The Myth of Over-Busyness

c81e728d9d4c2f636f067f89cc14862c_1433763822  Convenient, fast, and efficient.  These three words epitomize our cultural fascination with all things technological.  We are a generation of multi-taskers, a society of workaholics, and a group of gregarious extroverts (even if we are internally introverts).  Yet, what does God have to say about our strenuous patterns of over-work?  How does a jam-packed schedule affect our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves?  How does busyness change our relationships at work or within our family?

I have struggled with workaholism most of my life, although I probably would never have described it in those terms until quite recently.  I’ve always enjoyed being right in the centre of whatever was happening.  Being passive is not an option to me.  When I was younger I used to be part of a number of extra-circular activities and clubs.  In university I served on several campus and church ministries while taking a full course-load, and then in seminary I foolishly worked 4 part time jobs while taking 5 master’s level courses and trying to maintain a rigorous social life.  Everyone around me cautioned me that this was not going to be sustainable, but I was convinced that I could make it happen.  I dreaded missing out on anything social, and because social occasions often consist of lunches and dinners out, I knew I had to keep up my work schedule in order to afford having fun.  This continued until my body finally told me that something had to give.

The first time I realized I needed to slow-down was when I was in my first year of seminary.  I had moved to the U.S. to engage in a Peace and Theological Studies program, was working two campus jobs (one in maintenance and one at the library) and was trying to get involved in a local church.  I remember nearly falling asleep one day in the student lounge when someone mentioned that I didn’t look well.  She asked if everything was okay (assuming it was merely an emotional issue).  Almost as a bragging point, I mentioned my intense schedule.  Rather than sharing in my pride, this woman mentioned that she used to be like me, but because of over-working her body and mind, she had suffered 3 mini-strokes within the past year.  I was absolutely stunned.  This woman was not much older than I was!  At most, she was still in her mid-thirties.  I had always assumed strokes and TIAs happened to the elderly due to heart complications.  I had no idea that someone under 40 could experience those kinds of effects due to the sheer burden of stress and physical exhaustion.  I will never forget her wise words of counsel to me: “You need to slow down because if you don’t, your body will make it happen.  Your body knows when enough is enough.”  Since that time I have heard that some of my friends have suffered from seizures and other health complications exactly for the same reason: over-busyness.

I would love to say that I learned my lesson early on, but I am rather stubborn and slow when it comes to learning this invaluable wisdom, so I continued down this slippery slope for several more months.  Eventually it came to a head when my doctor told me that my body was giving out.  You can read more of that story here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/3-things-that-i-wish-everyone-understood-about-burn-out/

God designed our bodies for work, but also for rest and relaxation.  He designed us to be driven and motivated by causes we are passionate about, but he also created us for community and inter-dependence.

What does the Bible say about over-work?  According to the Scriptures, what is the best balance for a work-play-rest rhythm?

  • The Bible tells us to rest.  God Himself set this precedent when He created the world.  The Bible tells us that God worked for 6 days and then He rested.  We know that God is big, mighty, and all-powerful.  Certainly God could have created the earth in one day or even one minute if that’s what He wanted to do.  So why did God stretch out the creation?  Because He wanted to pace Himself.  Because He wanted to show us that we don’t need to accomplish everything all at once.  We can do a little at a time.  Pause.  Reflect.  Appreciate the beauty.  Take time to be grateful for our progress.  Get our creative juices flowing, then start again.  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=NIV
  • The Bible tells us that work is good.  When God created Adam and Eve, He sent them on a mission.  Nowhere in the Scriptures is work portrayed as “a necessary evil” or “the daily grind just to pay the bills” unlike how the majority of people in our world feel today.  The Bible does mention that when sin entered into the world, work became harder.  The ground was less likely to yield a bountiful crop, dishonesty and a “dog-eat-dog” mentality ensued, but still work was good.  Many people in our world feel unsatisfied at their jobs, but they stay on because they feel they need the money.  Work has become the butt of many jokes, “oh, it’s Monday, AGAIN!”  Many people say that they wish they didn’t have to work, but work is such an integral part of our identity that often people who are unemployed or laid-off face the highest rates of depression and low self-esteem.  Rough sleepers long for something to do.  Many of them mention that they would take any job (even a menial one) in order to support themselves.  There is something inherent in our human condition that promotes a healthy sense of pride when we are able to accomplish something and be recognized for it.  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+31&version=NIV
  • The Bible tells us to let the ground lay fallow.  This is something I never understood until I moved to Scotland.  Scotland was probably the first year of my life in which I decided to intentionally take a break, mostly because I had no choice.  Moving to a new country where no one knew me, I didn’t want to come across as some hyper-active kid who needed to get involved in everything and I was also working close to 50 hours a week.  I still went to church, small groups, and other activities, but I made the intentional choice to take a sabbatical.  To take a rest.  To learn from the experience of others.  To let the ground lay fallow.  At first this was very challenging.  There were many moments when I was edging to do a bit more or when I was tempted to brag about my Master’s of Theology in hopes that someone might ask me to lead or serve.  However, this opportunity of being in the background was quite formative for me.  Without the pressure to lead, I was able to learn from the knowledge and life-stage of those much older than me.  I was no longer a kid in my early/mid-twenties giving instruction (as if I actually knew anything), instead I was receiving encouragement from parents, grandparents, and elders.  That year of stepping back taught me humility and patience as those with no theological background were wrestling through Biblical texts.  It taught me new perspectives as 16 and 18 year old explained what the text meant to them.  I’m not saying to lay fallow forever – I know I wouldn’t last.  A year was about as long as I would want to go with no form of leadership or servanthood.  I also feel like because God entrusted me with this type of education and calling it is an important responsibility to minister and use my natural skills and learned abilities.  Nevertheless, it is important from time to time to step back and let someone else take the lead.  Someone who needs to be in charge all the time can often become over-controlling or fall prey to narcissism and self-importance.  Someone who has found the balance between work and rest, between being a leader and being a follower has the potential to be a much more effective minister.  Know your limit, serve within it. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+23%3A11&version=NIV

So, more practically, what does taking a rest mean for the average ministering person?

  • It means practicing self-care.  It means eating healthy, finding the time to exercise, and hanging out with non-ministry friends.  It also means having ministry colleagues who can spur you on and encourage you when you want to quit (because trust me: if you’re in any type of full-time ministry there will be plenty of times when you are ready to give up!)
  • It means making daily devotional time with God a priority.  If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy to serve!  When you have such a busy schedule, it can be difficult to find an hour to really set aside for meditation and to read the Scriptures.  But this is where you will draw your strength from.  Godly friends and good parishioners will only get you so far.  Without the power source, you are powerless!
  • It means keeping your family as your central priority.  This is true both of married pastors as well as those who are single.  If you’re married, it’s so important to keep your spouse central to your ministry.  To make time for him or her and to not neglect his or her needs.  If you’re single, it’s important not to overwork yourself under the myth that you have no other responsibilities.  When your friends start complaining that you aren’t as present as you used to be (or that you are tuning out when you are with them), it’s time to re-evaluate and make a change.  Trust me: some of my friends have mentioned this to me before!  I (and you) need to listen to them!
  • It might mean serving in a different area.  My main calling in life is to serve adults with developmental disabilities.  I absolutely love this, but I also long to do something more in the organized church.  That’s why volunteering in the creche or even ushering has become so important to me.  It adds a bit more variety in my life  – though be careful with how much you are willing to take on.  If you’re already feeling burnt-out in your central ministry, you might want to scale back a bit rather than adding even more activities.
  • It means listening to yourself, to your body, and to God.  It’s learning how to say no, how to accept that you can’t do it all, how to relinquish control.  It’s not beating yourself up if you can’t (or simply don’t want to) do something.  It’s having the courage to ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed.  It’s being able to embrace your limitations.

Sound like something you want to be part of, but don’t know where to start?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • April Yamasaki (one of my fellow MennoNerds) wrote a great book a few years ago on this very topic.  You can find her book “Sacred Pauses” here: https://www.amazon.ca/Sacred-Pauses-Spiritual-Practices-Personal/dp/0836196856.  She also does quite a bit of blogging on this topic at her personal blog: https://aprilyamasaki.com
  • Consider seeing a spiritual director.  I have seen a spiritual director on and off for a number of years now.  This can be a very helpful tool in allowing you time to pause, reflect, and think about your spiritual journey, your calling, and your priorities.  It is different than counselling in the sense that a spiritual director does not look to fix a specific problem, but to journey with you through life’s peaks and valleys.  It is probably more akin to spiritual life-coaching and can be valuable whether for a few sessions or on a more on-going basis
  • If you’re having a difficult time keeping Christ as your priority – spending time FOR Him instead of with HIM, consider asking a close friend or ministry colleague to keep you accountable.  When God sent me as a missionary to Scotland, I had a friend who held me accountable to read the Word 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening.  I used to email her to let her know if I had done this and it really helped to keep me going on days when I was so stressed with work that I could easily have neglected it, had it not been for having to report to another person.  Soon it became a habit and so much a part of me that I was able to do it without sending her constant messages, but to get my feet off the ground and running it definitely helped for the first little bit. (NOTE OF WISDOM: If you miss a devotional time, don’t worry about letting your friend or even God down.  Don’t read the Bible for 2 hours just to make up for it.  We all make mistakes and we all get busy.  Brush yourself off, and start again.  Trying to “make up” time is likely just going to overwhelm you and make you resentful and you’ll be more likely to quit)
  • Finally here’s a blog I wrote a while ago that might be of benefit to you: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/5-prayer-practices-for-preoccupied-people/

Self-care can be a difficult skill to master and the journey can be quite demanding and challenging at times, but it is always so worth it.  When you feel good about yourself and your ministry, it will trickle down to all those you are serving and you will become a much more effective minister of the Gospel.  May God bless you, lead, guide, and direct you on this exhilarating mission!

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The Generous No – Self-Care as a Lenten Discipline

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog reflecting on suffering during the Lent season of 2015.  To read more articles in this series, go to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-lent-2015/.  To find out more about MennoNerds in general, go to http://mennonerds.com/about.

sayingnoThe statistics are shockingly high – 25 percent of North Americans suffer from depression, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and career satisfaction is at an all-time low. Affairs are on the rise, pastor’s kids lament that their father (or mother) spent more time nurturing the church than raising their own family, and even after switching careers five or six times, Canadians still regret not earning the high income they think they deserve.

As a product of this culture, I can readily attest to the strain workaholism can produce on one’s emotional and physical well-being, marriage, and life. I have taken entire courses dedicated to how to care for one’s self spiritually and emotionally while engaging in rigorous ministry, and know all about the slippery slope ignoring your body’s warning signs will send you down. And yet, I choose to ignore them. Time after time, I find myself in the same predicament: over-committed, over-worked, and just about ready to quit.

This year in particular has been a challenging and stressful one for me. While I feel incredibly blessed by the numerous opportunities I have to serve in various ministry placements, an overload of studies and multiple part time jobs can cause me to feel easily annoyed, distant from friends, and over-tired. That’s why, I realized that this year I had to make a change.

It all stemmed from several smaller conversations with friends. I realized that I was getting exasperated with multiple questions, would intentionally avoid social outings so that I didn’t have to be with people, and was living off of 4-5 hours of sleep almost daily.   All of this was very out of character for me. As an extreme extrovert I generally cannot get enough time in with friends, but suddenly enjoyable activities because just added weight to my schedule, taking up time I already didn’t have.

Soon, emotional side effects gave way to physical and even spiritual side-effects. I have rarely been overworked to the point of experiencing head-aches or twitching, but suddenly it was taking place. I began feeling cynical about theological assignments, was frustrated with the amount of church visiting we had to do, and during my weekly seminary check-ins my statement would usually begin with “I’m stressed part 1/part2/part3.”

Having come to the realization that my body was warning me to either slow down or burn out, I was forced to make a decision: what is more important – pleasing people and denying myself or living a healthy and active life doing the things that mean the most to me? I think the answer here is pretty clear: the second one would be difficult at the beginning, but overtime it would produce more fruit leading me into a more impactful ministry in the long-run.

That’s why, this Lent I decided to do something different. Instead of the usual: giving up cookies, cake, chocolates, or Chaucer, I decided to give up my busy schedule. I decided to give up saying yes to things that caused me to be bitter and depressed. Instead, I decided to say no in order to say yes to myself and to the people I truly care the most about.

This hasn’t been easy by a long shot. People still ask me to be their personal taxi, private editor, and empathetic counselor almost every day. Sometimes they guilt me into the task with words like “I thought we were friends,” “I’d do the same for you” or “It’s the Christian thing to do.” But I have gradually had to learn to resist it.

Jesus did tell us to love others, to serve the broken, and to administer justice, but He never once said to do it at the expense of our own lives and our own health. Instead, throughout the New Testament, I see the injunction to love others as freely flowing out of a deep and profound love and respect of ourselves, giving of the excess of our talents and gifts in order that we can keep giving, rather than giving grudgingly out of a depleted stash.

What does this look like, you may ask? It means giving myself permission to say “no” or “not today, maybe later” when someone asks me something the same day my essay is looming. It means allowing myself to say “you didn’t really give me that much notice, do you think we could try again next week?” when the gas prices have skyrocketed and they are asking an unnecessary favour. It means allowing myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour and to get the necessary rest and sleep I need so that I can wake up rejuvenated and alert enough to edit papers, watch children, and stack library books correctly.

In reality, my schedule has not gotten any freer. I still take 5 master’s level classes, work 20 hours a week, and try to make time for friends on the side, but internally something has shifted. Internally, my mind has slowed down and has time to truly process and enjoy what is happening and externally I am back to my usually bubbly self. My weekly time commitments haven’t changed – what’s changed is my ability to reject activities that cause stress. In the end of the day, I see how by saying no to activities that compromise my morals, one-sided friendships, and personal taxiing, I am able to say yes to my young adult’s church group, long-time friends who have gone by the wayside, and soothed nerves that haven’t been exposed to rush-hour traffic in a few days.

I’m far from perfect and I’m still learning how this whole self-care thing works in the long-run. There are still so many brilliant and lovely friends who I haven’t visited with in ages and who I miss dearly. There are still so many activities I wish I could partake in, but reasonably do not have the time to do so.

This year my Lenten practice of engaging in self-care has the potential of developing into a lifelong habit that will continue to sustain me for the long-haul in ministry. May I ask you a question? What’s holding you back? What in your life is propelling you to keep doing the very things that are sucking your energy and draining your zest rather than enlivening and enriching your interactions? May I suggest that this Lent, you identify those problem areas and then lay them at the Cross? May I suggest that you allow Christ to fill your heart and soul with new strength and vitality as you make time for yourself, your friends, and your family?

Psychologists suggest that it only takes about 40 days to make or break a habit. Let’s make this Lent our time to make a habit that will truly matter for the long-run. God bless!