Margin Without Guilt: Mission Impossible?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had several occasions to talk with pastors about the importance of margin in our lives.  During the most recent Master’s Group I lead, we talked about margin, clarifying our personal best contributions in the ministry setting and figuring out how to manage our time use to maximize both.  Later that same week, we heard from Steve Macchia on the CCN Pastor Resource Call that while the pastor’s personal soul care is of highest priority it often gets pushed out of existence by the pressures of ministry.  Since then, I’ve had two in depth conversations with pastors in other contexts where these topics have emerged.  In every case, there has been agreement that margin is necessary but practicing it creates a sense of guilt for pastors.

So what is margin?  Margin is something we encounter every day and hardly ever realize it because it is so normal and necessary.  For instance, every time we encounter the written word, we encounter margin.  It’s the ‘white space’ around the edges of the page.  While I’ve never experienced a no-margins page…a page on which the print starts and ends at the very edge of the paper, line after line…I’m told that the human eye can’t handle the reading task.  Evidently, we have a difficult time keeping things in proper order (in this case, finding the next line of print) when margins are absent.  Margins on paper also allow the space to interact with the text or ideas.  That is, they provide room for us to stop, think and write our own comments about the content.

One of the freeways I have to drive regularly in Southern California is the 405.  This road (especially where it intersects with the 101) has the dubious distinction of being the most congested freeway in the country.  There is a huge construction project under way to widen the 405 (you may have heard about ‘carmaggedon’!) and in California instead of closing a lane to provide room for the construction, they just narrow all the lanes and squeeze them over so you can still accommodate the same number of cars although in a smaller space.  These lanes are now so narrow that in one location in the far left lane they have actually painted the yellow ‘edge of the road’ stripe vertically on the center cement divider since the lane at that point is too narrow to fit a car AND the yellow stripe.  Believe me, this kind of margin-less driving (at 75 mph) is guaranteed to raise one’s blood pressure.

All of us have margin-required experiences every day.  When the margins are missing, life becomes difficult to manage.

It turns out that margin is a thoroughly biblical concept.  God modeled margin when he rested on the seventh day of creation and then mandated a weekly Sabbath margin so that we could refocus our lives in relation to Him.  The year of Jubilee was established to allow the people and the land to rest and to recalibrate equity among the people.  Jesus regularly created margin during his ministry years by getting away by himself early in the mornings to pray.  Whatever the reasons, the need for margin is built into the very fabric of our human existence and ignoring that reality is always risky business.  We pay a price eventually if we choose to believe that we can get by without little or no margin in our lives.

So how does guilt get associated with something as life giving, necessary and biblical as margin?  Great question!  All I know for sure is that each time I’ve been in a conversation about life margin in the past month, someone has said something like, “Every time I try to create margin in my life, I feel guilty about doing it!”  For pastors, this is partly due to the fact that people in their congregations have endless lists of expectations for the pastor.  Miss just one ‘urgent’ expectation and they’re sure to let you hear about it.  There is no time for margin until the list of ‘urgents’ is finished.

Sometimes our own families unwittingly add to the sense of guilt about needed margin.  A good pastor friend of mine told me just this past Sunday that this has been an extremely busy summer for him for a variety of reasons.  Just as he was realizing his need for some personal margin, his wife reminded him that the kids desperately needed some time with him.  He is a great dad and highly committed to his family but wondered out loud to me how thin his personal margin could get before he was neither a good father nor a good pastor.

Then, of course, we all have our own ‘tapes’ that replay over and over in our head when faced with these margin issues.  One of my personal tapes stems from an experience when I was in grade school.  My father was a solo pastor and one Saturday morning he and I were out in front of our house (well, actually the parsonage) trimming the hedge that surrounded the property.  One of the church members drove by, rolled down his car window and shouted, “Nice to see the pastor working for once!”  I suspect that was a very bad attempt at humor on his part but the tape that planted in my psyche was that people think pastors are lazy.  My response for a good part of my life has been, “Watch this!  I’ll prove that at least one pastor is NOT lazy!”  That tape tends to produce guilt when the discussion of margin is on the table.  Perhaps you have one of those tapes yourself.

In the face of all these forces pushing margin out of our lives, is it possible to make room for a healthy amount of margin?  You bet it is!  But it won’t happen without planning and commitment.  What is your practice of Sabbath?  What does it take for you to decompress enough to actually listen to God rather than chatter away at Him in prayer?  When was the last time you spent a day away for fasting and prayer?  What are two or three specific spiritual disciplines you would like to try out this coming year?  You can pursue these kinds of things and more but only if they find protected space on your calendar.  Open your calendar now (either digital or paper) and write in at least one-half day to get out of the office to a place where you can encounter God.  Take a practical step toward healthy margin!

You can find resources for personal soul care and spiritual retreats at www.leadershiptransformations.org.  Probably the classic book on Margin is called just that- Margin, Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Times Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson and published by NavPress.

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