Mind Your Margins

medium_3341494391 Do college students still mess with the margins in order to make their papers appear longer? Or has that practice fallen away in the age of email and word counts?

(And how dumb did we think our profs were to fall for that?)

My family's yearning for Sabbath began several years ago when we realized that our lives hummed along perfectly well, so long as nothing went wrong. We jam-packed our days and worked to exhaustion, which was fine so long as nobody got sick or the basement never flooded. Regular periods of rest gave us some emotional decompression time and also helped us think about the rest of our week differently.

What we were doing was minding our margins. I prefer "margins" to boundaries, which feels too unyielding to be helpful amid the complexity of life. But even with the looser language, margins are hard for me.

After James was born, I went to a half-time schedule and became very good at efficient scheduling. I suspect it was hard on some of the folks I worked with, whose model for ministry was more "be open to what comes and savor the interruptions." Yes, ministry is about relationships. And interruptions are a part of the package. But as an associate pastor in a programmatic position with 20-25 hours on the clock each week, there were certain things that needed to get done each day.

I still like back to back meetings---random 25 minute blocks of time between appointments make me a little batty. Like many of you, a lot of my work involves thinking and writing, and I can barely get my metaphorical pencils sharpened in 25 minutes.

That said, it's important to build adequate margin between appointments, especially if those meetings have a heavy emotional undercurrent to them---or you think they might.

Plus, you know... traffic.

The goal for me, as always, is flow: an effortlessness and mindfulness to what I'm doing. In those moments I am neither rushed nor languishing. I am just... in time.

Yesterday was a tight-margin day in which I moved in and out of flow, and even had to cancel something because I'd packed things in too tightly. First up was a coffee appointment with someone to plan an event I'm doing in January. We met at the Starbucks, because right after that a church member and I were doing some de-cluttering, to get ready for some high school band students whom we'd hired to do some schlepping to the dumpster. That took longer than I'd expected, which led to the cancellation. After lunch and some emails and phone calls, I had a quick run, which had to be cut short (another too-tight margin). Then it was a hospital visit and home with the kids.

As I type it, it seems frenetic, like a lot of chopped up experiences and harried distraction. And given the need to cancel stuff, clearly I'd planned too much. But I didn't feel harried at all. The Starbucks conversation meandered and flowed and ended when it needed to. I was not checking my watch at the hospital; there was sufficient time, and I had prearranged with my neighbor to get the kids at the bus stop so I could take my time.

So yesterday was good, on the whole. But there are just as many jam-packed days in which I feel like I'm all elbows and stubbed toes. I'm hard-pressed to figure out what makes the difference. In the meantime, I'll chalk it up to the work of that mysterious Holy Spirit.

photo credit: CarbonNYC via photopin cc

Part-Time Ministry: Love It and Lump It

Another follow-up from my recent discussions about motherhood and working. People ask me a lot about what part-time ministry is like. This is the second church I have served in a part-time capacity, and I love it. And it's also hard.

I will often---often---hear people say that part-time ministry doesn't really exist. Yes, it does.


It does.

No, really. It does.

Stop saying it doesn't. It becomes self-fulfilling. And it's kinda belittling of the experience of many of us who make it work.

Are you saying you couldn't do it? Why not? Because you require the full-time income? Because you are the/a primary breadwinner? Because you went to seminary and have loans to pay back? That's all real, and I don't know what to say, other than peace be upon you. In all these discussions the church is having about churches shrinking and full-time positions going away, I hope there will always be enough positions for people who need full-time work and are called to them. Especially folks who have already been through the process of seminary education, which is expensive in its current form.

But others say they'd like to work part-time, but they are such perfectionists, you see. They say they lack the discipline or boundaries to make it work. They'd end up working way more by default. They are so conscientious, so responsive, and there's nobody else who can do what they do, that they couldn't stand to let their churches down. (Like part-time ministers apparently do? And like full-time ministers don't?)

Now, not every ministry situation can work on a part-time basis. But with good planning, compassionate boundaries, and a church that is excited (or at least accepting) of part-time ministry as more than just a money-saver, but as a way to share ministry and give their minister a well-rounded life, this can work. And there are many different constituencies who might appreciate the part-time rhythm. Folks caring for aging parents. Artists, musicians and writers who want time to work on their other vocation. Folks nearing retirement who still have gifts to give but want to slow down. And people like me: parents with young children.

Here are some challenges:

  • Not really feeling I belong anywhere. I'm not quite home enough with my kids to do the radical homemaker thing. We often do the convenience foods for dinner, I'm a hopeless non-gardener (though a BIG fan of the farmers' market), and I haven't quite gotten it together to be a regular volunteer for the Girl Scouts or at school. We are often in a hurry because there's less margin for error in our schedule.

    On the flip side, I sometimes sense a devaluing of part-time pastors. Like we can't cut it, or we rely on others to do the heavy lifting. Some of this may be in my head. But I do have a friend who sought a non-traditional career path and was once introduced by someone at presbytery to another colleague, saying, "This is so-and-so. We had such hopes for her but she's just not living up to her potential." Truth.

    It's also sometimes harder to get us to volunteer for service to the larger church because we have less room in our schedule to play with.

  •  Financial. I have always been blessed with congregations who are as generous with me as they are able to be. They have bent over backwards and I've never had to play hardball to receive what I feel I deserve. But it is still a little jarring to look at a 1/2- or 2/3-time salary and think, "I have been out of college for almost 20 years." There's just an initial "yikes" factor.
  • Being content with "good enough." That sounds like a benefit, right? But it's reeeeeally hard. I will often finish a sermon, class prep, whatever, and think, With a little more time, that would have been really awesome. There's also a whole lot of ministry that's just about showing up, slowing down, being present in goodly portions of time with people. That is a definite loss. If you're not careful, part-time ministry can be all about accomplishing tasks. Something gets lost in that.

Here are some joys, large and small:

  • Flexibility. I find this true of ministry in general, but especially part-time ministry. If I'm really cooking on e-mail or my sermon, I work well into the night. I go for runs in the middle of the day. I take off a day to do the school field trip and make it up some other time. I even (gasp!) feel fine with working on what is usually my day off, because it all evens out in the long run.
  • Lower expenses. When you're not going to an office/church five days a week, you spend less on stuff like gas and fancy clothes. I can justify the expensive makeup I like because there are days, when I'm off or working from home, that I don't even put any on, so it lasts a long time.
  • Less stress. Unless I have a specific reason to get on the road early, I will often work from home until rush-hour traffic clears out, then head to the church.
  • Lowered expectations. Don't get me wrong; people expect good things from their ministers. I'm not excusing sloppy work. But I'm fortunate at Tiny Church to have people who understand that I am at best bi-vocational and really tri-vocational (with the writing). Really, they could not be more gracious in this, even giving me grace when I want to be hard on myself. For example, recently I had planned to meet with a person from church to discuss some non-acute pastoral care things. I found out the night before that there was a preschool thing that Margaret really wanted me to attend. I sheepishly asked the person whether we could reschedule, and the answer was instant: "Yes, absolutely. That is totally fine and preschool is where you need to be. Next week will be great."
  • Many eggs in my basket means less pressure on the church to be my end-all-be-all. Many pastors are able to be well-rounded, but others have very little life outside the church. I have a lot of projects and vocations that fill my time. That means if something is going badly at the church, it's not the end of my world. It's just one part of the totality of my life.

    Paradoxically, I think this dynamic can be good for the church in the long run. My worth as a human being is not tied up in the success of the church, which means we can all just be ourselves, play, try some things, see what works, let stuff go, and not get enmeshed and codependent. (For the record, of course you can cultivate this perspective in full-time ministry. And... should.)

  • The opportunity to be a minister. As complicated as it can be with scheduling, etc., I would choose part-time ministry over no ministry, any day of the week. Those of you who are pastors know the joys. Even the challenges can be joys. Being with a family whose loved one has died is not fun. But it is holy, significant work. I have the best job in the world. That said, I do think it's possible to have too much of a good thing. I'm not saying full-time ministry is always and everywhere too much, but the slower pace allows me to savor a lot.

    When I remember to do so.

Would You Work Part-Time if You Could?

Someone told me recently, "I work 10 hours a day and can barely keep up. I love what I do in my job, I just wish there were less of it." When I hear things like this I feel grateful that I am able to work part-time. I work 2/3 time and because I work evenings, weekends, and am always "on call," the mid-week hours are more flexible. So I can take my kids to the park, or get my haircut in the middle of the day and avoid the rush. I don't have to find time to squeeze in some exercise---it's built into each and every day.

Yes, it's challenging sometimes. There is a sense of "falling behind" career-wise. And as a friend and fellow PT pastor put it, "It's hard, feeling like if you just had a liiiiiiittle more time to spend, this thing you're working on could be REALLY great." I knew what she meant. And I know part-time work is not economically viable for everyone. I choose to work part-time because I like it---it allows me to live a more well-rounded life---but I'm able to work PT because my spouse doesn't. And I feel a pang of guilt when he pulls out of the driveway at 6:50 a.m. to beat the traffic to work, before the kids are even awake. (Getting them out of the house singlehandedly is no trip to the spa, mind you, but that's another post.)

I hear people talking about what we're learning from the economic downturn. Some of us hope there will be a resurgence in old-fashioned stuff like saving and living within one's means. One thing I'm hearing again and again is that many of the jobs that are gone are not coming back. High unemployment could be with us for years. What are we going to do about it?

I'm wading into territory I know little about, but I've wondered whether we'll see the rise of part-time work, and whether we can find ways to make that a healthy change and not just a "best we can do"  thing. There's nothing sacred and eternal about the forty-hour work week. It became the national standard only in the 1930s, though its roots are much older. It was meant to protect workers from being forced to work too much, not to force them to work "enough." Futurists in the last century predicted that labor-saving devices would allow us to work less and have much more leisure time, yet that doesn't seem to be the case. We work more than the citizens of any other industrialized country and take much less vacation.

Could more part-time work be part of the answer? Churches all over the place are downshifting full-time staff positions to part-time ones, often with a great sense of shame. Of course these are people's jobs we're talking about. But I know folks who would work PT if they could---if they could work out the personal budgetary issues and if their workplace would let them. The person I quoted above would never dream of asking to work part-time because it would be seen as a lack of loyalty, or that the individual "can't cut it." If PT workers become more of a norm, maybe that reluctance would change.

Of course one of the major barriers is economic---would people make enough to live on? (That's where the simplicity/saving stuff comes into play.) And we'd either have to make PT employees eligible for health insurance, or de-couple healthcare from employment (I favor the latter, but that too is another post.)

If the jobs really aren't coming back... what will we do?

Would you work part-time if you could? And are there other barriers besides economics that stop you from doing so?