We recently reflected on this statement: maybe the answer isn’t to work harder. Turns out we can question an entire culture of overwork and over functioning.
But how much work is enough?
A few months back, my coach asked me the exact same question. She had watched me wrestle for a couple years now with my relationship to work. For those who have work that comes home with us in the form of optional projects or required care for others that goes long beyond “normal office hours,” this is a career-long question. Like an incorrigible woodpecker, it taps away at the edges of our sanity. Have I done enough for today?
Because it’s never done.
In pastor circles, we know there’s always more people to check in on. Widows, the homebound, the ill, the couples struggling to stay together, the teen going through a tough season, the immigrant stuck in an unjust system, the new parent who feels isolated, the new retiree discerning what’s next.
In writer circles, there’s always more words, stories, characters and observations to bring to life.
In parenting circles, there’s always more love, boundaries, meals, baths, new responsibilities and conversations to engage.
You could add your own list of tasks in your field that are never finished.
The work is never done. This is simply the nature of most of our work.
Which begs the question: how much is enough?
I begged my coach to tell me the answer to this question. I’ve asked co-workers for the answer to this question. I’ve questioned mentors, read books, scanned the internet and came up empty. No one would tell me how much was enough for me.
This was apparently work I’d have to do for myself.
It felt like I walked to my mailbox and opened up an invitation to journey deep into some tough areas: Trust, guilt, identity, work cultures I inherited, fear, lack of respect for my heart and body.
Like a detective snooping around in my own soul, I learned some life-changing things in that next season:
- I LOVED my work. I felt called to it. It wasn’t just a job. It was a way of life. So when it came time to put work away, I missed the projects and activities that made me feel alive. Resting and not working felt boring. It was fun to pick up my computer and do a little more work. Send one more text. Schedule the next gathering. Plus, it’s in the name of a calling I adore. It’s not really work.
- I kept working hard, in part, because it’s where I got public affirmation. I was appreciated, thanked and loved. I imagine people shared it because it genuinely made a difference in their life. But my places of unhealth took it as a clarion call to keep earning and proving and striving. Just wait. I can do more. I will earn your love and praise. I’ll prove to you I’m good. Because honestly, I don’t believe it about myself yet.
- I kept working because there were literally people who needed help. How could I know of their problems and not do something to help?
- I didn’t trust myself to determine my own work boundaries. I looked for cues from others. What hours were they keeping? What did they say yes and no to? I’ll just do what they do. That must be what’s right.
- And then I got confused when I watched colleague after colleague burnout. When pastors got together, there was often complaining and cynicism about workload, exhaustion and isolation. A theme emerged: pastors feel called, but not fully alive in this work. There’s something about it that’s not sustainable. I can’t stop because no one else is stopping. If I take two days off each week, they’ll judge me for not working hard enough. If I use all my vacation days, I’ll fall behind somehow.
- I didn’t have a great relationship with my body. I was scared of pain and avoided it. I didn’t trust my body to tell me what it needed. I was disconnected from my body. It was simply a vehicle to get me places. I did not fully inhabit my body. Which meant I didn’t know how to care for it well. Food, exercise, rest, play, delight and responding to emotions were blurry to me. If they happened, it was on accident, certainly not on purpose. Just keep going. Don’t stop. My body will somehow figure out how to keep up.
- And a word about fear and being a woman. There’s a picture of soccer star, Megan Rapinoe, that’s quickly becoming iconic. Her arms outstretched with a confident smile on her face. It means different things to different people. To me, it’s a woman taking up her space. She’s not living from a small, timid place, but from an open and expansive one. In recent years, I connected with the fear I have as a woman of taking up too much space. Ironically, one can keep busy with work as a way to avoid taking a risk and stepping into places of deeper work that invite courage and boldness. I’ll just keep busy with this because there’s no way I could do that. This is good enough.
Mix all that in with a fibromyalgia diagnosis at 17-years-old and I was forced to figure out the answer to the question earlier than most people.
If I didn’t explore this, I wasn’t going to be able to function and serve anybody, let alone be healthy enough to enjoy my one holy life.
How much is enough?
I offer two practices that changed the game when it came to working rhythms: Palms Up and Sabbath. If you’ve been a reader for any length of time, these answers won’t surprise you. They’re my answers for just about everything. And for good reason. They work.
This is a contemplative stance I learned from Dr. Elaine Heath over ten years ago. It’s a way of being in the world that invites a posture of deep surrender and trust.
Cooperate with God
Release the Outcome
Practicing this rhythm for a decade now has changed not just my life, but the way I move inside it. It’s changed the posture of my heart and spirit. My mind journeyed through panic attacks and high-functioning anxiety and this palms up way of living breathed me home. I write about it a good bit in an every other week email I send out. Join us if you’re curious to dig in a little more.
Abraham Heschel, Rob Bell, Wayne Muller, Shauna Niequest, Marva Dawn, Walter Bruggeman and many others have taught me about Sabbath over the years.
“We belong to a culture that can’t catch its breath; rather, we refuse to catch our breath. God doesn’t pull any punches here: The Sabbath is holy. Not lazy, not selfish, not unproductive; not helpful, not optional, not just a good idea. Holy.” – Jen Hatmaker
Sabbath is a change in time. We put down our work so it doesn’t drive us. We rest and play because it is holy resistance to a culture that hisses at us to keep up. The God-given rhythm of Sabbath will save us in this time we find ourselves in.
I am convinced of this because it saves me every single day. Sabbath contains an inherent belief that my work is not what defines me. Sabbath is when I pause and remember who I really am. A child of God. Already loved. Already enough.
I am not all that “good” at Sabbath. I still wrestle with the voices I named above. They’re not as strong as they used to be. I can shush them and move on much easier. But Sabbath is sacred resistance because it takes intention and work. It’s a muscle that can get stronger.
On my very first Sunday in Marysville, I told my new friends how much Sabbath has saved me. I close my computer on Thursday afternoons and I don’t open it until Saturday afternoon. I arrange our church life together so there are lots of people to help and I’m not the only one. We built in a value of sustainable rhythms for the entire church family. We set the value and have stuck with it for the past four years.
With a chronic illness, a husband and two young kids, I would argue a Sabbath practice is the primary way I’ve been able to not just enjoy ministry, but feel fully alive in it.
In fact, one of my life goals is to see if I can help lead healthy thriving churches and not run myself into the ground. That’s how poor our culture was when I entered professional ministry. That was my bar. Could I do this and not die from burnout? So far, so good. It feels sustainable and I’m doing work I feel called to.
So how much work is enough?
This question keeps me stuck in hustle culture. Let me just find a way to exist inside a smog-filled cocoon of insane pace.
Instead, why don’t we bring fresh clean air to our polluted work cultures?
We can live a palms up rhythm that includes stopping when it’s time to stop. Not because the work is done. But because it’s time to stop.
We keep waiting for others to tell us when to stop. That’s not how this works. We do the work to know ourselves, why we work, why we resist rest and then we choose to practice something that saves us.
I’d love to hear how you’re navigating that conversation in this season of your life. How do you know when you’ve hit your limit? How do you set boundaries to help you stop earlier?
We need each other. Especially if we’re going to change our burnout culture from the inside out. God has a different dream for how we can live, serve and partner together to welcome the beloved community of God in this place. I’m so thankful to be a part of that with you.