Every week the Alban Institute, an organization dedicated to fostering healthy clergy and congregations, sends out an on-line newsletter filled with pithy bits about life, church, ministry and leadership. This week’s focus on healthy practices features an excerpt from David Edman Gray’s book Practicing Balance: How Congregations Can Support Harmony in Work and Life. Edman offers 10 practices to follow and they represent a reminder of what each of us – clergy and laity – needs to do if we are to make informed and discerning choices about how to balance the myriad competing demands in our lives.
Rather than trying to restate what Edman has already said so well, I have appended the 10 practices– along with his explanations. He says that they have made a difference in his ability to achieve balance in his life and work.
1. Begin each day with a centering phrase. I have found that saying a centering phrase over and over first thing in the morning helps me begin the day with centeredness and balance. Some mornings I wake up feeling stressed and pressed. Maybe I went to bed the night before feeling anxious, or I was awakened by the children several times during the night, or I had a bad dream. But if I say my phrase over in my mind several times before I get out of bed in the morning, my head feels much clearer, and I feel more positive and less anxious.
2. Pray daily. When you are frustrated with balance issues, pray. When you are upset at your work situation or boss, pray. When you are frustrated with your kids, pray. Prayer is a critical practice when it comes to work-life balance. It is the original, calming practice that Jesus taught and that connects us to God. Prayer calms, refocuses, and provides the spiritual strength we need to find balance in our days.
3. Care for your body. God has given you one body for this life. Caring for it allows you to do your work and to care for others. Eating healthfully is important. Especially when we are traveling or working hard, we tend not to eat so well, but our diet contributes greatly to our health. Exercise has great rejuvenating effects. My daily exercise is critical to my well-being. When I am feeling stressed and out of balance, few things can rebalance me like exercise.
4. Simplify your life. Jesus and his disciples lived simply. Read Mark 6:6-9:
“Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” Jesus had access to all the riches of heaven but chose to live simply and called on his disciples to do the same. Figure out what is most important to you in life and hold on to it dearly. Let the rest go.
5. Come to terms with your relationship with money. Our desire to accumulate and spend can spur us to work extreme hours in order to make more money. We must develop a habit of budgeting our money and living within our means. We can easily get caught up in the culture of consumption to the point where we feel we must work as much as possible in order to afford the lifestyle we think we want. If we can appreciate the need for and benefits of money while watching our expenses and not allowing the desire to make money to become our dominant value, then we can more easily make the choice to spend our time on activities other than work.
6. Designate a quiet space in your home for rest. It is important to have a space in your home to which you can retreat when feeling pressed. This is particularly essential when your family includes young children and the house can become loud. The space doesn’t have to be large, but it does need to be a sanctuary for you.
7. Invite the Holy Spirit into each activity. We are at our best when we invite God’s Spirit into each activity of our lives. I have a friend who has helped me think of my work and family lives as more integrated with my spiritual life. She has encouraged me to think of parenting as a spiritual time, not as a distraction. That way, each movement of my parenting can be a spiritual experience. Thinking of the routines of life as spiritual practices can make these moments sacred and can allow us to be more fully present with children and spouses, rather than viewing routines like child care as obligations one has to get through.
8. Go on retreats and vacations. Rest is important enough that we should also set aside significant periods of time dedicated to it. Our bodies, minds, and spirits need to lie fallow, like farmland, in order to be refreshed. Taking a week or two of vacation can help do that. However, 43 percent of Americans do not even take all their vacation days. Those are important opportunities for rest, and we should make the most of them.
9. Commit to spending regular time with family and friends. Having good times with family and friends can balance our work and caregiving responsibilities. Meals are important times to connect with family. Having dinner with family can be difficult for pastors and other congregational leaders who have evening meetings, so we need to find other times for fun with family and friends. Whenever possible, I try to come home for dinner before returning to church for meetings. I meet monthly with a group of men for fellowship. I participate in a monthly clergy support group. They make a great difference for me. The perspective and support we gain from relationships can make such a difference when we are stressed, overwhelmed, and trying to balance work and life.
10. Take a break each evening before bed. There is an old saying, “Don’t go to bed angry.” I think we should add, “Don’t go to bed right after doing work.” For many years I worked late into the evening after my family was asleep, sometimes past midnight. However, I got to the point where I knew I needed more sleep. After my twin girls were born, I decided to put a limit on my evening work. My grandfather used to say, “This is enough for today. That’s what the good Lord made tomorrow for.” I have made those words my evening mantra.
I readily admit that I’m far from perfect in following all of these practices with absolute regularity, but I do my best to stick to several without fail. Erdman quotes author Annie Dillard who said, “How you spend your days is how you spend your life.”
How are you spending the days of your one precious life?