the shape of leadership

Better Than Balanced

Seven ways to reclaim your schedule and prioritize what matters most

Shannon Polk on April 5, 2021

The first book I was assigned for my doctoral program was Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard Swenson. I thought it was an unusual choice for an academic text.

But after some honest reflection about my own tendency to teeter on the brink of burnout, I realized how often I found myself overcommitted and stressed out.

Too frequently as ministers, we pour out of our overflow, our main tank, and our reserves until we’re empty — and even then there is something or someone pulling on the empty spaces.

The pandemic was a wake-up call for getting a handle on my schedule. I thought I was going to have more time because of the closures, but it didn’t happen. There were days when my schedule consisted of nothing but back-to-back Zoom meetings.

I was preparing online messages while simultaneously fielding calls from parishioners needing prayer and helping my second-grader with remote school. The weight of being everything to everyone was overwhelming.

To survive this season, I had to revisit the lessons I learned in graduate school. I believe God wants us to have a manageable schedule — one that reflects His plan for us. But how do we get there?

Here are seven principles I’ve discovered:

1. Pursue integration, not balance. When I imagine work-life balance, I envision someone walking across a narrow beam, trying not to fall off. That is exhausting. However, living an integrated life is more like eating a layer cake, with all the pieces working together in a harmonious fashion.

Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project at the University of Pennsylvania, says an integrated life is about aligning your home, work, community, and personal life in a way that prioritizes what you most value.

2. Create margin. What pet projects are you holding onto out of guilt or pride? These activities may have served you well in the past, but how critical are they today? Consider what activities you could eliminate to create margin for what you most value. Then set clear boundaries — and protect them. Ephesians 5:16 implores us to make the most of our time.

3. Rethink the clock. In Take Back Your Time, Morgan Tyree suggests conducting a time audit. There is usually a gap between how you think you are spending your time and how you are actually using it. Keep a time log for a month to determine what truly has your attention. You may be spending more time on Netflix and social media than you realized.

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). How we spend our money should reflect what we most value, and I believe the same is true of how we spend our time. A time audit can help align desired values and actual values.

4. Do what only you can do, and delegate the rest. I understand the responsibility you feel as a minister to care for your congregants, your community, and your family, but you are not the fourth member of the Trinity. Only Jesus can save the world. Release whatever savior complex may be plaguing you, and start delegating.

Living an integrated
life is more like eating
a layer cake, with all
the pieces working
together in a
harmonious fashion.

Your staff can and should be helping care for parishioners. If you’re married, your spouse can help with household chores. Trust the people around you, and trust God to work through them too.

Of course, there are some things only you can do. So, work hard to make those things your focus.

I recently came to this conclusion: I’m the only mom my daughter has, and I’m the only wife my husband has. After my relationship with God, my family is my first area of focus. I can ask for help with all the other things, like making Sunday dinner, vacuuming the house, or even preaching the next sermon.

5. Remember that self-care is not selfish. Luke 5:16 reveals that Jesus had a habit of getting away and spending time in prayer: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus saw that “so many people were coming and going [the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat.” Jesus said, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” And “they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:31–32).

Are you getting enough alone time? Have you made Sabbath rest a priority? Are you finding time to pray and be still in God’s presence?

Along with being a mom, I was a caregiver to my parents for a time. I was always making sure the people in my life were cared for — and sometimes I did that to my detriment.

Jesus knew you cannot give what you do not have. You have to be clear with the people around you that — just like everyone else — you need food, shelter and rest.

It is not selfish to take a day off, or a week off. If rest, prayer and time away were important to Jesus and His disciples, these things should definitely be priorities for you. As a result, you will be a better pastor, spouse, parent, caregiver and friend.

6. Trust God with the things that matter most. Too often, we spend our time in worry instead of prayer. Rather than wringing our hands, we should be placing the things that are most troubling in the hands of God.

My daughter is a priority in my life. But if I’m unwilling to entrust her into the hands of God, my child will become an idol. If I don’t trust God with my congregants and remember that it’s His church, my ministry will become an idol. You get the point.

To achieve margin and have an integrated life, we must remember God is in charge. Our job is to trust the Lord with what is His.

7. Embrace your season. Solomon wisely observed that there is a time for every season under heaven. At one time, I was happily single. Then I was a happy newlywed. Now I’m in the happy season of motherhood. I remember my teens, 20s, and 30s fondly, and each decade had a beauty in its season.

As I review the seasons of my life, I see places of grace and places of restraint. When I was caregiving for my mother in the final stages of her cancer, it was a beautiful time of closeness between us, but it was also a time when I couldn’t volunteer for ministry the way I could previously.

When I became a new mother, there were certain opportunities I refused because I didn’t want to turn my focus away from my newborn. Now that I no longer have caregiving responsibilities for a parent or baby, I’m saying “yes” to requests I would have turned down then.

You only have 24 hours in a day, and you can’t put five pounds of sugar in a three-pound bag. Don’t try to run across the balance beam. Embrace your season, and live each day integrating your home, work, community, spiritual life, and self-care time.

Protect your boundaries, and concentrate on the things only you can do. If you let God’s truth guide your daily schedule, you will find a rhythm that is even better than “balance.”

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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