Saturday, April 27, 2013

Work, Meaning, Life Finding a Rhythm

A few months ago I came up on this article on LinkedIn about Embracing a Work Life Imbalance in the Harvard Business Review.  The premise of the article is that the more meaningful we find our work the more time we will want to spend at it and that it is selfish to seek a work-life balance.  Comparing meaningful work to falling in love, the more meaningful your work the more time you will want to spend at it just like when you are falling in love there are not enough hours to spend with the person.

I posted the article on Facebook asking about how this applied to ministry.  I did not get much response so I am going to offer some of my reflections, particularly as I sit in the liminal space - listening and seeking for my next job.  Ministry/religious leadership is one of the most meaning-filled jobs I can imagine - for those of us called to it.  At its heart it is about creating spaces and opportunities to help others find and create meaning in their lives.  Whether in worship, a class or one-on-one, the primary role of the religious leader is to help the person or people in the room make meaning.  It is to ask the big questions - why are we here?, what is my purpose? How am I to live? etc.  Most of the religious professionals I know work very hard, long hours, and usually for not for the financial compensation.  In my own experience it is work that is filled with meaning, filled with opportunities to be deeply touched and moved, to be awed by the trust placed in you and the ways, often unknown, that you can touch another person's life.  I am one of those people who have worked long hours, often losing myself in the work because I care so much, take the responsibility that comes with religious leadership so seriously and get so much deep meaning from the work.  So if I take the author's work seriously, then religious leadership exemplifies his point exactly and I should not worry at all about the imbalance of work and life.

Yet I know that deeply meaningful work is not sufficient in and of itself and that the author is not correct that simply having meaningful work is enough.  First I know that the ability to seek and create meaningful work is a privilege and it is becoming a privilege for fewer and fewer people.  Most people work at jobs because they have to - not because it gives them meaning.  Now some of those people find and create meaning in that work but it is not because the work itself is meaningful and others just do the best they can waiting for the day to end.  Some work so they can live - because it puts food on the table and roof over their heads (hopefully!).  Their meaning comes from being able to care for their families. They live for the time away from work and the work is a support to the rest of their lives.

For myself, when I only work, as deeply meaningful as it is, it can lead to exhaustion and to burn out.  Also in a deep irony, not taking time away from work, not finding time away from work for the rest of my life - like my family, caring for myself, taking a walk, reading a novel, actually means I lose the sense of meaning I find in the work.  When I have nothing left to give because I have given it all to the work, then I cannot do the work I am called to do - the work that I love so much.

Also pouring so much into the work, that I don't worry about whether or not it is financially sustainable also drains the meaning and joy found in the work.  When the pay is low, when there are no cost of living increases, benefits that are lacking or too expensive to access - situations that have become all to commonplace and in fact have become the norm, then the job is a source of stress and exhaustion and no amount of meaning can make up for it.  This new reality is not just that of lower income jobs but of middle class jobs - like religious leadership and the reality is that it is stressful (particularly for those of us who grow up with economic privilege - such things are not supposed to happen to us).  When doing work that you love cannot support those that you love, including yourself, then the work is unsustainable.  Money may not be everything, it may not buy happiness, but when there is not enough of it, money becomes THE most important thing - threatening to overshadow one's whole life.

We as religious leaders and communities need to become better advocates for income and benefits - for all those who do the work of religion - not just ministers but those who work to clean and maintain facilities and those who do other programming and the administration.   All too often religious leaders participate in our settling for less than what is just.  We cannot demand that corporations treat people well, when often the staff of congregations have less protection under the law or our congregational budgets do not reflect our stated values.  This is part of the rhythm - what kinds of places of work are we creating in our faith communities?  Are they just? Are they fair?  Do they allow staff time to find a rhythm for their lives?

In contrast to this article, I found this one about what successful people do on their weekends.  This article talks about people unplugging from work.  It talks about spending time with family and friends, turning off their phones, being physically active, and hosting parties. This stands in stark contrast to the previous writer. Here the unplugging, brings refreshment, renewal and the ability to go back to the work ready for its demands. Making time for things other than work, makes people better at their work, better able to find meaning in it and to find more joy in it.

So I wonder if the word we need for this is not so much balance as it is rhythm.  We need a rhythm (thank you Bob Tschannen-Moran for this word) to our lives that meets a variety of needs. We need meaningful work, we need rest, play, time with those we love, we need a sufficient income and benefits. For each of us what this looks like may be different - some of us may need more rest and less play, for others our children may require more time than work, what makes a sufficient income and benefits may be different (for example income and benefits when one is only supporting oneself is different than if you are supporting a family).  Also if work is to be meaningful, then we need time to reflect on what makes it meaningful - on the why of it, not just the doing.

As religious leaders if we are to do the amazing work of helping others make meaning, than we cannot neglect the rest of our lives.  We need our own time away from the work - for play, for rest, for reflection.  We must practice what we are preaching. We need to find a rhythm that works for us - and make it visible - so it becomes part of our ministry.

Because it isn't just about us, our care, our well-being but about the well being of all of us.  If we are practicing what we preach, then we stand in a better place to advocate for those who have less voice - less privilege to enjoy a work-life rhythm.  Because meaningful work, a meaningful life should not be reserved to a privileged few but rather a precious human right enjoyed by all.

May it be so!