What is work-life imbalance? You might answer that question by reflecting on your own life. Do you feel stretched and unsettled? Does it seem like you never have enough time to do everything you feel you need and want to do? Do you experience conflicts between your job and your family life? Do you feel you cannot get enough rest, volunteer at your church as often as you’d like, or devote enough time to your own physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being? Do you have trouble finding harmony between the things you must do and the things you would like to do? Do you rush from appointment to appointment, frequently multitasking? Do you feel as if your life is fragmented, leaving you with insufficient time to accomplish things that require a significant time investment? These feelings could well be symptoms of work-life imbalance.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Millions of Americans feel they are rushing through life and experience competition between their work and non-work lives. Parents of young children often feel especially squeezed between work requirements and family obligations. Chances are your congregation is full of families that are experiencing such pressure; if not, chances are that you would like your congregation to be full of such people. Christian congregations of most denominations and traditions have been losing members in recent years and are experiencing “graying” trends as their memberships age. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, saw its membership decline by 3 percent during 2009, and the average age of members is sixty-one.1 As leaders look to help their congregations grow, particularly by attracting families with children, we would do well to understand, account for, and offer resources that address work-life imbalance.
Moreover, congregations of all faith traditions are called to meet the needs of their communities and world and to help members deal with the problems they face. Beyond that, members of many faith traditions—from Muslims to Hindus to Jews to Christians—take seriously the call to care for our world by trying to improve it. As they seek to energize, educate, equip, console, and strengthen their members, U.S. congregations should care about and address the challenges and stresses their members face. The mission of many faith communities includes helping members deal with the anxieties of our culture in order to live more fruitful lives. Stress and imbalance can prevent us from developing a deeper connection with God and from enjoying life. The relationship of work and family life in America has changed over the past few decades. Families are different today from what they were a generation or two ago. In 1970, almost two-thirds of married couples had one spouse at home full-time to handle the needs of the family. Today, more than 58 percent of married couples have both parents working outside the home. Many families must negotiate and juggle the demands of work and family in ways that were unknown to previous generations. School events compete with church activities. Many Americans whose children are no longer in the home are now trying to figure out how to take care of aging parents. Smartphones, laptop computers, and other mobile devices allow people to take their work with them wherever they go. These developments add to the imbalances between work and life experienced by many modern American families.
One reason Americans feel so stretched is that we have a complicated relationship with work. Work outside the home is important to most Americans. Most of us need to work a paid job to make a living. Work also provides a sense of purpose and meaning, because we find value in contributing to activities, organizations, and causes in the workplace. Work in the home is important too. The jobs we do raising children and caring for one another are vital. They are also not easy. They are also work.
These situations have personal, national, and religious implications. Many of us are harming our health through overwork. But each one of us who struggles with overwork and imbalance in life has an opportunity to make a change. We should take seriously the goal of living with balance. I take this issue personally. For much of my professional life I have either worked hard at my job, worked more than one job, or worked while also attending school. Along with my wife, who has also worked outside the home part of that time, I now share the responsibility of trying to raise four children. The biggest challenge I face in life is finding balance. My life as a pastor, researcher, husband, father, son, and citizen contains a mixture of joys, challenges, and sorrows, but at the center is the challenge of handling all these activities and still remaining balanced, healthy, and happy.
As a parent and as a pastor who has the privilege of listening as people share their challenges, I increasingly hear about the work-life conflicts that people face. I have had dozens of conversations with people who have spoken about their struggles to find balance in life. As individuals with relationship, financial, and health issues have sat in my pastoral office and described their challenges, I have become increasingly convinced that work-life imbalance is at the heart of many of the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual problems people face.
I believe work-life imbalance has become a national issue. Fortunately, the problem is gaining the attention of business and union leaders. Many companies and organizations are working on work-life balance solutions as a business strategy at both local and national levels. Moreover, the issue has caught the attention of policy makers in Washington. Numerous bills have been introduced in Congress to address the fundamental mismatch between the needs of U.S. workers and families and the structure of work in America.
As I have read the social science research, listened to people’s struggles, studied theology as a pastor, and dealt with my own work-life imbalance, I have come to believe that increasing workplace flexibility and deepening individual spiritual practice are two of the most important solutions that can help Americans—and particularly Christians in congregations—live a balanced life. Greater workplace flexibility can allow people to attend more realistically to both their employment and family lives. Enriched spiritual practices can keep people emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy, so that they are able to meet their responsibilities and live life to the fullest.
1 PCUSA Office of the General Assembly report, June 29, 2010.
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This article is adapted from Practicing Balance: How Congregations Can Support Harmony in Work and Life by David Edman Gray, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. This forthcoming Alban publication is due out in September.
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