell ourselves we’ll do better when things slow down, but we never do. We keep ramping up the pace in order to keep up and feel good about ourselves, only to wear ourselves out and damage our capacity to recharge.
So what’s the difference between “balance” and “margin?” Here’s my understanding of the distinction.
· Balance is the routine you follow to replenish emotional, relational, spiritual & physical energy.
· Margin is the energy you reserve to allow for unexpected emergencies and demands.
God created for six days and established the seventh day of the week for rest. Not because He needed rest but because he designed His creation with a need for rest. When this need for rest is honored, we are refreshed, replenished, recharged, and re-created. When it is not, there is a dangerous drain on our reserves.
Sunday is NOT a day of rest for people in church ministry! It is the most demanding day of the week. There are key duties to fulfill, an incredible high level of people interaction, and often people save up conversations they want to have with the pastor (or staff) until Sunday when it is more convenient. Unfortunately, the more convenient time for a parishioner is the least convenient time of the week for church staff members.
In order to have any semblance of balance, pastors need to take at least one day off a week so that they can replenish emotional, relational, spiritual & physical energy. My therapist and mentor (Al Ells) says that frequently we need two days off in a row to adequately replenish.
OFF means NO church related phone calls, visits, appointments, texts, emails, etc. NO means ZERO. Even one text or phone call interrupts the recharging cycle and prevents a full recovery. I’m not making this up. We like to think we are stronger than letting one work interruption derail our recharging on a day off, but we aren’t due to God’s design. Sure, it may not feel like a big deal at the time, but it causes more energy to be discharged than we are aware. I get it that on some rare occasions a day off is interrupted with a serious emergency. But most interruptions are not serious emergencies needing our immediate attention.
My theory is that most pastors who do not routinely take time totally off is due to our need to be needed. We find it fulfilling to meet the needs and wants of others. We get strokes for doing that. It feeds our self-esteem. It also makes us think that we are indispensable. Well, I’ve got news for you. You aren’t indispensable. If you aren’t available or if something happens to you, life goes on. YOU AREN’T JESUS. Just saying.
Balance also includes quarterly and annual routines. At the beginning of each year, I put a hold on some dates for vacation. I try to space them out over the year so that I get sustained periods to recharge in the flow of the year rather than all at once. I’ve learned that if I wait until I feel like I need a vacation, my schedule is too full to accommodate one and usually my reserve is too low to fully benefit from one. I may adjust the vacation dates, but at least I’ve got some time protected for God to renew and refresh me.
I hear pastors brag (Yes, it is bragging and it comes from unhealthy pride.) about not taking a day or two off each week and/or not taking all of their vacation. They do not realize they are announcing to others how emotionally, relationally, spiritually & physically unhealthy they are. Unfortunately, our accomplishment-obsessed culture praises the person who sacrifices time off and vacation for work or ministry. In the church we mistakenly think these persons are more spiritual and more committed than others. Well, they aren’t. They are imbalanced. Could we even say they are sinning? Hmmm. Imbalance takes its toll.
In order to have margin pastors must protect some time during each week for the unexpected emergency(s) that needs our attention. Ministry is all about balancing routine with interruption. I have my calendar set so that the first day of the week is Monday. That’s because my week builds towards Sunday. I think you understand what I mean. The closer we get to the end of the week, the more “emergencies” there seem to be. Of course, they don’t all need us but some do. So what happens if your calendar is full, it’s the end of the week, and there is an emergency? Where do you find the additional time and energy to respond to the emergency? Most of us just suck it up, make the time (which usually means cheating ourselves or our families), and tap into our energy reserves. Because we’ve used recharge time to respond to the emergency, our energy level not only decreases more but our capacity to recharge becomes compromised.
When your capacity to recharge becomes compromised, you are on a slippery slope. When it becomes cumulative (continues for weeks and/or months), it damages energy cells and you set yourself up for increased stress, becoming less patient with people, strained relationships, self-medicating behaviors, cynicism, and emotional and spiritual numbness. If this isn’t addressed intentionally and with a good strategy, then eventually you cross the burnout line. Some who cross that line never return. That’s partly why the average career of a pastor is 14 years.
When I became state pastor, Al Ells worked with me to develop a better plan to build margin in my life and ministry. I would develop a plan, and he would say, “There’s not enough margin for emergencies.” I’d adjust my plan and submit it again. It took us several sessions before he would sign off. I’m so thankful he was persistent with me – and so is Cindy. At times my margins get depleted a bit. Then I hear Al’s voice of concern, and I make adjustments.
Pastors, you need a friend who asks you tough questions about the balance and margin in your life. Unfortunately, surveys of pastors indicate we often don’t have close friends in the ministry that we transparently talk to. Some even consider doing that as a sign of weakness. Sad. A good friend is one who asks you those tough questions about balance and margin and loves you enough not to let you off the hook.
Church boards, you need to ask tough questions about the balance and margin in your pastor’s life. It is part of your job. It is part of your fiduciary responsibility to care for your pastor and to see that she/he practices healthy self-care. If you don’t monitor your pastor’s self-care, then who will? If your pastor does not routinely take weekly and annual time off and build margin into her/his life, then you need to be proactive.
I love pastors. They are among the most incredible people I know! I want pastors to be as effective in their families, their churches, their communities, and the Kingdom as possible. That is not going to happen unless they are also emotionally, relationally, spiritually & physically healthy. And that’s not going to happen unless pastors have healthy balance and margin in their lives.
Pastor, if you struggle with balance and margin, then get some time with a . . .
· counselor to find out what is at the root of the struggle and
· mentor or coach to develop a strategy for building balance and margin into your life and ministry.
You won’t regret building balance and margin into your life and ministry. If you are married, your spouse and family will love you for it.