I might not be the best person to be writing this.  After an eleven-year career in business in my twenties and early thirties, I’ve been an ordained pastor now for nearly twenty-seven years. There are two phrases heavily used in ministry circles that drive me crazy– “self-care,” and “work/life balance.”  It’s not the phrases themselves that cause my angst, but the way people automatically elevate them to top priority. When I hear someone talk about what a great job they are doing with self-care, I quietly groan, and wonder how that fits with Jesus’ calls to leave everything to follow him, to give our lives away, to serve, to love beyond limits and be willing to die, literally and figuratively.  Hardship, inconvenience, disruption and sacrifice are all part of the call to ministry. There’s not much self in those words except putting self aside. 

I’m overstating. Naturally there is wisdom in knowing that if we run ourselves into the ground, spiritually or physically, we won’t have anything left to serve with. There’s truth in that. But why is there so much emphasis on establishing boundaries, setting limits and logging less work hours for ministry?  I’d be more comfortable if we could at least give equal time to thinking of the things that keep us connected to Jesus (John 15), and about the presence of the Holy Spirit to empower and energize us to serve. 

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Self-care bleeds right into work/life balance. I’m not sure balance is the right goal.  Pastoral identity, availability to people, being a whole person, pastoring as calling and not simply a job . . .these things all figure into work and life, and I’m the first to say it’s a messy combination. It is. Coming up with the proper formula or having sharply-defined boundaries is not going to fit every situation. Some weeks ministry will be out of balance. Life, and the events of people’s lives don’t fit into neat categories or timelines.

I know what we fear, why self-care and balance have captured so much of our attention. In fact, I just saw it in an old movie last week. For some inexplicable reason, I re-watched the 1991 production of Hook with Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts modernizing the old Peter Pan story.  Williams is a grown-up Peter Pan who has forgotten his childhood and turned into a hardcore corporate raider and workaholic who ends up sending an office employee to his own son’s Little League game. He just can’t break away from business. That paternal

neglect leaves the boy open to the underhanded manipulations of Captain Hook (Hoffman), who tries to turn him against his father. And along the way, Peter’s wise wife says “Peter, you’re missing it. We only get them as children one time.”  THAT is exactly what we fear and want to avoid.  And with very good reason.

However, running from one end of the spectrum (ignoring family or things we want to prioritize for the sake of ministry) to the other (putting pastoral work into a concise box with rigid limitations and vowing to never miss a single event in our kids’ lives) isn’t the answer. Couldn’t there be some middle ground?  I guess we would have to call that…balance.

True confessions–I haven’t always done this well. At all. Both in business and in ministry, I’ve tended to be a person who worked a lot of hours. Fortunately, I’m married to someone who, when “a lot of hours” turned into “too many hours,” did not rant or rave or throw things. Anne would just sit me down and say “You know you’re working too much, right?” And after I was done reacting childishly and defensively (“I am not!”),  I would realize she was right and we would work together to dial it back. It’s rarely perfect, and certainly more art than science. Here’s a few things I’ve thought about and encourage you to:

 

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1) Pastoral work has some amazing perks. For example, most often, we are accountable for our own time management. When our kids were young, that meant that even if I had to take some evening meetings or miss some things…I also had flexibility most working people did not. So I could be the baseball coach for our kids, the guy who was at the field before 4pm on a weekday, because I could control my own schedule. Since I worked plenty of other hours, nobody could complain. Pastors have unusual flexibility much of the time, so use it.

2) In the same vein, since I am mostly in control of my own schedule, I can schedule in regular exercise. For me, that is a super important piece of staying healthy in every way. I love a good work out, and it is good for my body, mind and soul. I’m a runner, and I steadfastly resist running with headphones so that my mind is free to wander. Sometimes it wanders right to the Lord. 

3) The hours I work, and my allotted study leave need to include connecting with others in ministry. Whether it is a cup of coffee with a ministry leader in the city, or an annual trip with my covenant group from seminary days, my work time has to include these vital relationships. Teaching your Session or Board about the value of this will pay dividends.

4) Find places that intentionally blur the lines between “my ministry” and “my life.”  For years we hosted large after-worship Easter potluck brunches, and invited neighbors, family members, church folks and needy folks our church was involved with. Some were Jesus people, some were not. We would pray a resurrection prayer before the meal, and then enjoy wildly diverse, confusingly mixed and utterly delightful fellowship. Is that work for a pastor? Or doing life? Or both? Sometimes it’s healthy if you can’t actually define it.

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5) Take a sabbath day. Do. It’s a whole separate subject, but this biblically-mandated gift from God is essential for people in ministry. Mine is Monday, but it can be done lots of different ways.

6) Teach others about why your schedule looks the way it does. That includes other staff people, elders or Board members, congregational people and your own family. Intentional explanation on when you say yes or no helps everyone understand you can’t be at everything.      

There’s no neat diagram here. A pastoral life has different seasons and chapters, highs and lows, emergencies and ordinary time. It’s a calling, a privilege . . .and messy.

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Dan Baumgartner is currently pastoring The Cove Fellowship in Santa Rosa, CA, having
previously served as senior pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian in LA and Bethany Presbyterian in
Seattle.

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