Wasted hours I will never get back. That is how I’d best describe past efforts at trying to achieve a sense of balance in my life. If I listed my main priorities (in no particular order here) – marriage and family, career, physical health, spiritual life, friendships, reading, hobbies, rest – and allotted an ideal number of hours for each, I would undoubtedly come up short…by a lot. This overwhelming sense that there are not enough hours in the day, however, is not why I call efforts at finding balance a waste of time. And no, I’m not resigned to the harried, “I’m SO busy” way of life that seems so common these days, particularly in large, urban contexts like Chicago where I call home. The reason I think such efforts are futile is because I no longer believe in balance. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace an integrated life.

I discovered the life-giving attributes of an integrated life in a very unlikely place – the lives and experiences of clergy families, including my own. I am an academic sociologist who spent roughly the last five years delving into the stories of pastors and their spouses in an effort to better understand how our public and private lives intersect around work, family, and religious life. And, I am married to a pastor. This combination alone is of course an example of integration. But the integrated life is so much more than this. It’s an ongoing process of recognizing and acknowledging that who we are in one context not only impacts but also deeply informs who we are in another context. I cannot separate my identity as a woman, wife, mother, or friend from my identity as a sociologist, educator, or person of faith because I am all of these at all times. My own journey as a clergy spouse has been complex in both challenging and life-giving ways, a process I hope to share in later posts. But what I want to focus on today is how my own lived experience, coupled with the rich stories of the remarkable women and men I have interviewed over the years, taught me to let go of the burden of balance and live into the complexity of integration.

Work-life integration is an emerging focus in discussions on how to manage competing demands, particularly in the business community. Books such as Stewart D. Friedman’s Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life provide practical suggestions for people seeking an alternative path to balance. I tend to think of work-life integration as something of a spiritual practice, though, and in this vein I am reminded of Parker Palmer’s reflection on a Möbius strip in his book A Hidden Wholeness. A Möbius strip is a fluid loop of paper with no beginning or end and no differentiation between the two sides, such that one can draw a line over all its surfaces without ever lifting the pen. In using the Möbius strip as a metaphor for wholeness in daily life, Palmer argues that our outward and inward lives cannot be easily separated, nor should they. Living an integrated life means the point where work ends and life begins is unclear – in a good way. This approach does away with conventional wisdom suggesting clear boundaries are a solution to the pushes and pulls of competing demands. In reality, we are pushed and pulled because we are many things at once. Attempts at compartmentalizing are not only futile, but deny our humanity as complex, whole people.

A clergy couple I met during my research were among those modeling this approach as they served together at a church, participated in their local community, parented young children, and remained committed to their relationship and their own personal health and well-being. Julie’s (not her real name) description of preaching a sermon while wearing her newborn baby in a sling sounds a bit messy. What if the baby wakes up and cries or needs to be fed? But this is just one example of many in my work of someone refusing to deny her humanity and instead recognize that work, family, and faith are all a bit messy. We need our personal faith to sustain our work, and our family helps sustain our hope that the world should go on. Integration opens the door to these avenues.

When I began my research on clergy families, people often said, “I bet you hear some horror stories!” And indeed, I did hear some things that I am, quite frankly, pretty amazed could happen among followers of Christ. But what really stands out alongside the emotional, spiritual, and physical pressures of ministry are the ways people engaged these struggles. Despite the many challenges pastors and their families confront in ministry, very few were counting down the days until they could move on or retire. Rather than pushing back against the ways ministry bleeds into all aspects of everyday life many of the clergy families I interviewed dive in and embrace the messiness of it all. I read recently that being a great parent sometimes means living in a messy home. Perhaps living a great life involves embracing the mess as well. I like to think it does, and look forward to sharing more on how I’ve discovered the life-giving attributes of work-life integration.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on work-life integration vs balance? Does the idea of integration ring true for you? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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