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A Vacation Time out: A Season for Reflective, Balanced Leadership

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot, . . . a time to be silent”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 7 NIV Bible)

In a world that is constantly speeding up — faster cars, faster computers (when they work), and the high-touch world of cell phones and text messaging– one wonders, Is there ever a time when we actually stop and get away from any and all forms of communications? I remember my amazement at the creation of the cordless phone, the answering message, and call-waiting. With call-waiting, I could actually click over and answer the phone, while I was still on the phone talking to someone else! That was so wonderful. I would never miss a call again. But now, years later technology has also brought the expectation of constant accessibility, especially for pastoral or ministry leaders. Instead of leaving a message with an assistant or the voicemail, people expect instant contact. If you do not pick up or text them back right away, they leave messages like: Why didn’t you answer? I called/texted you five minutes ago. Are you avoiding me?

Truly, there is a generational gap in the use of technology. There are those who have grown up with cell phones and laptops and then there are people like me, who were introduced to computers as adults and cell phones much later. But regardless of your generation, there is a desperate need for us all to recover the concept of a “Sabbath rest.” We have 24 hours/7 days a week access to stores and many other places. People have adapted their working schedules and lives accordingly.

Most recently, even the family holiday of Thanksgiving has been interrupted by merchants who decided it would be a good time to start their Christmas sales early. This decision forced some employees to cut their holiday short and to go back to work for the evening or midnight shift. The stress and strain of constant accessibility manifests itself in our physical and mental health, our lack of patience with one another, and most covertly, our feelings of guilt if we actually decide to set boundaries and take the time to renew and refresh ourselves before we burnout or get ill.

This expectation of constant accessibility and the placement of our mental and physical health on the altar of “service” or”ministry” is discussed by Rev. Dr. Kirk Byron Jones. In his book, “Rest in the Storm: Self-care strategies for clergy and other caregivers,” Jones reminds us of the need for self-care and balance. A typical workaholic and overachiever, Dr. Jones was a pastor, seminary professor, traveling lecturer, author, husband, and father. He was a man in constant motion. Then one day his body said “Stop.” And when he didn’t do it, it stopped him. His health challenge (and his wife) made him re-evaluate his schedule. He became more intentional and courageous about setting boundaries and creating balance in his person and professional life.

In America, our traditional image of the successful business or faith leader is a person who is constantly moving, always working, and never taking a break. Andy Stanley, a senior pastor at a rapidly growing church near Atlanta and the son of the television pastor Charles Stanley, spoke at a Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church. Speaking to church leaders around the world, Stanley shared his realization that good leaders are NOT workaholics. He recounted spending 12-14 hours a day at his church trying to “make it grow.”

He said that one day, during his prayer time; the spirit told him that he was neglecting his family. In the church world, this is unheard of, because everyone knows the church comes first. However, Stanley shared his revelation with his wife and asked how he could be more helpful. His wife was five months pregnant and was also caring for their two small pre-school age children. She told him that she was with the children from sun-up to sundown with no break. (He usually came home after the children had gone to sleep.) She said a break around 4:30 or 5 p.m. would allow her to take a nap. He agreed to adjust his schedule. He still went to work early, but was home by 5 p.m. daily. He delegated the supervision of the evening activities to his staff.

This, in turn, led to staff discussions about ways to accommodate those who needed to drop off or pick up children at certain times. The family-conscious planning of work schedules fostered a more cooperative work environment as staff volunteered to fill in or adjust their time as needed. Stanley noted that he also learned to stop micro-managing. He discovered that there was more than one way to achieve the church’s goals (not just his way). He finally admitted to himself that trusting staff more and making room for their ideas was a good thing. As a senior pastor, delegating freed him up to do more long-range planning and visioning for the church. He said that contrary to his fears, the church grew faster when he put in fewer hours, because he was more thoughtful about how he spent his time and how he engaged his staff. Stanley also found that he was more rested and renewed by the time he spent with his family. The change allowed him to get to know his children and to reconnect with his wife and himself. It no doubt also made him a better pastor and a model of self-care.

As the primary caretakers of their families, the leadership dilemma becomes more challenging for women in leadership. Women are expected to handle both their professional and family responsibilities without complaint or accommodations. Many women in workplace are challenged to prove that they can work just as hard as or harder than men.

For example, when the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo Inc., Marissa Mayer, announced that she was pregnant but promised to only take two weeks off for paternity leave (while working from home during her “leave”), her comments set off a great deal of discussion about the expectations of women leaders. The pregnancy debate surrounding Mayer revealed the pervasiveness of the social “guilt” that is placed on women and others in leadership if they take time for their families.

Women like Meyers, who have already proven their ability and commitment, are still challenged to leave motherhood at the door. They must fight against the assumption that they cannot possibly be both good mothers and good leaders. As a CEO in one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world, surely, Marissa Mayer, could have used conference calls and Skype to provide the flexibility she needed to manage both time bonding with her child and the task of running her organization. During her paternity leave, she could have delegated duties for a short time to her highly qualified leadership team. CEOs have been known to have time off for major surgery and still return to leadership after healing. Surely, we can make time for childbirth.

The challenge for us all is to re-envision what leadership really looks like and what it really takes to lead people into wellness and productivity. A famous quote says, “If I had only 8 hours to cut down a tree, I would spend the first four hours sharpening the saw.” And so it is with leaders and leadership. If we do not make time to renew, re-balance, and re-direct our energies in ways that renew us and create more loving and supportive work environments for us all, we will continue to foster stressful environments that burnout, frustrate, and alienate us from one another.

As we enter the last month of the summer, make it a priority to take some time off from work to free your mind and body from daily demands and routines. Take the time to “vacate” the expectations of others (i.e. Do not accept calls, emails, or texts from work during your vacation—delegate someone else to handle it). Regardless of your particular faith tradition, we can all benefit from reclaiming the tradition of a regular weekly day of rest, reflection, and re-creation of ourselves and our lives. If we really care for the people we serve, we must commit to becoming the type of leader who models a sense of balanced commitment.

“Balanced commitment” is the ability to work strategically to meet one’s goals, while also taking the time to “sharpen the saw” of your own leadership through regular rest and renewal. It is the ability to “let go” whatever it is that you need to let go of (control, perfectionism, etc.), so that others can help to get the work done. We must give up our addiction to busyness and leave this form of martyrdom behind. Choose to take the time, right now, to get away and to get back in touch with yourself and the people you value most. Renew yourself. Become a rested and reflective leader, who creates the space for others to do the same. It’s time!

Helpful resources to begin your journey reading:
Kirk Byron Jones. Rest in the Storm: Self-care strategies for clergy and other caregivers. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2001 or Kirk Byron Jones, Addicted to Hurry: Spiritual Strategies for Slowing Down. Valley Forge, VA: Judson Press, 2003

A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.