I have often been asked how I keep my “work” and “spiritual” lives separate? There are questions behind that question.
- How do I keep a vital spiritual life when constantly pouring out?
- How does one step away from the needs and demands in order to restore?
- How does one keep the Person of Jesus Christ as the center rather than “ministry work”? (Yes, they can be one in the same, and they cannot be, too!
1 Timothy 4:16 warns “watch your life and your doctrine.” A counselor gave that verse to me during a “burnout” period in my ministry. I didn’t know I was burning out; I just knew I was having a harder time coping with the demands of ministry and life. Upon describing what I was experiencing, my counselor informed, “You’re struggling with burnout.” I had no idea what burnout was, so I went home and almost burned out on researching burnout. Type A temperament showing.
Turned out the stress from work and life was like carrying around 10 lbs. of sugar in a 5 lb. bag. It was too much. Being a pastor and a pastor’s wife meant my support system was limited. You can carry more stress if you have a strong support system. (That’s why Scripture calls us to “carry one another’s burdens.” Galatians 6:2) Dr. Barnes told me I needed to “get rid of some sugar.” It’s not so easy to do. How do you “get rid” of a difficult child, or strong husband, or a job, or a broken back, or…? There didn’t seem to be much I could remove.
He also asked me to consider what my underlining motivators were that caused me to carry around too much sugar. (It’s a great question we should all be asking ourselves.) After much time in prayer and examination, I realized I had three:
- I can do it.
- I can do it better than most.
- If I don’t, she will go undeveloped.
By the way, they are true. I can do a lot. I was raised working, my plate is big, and I’m pretty capable. (Don’t worry, I’m not bragging. I’m just taking Paul’s words to heart when he called us to have an accurate assessment of the self. Romans 12:3)
I also can do specific things better than most, mostly because of the Spirit’s gifting and because I’ve taken years in becoming skilled in specific areas. So it’s not bragging to say, “I’m pretty damn good at that.” In fact I think it’s time for women in particular to own up to their giftings (and yes, I know God is the one who gives it!)
And most women will go untrained. Statistics state it. It’s true, and I hate that. I want to ennoble women. I want every woman to realize what Jesus has placed in her and to rise up to be fully her in his name and through the power of his Spirit. But I had to realize I wasn’t the Messiah. Some will go untrained, and Jesus has that! It’s hard to let Jesus be Jesus sometimes.
I’m grateful for Dr. Barnes’ counseling. The tools he gave equipped me to watch my life and doctrine better. Probably one of the most helpful tools he gave was to embrace the God-given rhythm he placed within me. The natural world has God-given rhythms; I have them, too, and so do you. They aren’t all the same. My life and work rhythm is to run like a racehorse for 9 months. For 9 months I travel, teach, and preach. Pastoring, preaching, and praying require an intensely relational season. It’s a time in which I must stay immensely in tune with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit informs and transforms. My job is to watch and listen closely for his movement and voice – and then to speak on God’s behalf accordingly. Constantly observing, listening, asking, and responding to the Spirit and to people can be exhausting.
For nine months I run like a racehorse, but then I stop. I guess you could say I leave the racetrack and head to the pasture.
I’m gone, not to be found. Usually the pasture is in the northeast where my mind, body, and soul feast. We all have different places and spaces where God speaks, breathes and offers Menuha (deep stillness of the soul). For me, it’s where there are trees, and breeze, and water, and mountains, and flopping hydrangeas and peonies along sidewalks.
I go home to the land I grew up on – to the people who birthed me – to my blood family, and I plant my feet once again in the soil of home. (I specify blood family because I believe Jesus gives us honorable kin, too, who are as much “family” as blood relatives are.)
But feasting in the northeast pasture doesn’t mean I’m done listening and responding to Jesus. After all, when do we do that? When does a follower stop following? Truth is I spend my three months in the pasture so I can continue to create. To write. Writing requires solitude. So in the summer I write and write.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to people Jesus brings while I stroll along in the pasture. My definition of “ministry” has been to live and love like Jesus wherever I am. Bible study. Preaching from a stage. At the grocery store. At a café.
Even on a dock in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Steve and I are in Portsmouth, NH, for a week. He’s in meetings, and I’m working from a coffee shop. At night we walk down the streets edged with flopping hydrangeas and across a drawbridge with tug boats and sailboats in view, to Morrisons, our favorite seafood place. The place is a shed on a dock with red and white plastic chairs around white plastic tables. Nothing fancy. You can order steamed lobster or clams and some corn on the cob. Bring your own drinks… and cups for that matter. We order 3 lbs. of steamed clams and some corn and then pour a glass of red wine. As we feast, we talk about life and love and dream dreams for our future.
To the left was a woman in her early 40s, and she was awkwardly holding a young baby whose maybe 6 to 9 months old. As a seasoned mother, it was obvious to me that she was a first time mom. She and her husband looked shell-shocked. She excused herself to go breastfeed the baby. When she returned, she kept trying to soothe the baby while her husband finished up his buttery lobster.
My heart ached for them. I’d been there.
She stood up and bobbed her baby on her hip. It was a perfect moment to open conversation. “How old is your baby?”
“It’s your first, right?”
By now her husband had finished his dinner and stood.
“How’s it going?” (I already knew, but it’s important and empowering for women to voice it.)
“It’s been a transition.”
Bingo. That’s code for “I’m overwhelmed”.
Immediately I shared how I never wanted children and hated the baby stage. She was taken back at my brutally honest statement. I’ve made up my mind to share the truth with women because no one did with me and I spent years wondering if I was a bad mother, or a weird woman because I didn’t LOVE having kids. Guess what, not every woman loves mothering.
We spent the next 30 to 45 minutes sharing. The more I confessed and the more I shared how I was a good mom even though I didn’t like mothering, the more hope showed up. I could almost hear her mind churning, “Maybe I’m not a bad person. Maybe I’m not a horrible mother. Maybe this is normal. Maybe I’m normal.”
While I was away from the racetrack eating lobster on a dock, Jesus showed up. It wasn’t some planned ministry event. It wasn’t teaching or preaching Scriptures or pastoring per se. It was just two women talking, and in the midst of it, living and loving like Jesus happened.
That’s why I’ve never had a good answer when asked how I balance ministry and spiritual life. I’ve never been able to turn off “living and loving like Jesus.” It’s not an on/off button. It’s a lifestyle. It is following this amazing, out-of-this-world generous Savior and trying like crazy to think, live, and love like him. But lifestyle also influences flow and rhythm – and sometimes that flow goes the opposite way. If I’m brutally honest, sometimes when I run into a person the last thing I want to do is live and love like Jesus. Sometimes I want to stomp my feet and declare that I think I’ll live and love like Jackie. It doesn’t last, but it is part of the rhythm of real life. We need to be honest that this walking with Jesus is rugged messiness. It is not some simple answer of “do this and that, and you will have balance and all will be good.”
It’s embracing the real rhythm of real life and living fully in it.