‘By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.’ (Genesis 2:2, NIV)
‘You never put anything in the diary! Ever!!’ is a familiar cry from my wife Sarah, frustrated as yet another important family celebration, dinner party with friends, or much-needed date night needs to be rearranged because I have failed to keep our shared online calendar up-to-date with the changing demands of work.
Finding a work-life balance, or a rhythm of life are really alternative terms for the less exciting but hugely important skill of ‘time management.’ However we spend our working hours, in an office, on a building site, caring for our children or working for a church, managing our time is an essential skill. But I believe effectively applying what we know about time management to our work and our personal lives is much more difficult than we first think. Some of this is due to personality and our own weakness – as illustrated by my apparent inability to record things in our shared diary – but even someone (not me!) who might describe themselves as ‘gifted in time management’ is a work in progress rather than the finished article.
I am a part-time (30 hours per week) youth minister in a relatively large Anglican parish in the town of Keynsham (between Bristol and Bath) and I am also studying part-time for an MA in Leadership and Mission with CYM. My wife Sarah is an Executive in public sector audit for a large accountancy firm - she audits the accounts of local councils, police forces and local NHS bodies. This is a full-time role in a highly pressurised context. We have been married for four years. We are both, by nature, busy people who are passionate about God and serving the local church. This means we often find ourselves involved in several separate activities and meetings and it is not unusual for us to be ‘out’ six evenings each week. We both sing as part of the church choir which commits us to a regular weekly practice and means we attend at least two services each Sunday. And (most of the time) we really do love being busy!
But we also have to ask ourselves difficult questions. Are we simply bowing to the demands of a culture that encourages us to work long, irregular hours, often preceded by a lengthy commute? Are we indirectly endorsing an unspoken requirement for flexibility? Are we contributing to a church community that receives (and so expects) too great a commitment from us? Should we be more attentive to a rhythm more akin with that of Jesus?
Those of us in ‘ministry’ are encouraged to see our roles as a ‘vocation’ - a divine call to God's service. However, in my experience there are some difficulties with the term vocation relating to the interpretation of the term by other people and those privileged to have discerned a vocation. A divine call to God’s service – and let’s be clear here – this does not have to be exercised in a church context – has deep consequences for those who respond to this sense of call. Our emotions, our faith, our identity, our whole life are entangled within our sense of vocation. But we need to examine carefully our motivation for what we do. Does a ‘vocation’ lead to working out of a sense of guilt? Do we work long hours because others do so? Do we actually mismanage our time because we see everything as work? Do we ignore our own rhythm and adopt to readily the rhythm of others?
As someone who dislikes mornings I have had to learn to manage my time and the tasks of my day carefully and not to feel guilty if my day starts later than others because it frequently finishes later than most! I often do my best thinking and planning between 10pm and 1am and therefore I am unlikely to be in the office at 8am. That’s me and that’s fine. It is a personal rhythm of work and rest that I need to own. Sarah’s personal rhythm is different so we have had to work hard to not only ensure we have space in our busyness to connect but also that we our respecting and responding to each other’s rhythm. This means sometimes I will stay up late to work while at other times we will go to bed at the same time. We also know that our rhythm is going to be interrupted by that pastoral crisis, the weekend conference, the tight-deadline or the unexpected absence of a colleague and we strive to respond graciously and flexibly to this reality.
Jesus modelled a different rhythm of life that goes against that which our culture so strongly endorses. At various times we see him withdraw from the crowds to go and pray alone in a quiet place by the lake, in the hills, in the desert, or in the mountains. Jesus took time away from the busyness, the routine and the attention and invested time in his relationship with the Father through prayer and listening. Jesus prayed and then he served. Jesus found space among the noise of the crowds to rest in quiet, he knew when to move away from the people and when to be patient with those who interrupted him. There was a rhythm to Jesus’ life that equipped and sustained him in his ministry.
As we prepared for our marriage there was no shortage of advice encouraging us to ensure we had sufficient time to invest in our relationship - time for each other. It was interesting to reflect on this recurring theme and some of the images that we used to articulate it. ‘Try to stay in step with each other’ was a common metaphor. Have you ever tried to actually walk in step with someone? Try it sometime. It requires incredible concentration and focus on the other – and the slightest variance makes a significant difference. You have to continually work hard on managing your time and responding to changing circumstances (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) by focussing on the other person.
The reality of attaining a rhythm of life amidst the demands of work and ministry can feel intimidating. At times it can seem impossible to maintain any sort of balance. But balance is important. For me, the key to effective time management is less about how we actually use our time and more about how we manage expectations, both those we place on ourselves and those we are given by others. You see, when we manage expectations we automatically take responsibility for ourselves and the way others perceive us. In managing our expectations of ourselves we resist the temptation to replace God with ourselves, to nurture an unhealthy sense of self-importance and ultimately set ourselves up for failure. In managing the expectations of others we take control and set our own agenda rather than letting others do so on our behalf, we reduce the likelihood that people will be disappointed with us and we encourage others to recognise our limitations and our shared humanity.
Striving towards a work-life balance, a rhythm of life that works for you, is an ongoing challenge. We are not experts in this but we have learned things that may be of help to others. The experience and ideas of others are very welcome. Here are five thoughts to start a conversation…
- Find your own rhythm – Do not let others dictate your rhythm and priorities but take time and space to identify and claim a pattern that works for you. Remember the importance of rest and the rhythm Jesus modelled for us. Ensure that your friends and family don’t just feed on crumbs but are able to spend time with you when you are able to offer your fullest self.
- Understand you will change – There are different times and seasons in our lives. What works when we are younger will change as we get older and as our circumstances change. Embrace the change by realising that it means you need to keep working at ensuring a healthy work-life balance.
- Communicate and compromise – Remember that if you don’t tell someone you can’t expect them to know! Be clear in your communication and you can navigate changes with less turbulence. If you’re prepared to compromise with others and be held accountable by them you are more likely to attain a healthy balance in your life. Communication also extends to seeking time with Jesus through prayer.
- Check your motivation – There are seasons of quiet and seasons of busyness but whenever you enter a new season you are offered an opportunity to assess your motivation and to become aware of unhealthy patterns. These seasons occur regularly and are opportune. If you are working from a sense of guilt or to the agenda of another person you will soon become frustrated by the lack of balance in your life, become bitter and lose focus.
- Find simple ways to maintain rhythm (e.g. use a shared calendar) – If you are married/in a relationship then this will really help the work-life balance. It has really helped us to ensure that, at least as far as our diary is concerned, we are in step with each other. By allowing access and instant updates to our shared diary we can ensure that time together and with our friends and family can be given appropriate time amongst work and other pressures. Do yourself a favour though, don’t be like me; keep it up-to-date!