Off-Balance, Searching for Sacred Rhythm

January 4th, 2011

A number of years ago I found myself teetering precariously on the edge of burnout. I was working too many hours, paying too little attention to my family and my own health, ignoring my friends, and shutting out all of the warning signs. After all, didn't ministry deserve every ounce of energy I had? Wasn't I responsible for seeing that everything was done well for the sake of the gospel? Didn't God require me to sacrifice everything else to respond to this call?

In the midst of my attempts to paddle as fast as I could, I was participating with a group of United Methodists who were trying to understand the characteristics of monastic life and community. While we were meeting at a Benedictine monastery, the monks kept talking about the importance of “balance” in their life. The moment I heard that word, I knew what was wrong with my own life—it was totally and completely off balance! No one needed to explain it or describe it—I knew immediately. And I experienced a deep longing to get it back into balance.

Paul Jones was one of the people in that group and he named my longing when he said that we, the clergy, are the aching ones. In the midst of our caring for others we yearn to be nurtured, held, and fed—to be released from our obsession with accomplishment. And we feel these longings in the midst of rather successful careers. We are doing very well what we are paid to do and people are satisfied with our inspiring sermons, our efficient committees, and the good morale in our churches. But still we have this deep spiritual hunger that is not fed by the myriad of tasks that fill our time as we do our religious jobs.

I wish I could say that once I named the problem I was able to regain my balance, but that is not true. It took me another year of sliding closer and closer to burnout before I actually did anything about it. I kept telling myself all of those seductive half-truths about sacrificing everything for the ministry. By the time a real crisis came in my son's life, small measures would no longer help, and I took the radical step of leaving my current appointment and taking a year off. That is not something everyone can do, but it was, for me, the only way that I could interrupt my patterns enough to make real changes.

I learned during that time off that I was confusing my own inner transformation with the ministry that I have been called to carry out. The lines between my life as a follower of Jesus Christ and my role as a minister had become very blurry. Each of us must be attentive to the work of God in our own lives in order to discover the ways in which God can best do this work of transformation, but I found some clues in the Benedictine tradition that have been important to me. The Rule of Benedict begins with these words: “Listen carefully…with the ear of your heart.” I knew that was what I needed to learn how to do—listen and pay attention, let go of my need to control, and stop defining myself by my accomplishments. And I knew that I needed help. So I turned to a friend, Timothy Kelly, who was at that time the novice master at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, and asked if he would help me take the gift of this year to find a sense of balance that would enable me to come back into ministry in a different way. With Timothy's help, I tried to shape my daily life around the three elements that shape the daily lives of Benedictine novices: scripture, prayer, and work. In all of these areas I had lost the distinction between what I was doing in my work and what I was doing to be attentive to God's presence in my own life. I had forgotten that John Wesley's question to us—"Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?"—is not about our accomplishments, it is about our souls.


The study of scripture has always been something I loved. I studied diligently to prepare for preaching and teaching. I tried to understand the meaning of the text for the congregations I served and for the ministries of publishing that had been my recent focus. But as the lines between my life and my work became increasingly blurred, I began to treat scripture primarily as an instrument of my ministry. I lost sight of the fact that it is also one of the means of grace by which my life is to be shaped in the image of Christ. The difference is sometimes difficult to see, because of course the scripture is the foundation of our preaching and teaching and we must not neglect that. But unless we also regularly and faithfully come before the Word to listen and be formed by it, we are ignoring God's call to us. The best description I have heard of this difference came from Robert Mulholland, who said that we must learn to be “servants of the Word” rather than “masters of the text.” This is not easy for me to do. My need for control means that I find it more challenging and stimulating to write and deliver a sermon than to allow God to shape and form the person who preaches it. The latter requires my coming before God in silence and paying close attention to what it is that God is trying to tell me through this ancient Word that has shaped faithful communities across thousands of years.


I came to a new understanding of prayer just as I came to a new understanding of scripture, and for me the issues are the same—control and accomplishment. Prayer had not been difficult for me, but it always had a purpose to accomplish. I prayed faithfully for the congregation and the individuals whom I knew were struggling. I prayed fervently that I would be able to minister effectively in the setting to which God had called me. When I finally stopped to listen, I came to realize that we too often pray so that God will hear us, forgetting that we are to pray so that we can hear God teaching us all we need to know.

Prayer is sometimes frightening because it means we cannot hide from God's gaze, but if we give ourselves the chance to meet God in silence for at least a brief time, our fear will subside and we will discover that God has deep lessons to teach us in prayer. For me the greatest struggle in this listening prayer was my struggle with silence, because when we are silent we are not in control. I had to enter the silence again and again before I came to love it and to enter it with a listening heart, ready to hear what God has to say to me.


Taking a year off was a drastic interruption to my work, and so reorienting in this area of Benedictine balance was the easiest of the three. But it has not remained easy in the years since I have returned to full time work. I struggle every day to remember that God loves me for who I am and not for what I accomplish, no matter how important the tasks of ministry might be, and that being a wife and a mother and a friend is work that God gives me as well. Nurturing my capacity for play and taking the time to enjoy a meal and conversation is an important part of finding that balance.

Making A Start

For some people, maintaining this balance may be easy, but for me it requires constant attentiveness. When things get out of balance, I begin again with very small steps. I try to find in the ordinary rhythm of my daily life the places where balance can be restored. When I am preparing to teach my Monday night Bible study, I look for one or two verses in the scripture passage and spend just five or ten minutes at the beginning or the end of my preparation time to listen for what God has to say to me in those words. Before I turn on the evening news I enter the silence for just a few minutes and offer my day to God, attentive to what God has to teach me out of the events of my day. I write on my calendar a walk in the woods behind our house with my husband and honor that commitment as faithfully as a scheduled meeting.

That year off was life changing for me, and while I still find myself tempted by the voices that tell me I am indispensable and the inner compulsion to “do it all” and never admit my limits, I have worked differently ever since. The things that work for me will not work for everyone, but I believe that each of us has rhythms in our daily lives that can help us find balance. We can identify the activities that punctuate our days and find simple ways to transform them into reminders of God's presence, calling us to stop and pay attention. We can let go just a little of our need to be in control and find moments when we are able to listen carefully with the ears of our hearts.


Judith E. Smith is an elder in the Idaho-Oregon Annual Conference.

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