10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

Although I posted this recently, it’s worth a re-read. In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.

  1. I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
  2. Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
  3. I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
  4. I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
  5. Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
  6. I often worry about what others think of my performance.
  7. I too easily take things personally.
  8. I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
  9. I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
  10. My devotional times with God are mostly dry.

If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.

If that’s so, what should you do?

When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.

  1. Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
  2. Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
  3. Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
  4. Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
  5. Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.

    After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.

What has helped you gain better margin?

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4 Signs Decision Fatigue is Degrading your Decisions

When we think about fatigue, we usually think of physical tiredness…we worked too hard in the yard, we didn’t sleep well the night before, or we’re working too many hours. Fatigue certainly includes those causes, but for many Christian leaders, or anybody for that matter, another kind of fatigue can rob our energy and diminish life and leadership effectiveness. It’s called decision fatigue. It refers to how the quality of our decisions degrades after a long string of successive decisions. In other words, the more decisions you make, the more the quality of those decisions declines.

Judges make less favorable decisions later in the day and decision fatigue even affects consumer choices. So what might indicate that your decisions are affected by decision fatigue?

I’ve learned the effects of decision fatigue by experience.

Five years ago I began a new ministry as lead pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario. It’s been a great ministry but I faced a staff shortage at that time. As a result, almost every staff person reported to me which required me to make many more decision about ministry than I normally would. During the first year and a half,  decision fatigue sometimes affected me.

Four indicators decision fatigue may be degrading the quality of your decisions. 

  1. You make quick, impulsive decisions you later regret you made. This happens because you want to quickly get one more thing off your plate and the quick decision seems to solve the problem. However the real problem may be making the decision too quickly without sufficient information you need to make the best one.
  2. You needlessly delay decisions. This is the counterpoint to the impulsive decision. When we get mentally tired, we can easily put off a decision that needs to made now. Sometimes I’d move an email into another folder that still required a decision from me that I could have easily made right then. By doing so I actually doubled the time I spent making the decision because I still had to read the email again to make the decision. By doing so, I took up two chunks of time and two chunks of mental energy.
  3. You send thoughtless, terse emails. I probably get 150 plus emails a day, many of them requiring a decision from me at some level. I’ve found that when I’ve had to make multiple decisions during the day, toward the end of the day I’m tempted to not think as clearly before I send an email. This post points out common email errors.
  4. You get mad when someone asks you for a decision. When this happens our mental chatter sounds like this. “Great, one more decision I have to make for somebody else!” The term ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control diminishes over time when we we have already exerted lots of self control. Toward the end of the day or a week when a leader has had to make too many decisions, he may find himself losing his cool more easily, flying off the handle, or saying thing things he shouldn’t.

As you look at the number of decision you are making, to what degree does decision fatigue affect you?

P.S. My upcoming book being released March 5 helps us deal with this challenge. It’s called Holy Noticing: The Bible, Your Brain, and the Mindful Space Between Moments. You can read more about it and get a free e-book here.

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When the Ministry Honeymoon Wears Off

The ‘honeymoon’ concept dates as far back as the 5th century. After getting married, a newlywed couple would often drink lots of mead, a honey-based alcoholic drink thought to have aphrodisiac properties. So, their inebriation made everything between the two early on appear overly positive. And then when they got sober they faced reality. In a similar way, when we take a new job or assume a new ministry role in a church (paid or volunteer), the honeymoon effect can mask the realities of this new role. So what do we do when the ministry honeymoon wears off? I suggest five ideas that may help.

First, what might be some signs that your ministry honeymoon is over?

  1. You may hear more rumblings and criticism than you did when you first came to your new church.
  2. People may become more overt in their criticism. In one church I delivered a message series with which a small group took issue. They boycotted the series.
  3. Mental fatigue may give way to chronic negative thinking. When we start in a new ministry, we bring dreams, excitement, and anticipation that all will go well. When things don’t go as planned, you may find yourself dwelling more on the negative rather than on the good things happening. This leads to mental fatigue which in turn leads to more negative thinking. This negative thinking loop is called rumination.
  4. You may question the decision you made to move into the new ministry role. You may begin to have second thoughts. “Did I make the right move?”

If you believe your honeymoon is ending, consider implementing these simple ideas to help you move forward.

  1. Remind yourself that it’s part of a natural ministry cycle for every honeymoon to end. Jesus also had a honeymoon (great crowds, Hosannahs on Palm Sunday, etc.) and even though He led perfectly, His ended. Yet, it had to end for resurrection to begin.
  2. Stay hopeful. When a marriage couple’s honeymoon ends, it gives them an opportunity to truly love each other. If they are both committed to the marriage, their love will deepen. When your ministry honeymoon ends, you have the opportunity to deepen your love for those in your ministry and in your church.
  3. Remember, it’s seldom as bad as you may think. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative. It’s called the negativity bias. We have five times more brain circuits dedicated to focus on the negative in contrast to those dedicated to the positive. Guard against catastrophizing like Chicken Little mistakenly did when he yelled, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The sky probably isn’t really falling in your ministry.
  4. Don’t cut off your critics. This post unpacks the important principle that distancing ourselves from our critics often backfires and makes things worse. Don’t ignore and dismiss your critics yet don’t let them use you as a punching bag.
  5. Don’t get defensive. Defensiveness only complicates matters. This post suggests 5 ways to avoid defensiveness.

So, enjoy your honeymoon while you have it. But when it ends, embrace the new ministry phase that offers great new opportunities for growth and learning. 

What has helped you weather the ministry honeymoon?

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How Curiosity Can Make you Less Defensive

Defensiveness. We’ve all been guilty. Someone in our family says something that hurts us and we say something back to retaliate. A person at work makes a comment about us and we internally stiffen up. Someone in our church questions a decision we made as a leader and we react and defend our position. It’s easy to let defensiveness drain us and make a situation worse. Recently, however, I learned a helpful new tool that can help dampen defensiveness. It’s called curiosity.

In an interesting doctoral research project at the University of Rochester, NY, 142 students participated in a one day laboratory session. They were led to believe that a peer had rejected them and then they wrote for seven minutes. Each participant wrote under one of three conditions

  • Suppression: they were asked to suppress their feelings and write on neutral events of their day.
  • Expression: they were simply asked to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • Interest-taking (curiosity): they were asked to express their feelings and be curious about their feelings as they wrote.

Immediately after they wrote, the researcher measured their emotions, specifically anger, their positive feelings toward others (called prosocial affect), and how they internalized rejection. Next they listened to taped speeches from the peer who rejected them and from a neural person. Finally, they rated their like-ability and intelligence.

As you might expect, all three groups rated the rejecter negatively. And those in the suppression and expression group rated the neutral person negatively as well. However, the research yielded this surprise. Those in the interest-taking group rated the neutral person more positively.

What happened? Those in the first two groups displaced some of their hurt from the rejecter onto the neutral party. Those in the curiosity group did not. And at the end of the research session, the curious group reported less anger and less feelings of rejection and more positive feelings toward others (prosocial affect). Curiosity apparently dampens the fight-flight centers of our brain.

As a practical parallel, think of a guy who has a really bad day at work and, for no fault of their own, yells at his kids when he gets home. He’s displacing his anger onto them.

So what are some lessons we can learn from curiosity and its effects on defensiveness?

  1. When someone says something to us in anger, rejects us, confronts us, etc. and we feel tempted to defensively respond, take a curious posture.
  2. Rather than suppressing your feelings or thoughtlessly expressing them, stay curious.
  3. Ask yourself what might have prompted the person to do or say what he or she did (i.e., Did he have a bad day at work?). The situation might also lend itself to your asking the other person non-judgmental, open ended questions.
  4. Be curious about your own thoughts and emotions.
  5. Remind yourself that that the initial anxiety, fear, or worry that another’s behavior may trigger in you, will pass. Those emotions are not you, but passing mental and emotional events. Remind yourself that you don’t have to act on the feeling.
  6. Keep a curious mindset not only in these difficult situations, but also about the good around you (see Philippians 4.8).

Unfortunately, curiosity may have gotten a bad rap in the past (i.e., curiosity killed the cat). Yet, when we apply it to sticky situations ripe for defensiveness, it can serve us well.

The writer of Proverbs gives us wise counsel in this verse.

A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire. (Prov 15.1, The Message)

What has helped you become less defensive?

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Source: Weinstein, N. (2010) Interest-taking and carry-over effects of incidental rejection emotions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.

5 Lessons I Learned from ANGRY Emails

Most pastors and leaders count on email to communicate. We can’t make a call or schedule a meeting each time we need to tell a fellow staffer or leader something. I send scores of emails and receive upwards of 100 each day. I don’t know what I’d do without it. But sometimes email has not served me well. I’ve learned many lessons from angry emails, sometimes my very own.

Several years ago I began an email conversation with one of our pastors who lead our missions efforts at the church where I served at the time. We had begun serving overseas in Nicaragua and it had captured the hearts of many in the church. I’d been there four times and looked forward to many more trips, especially to train pastors in leadership.

We had just begun planning for one coming up and one of the first steps was to create a budget. A church member who serves as the lay leader of our mission team crafted a first draft budget which came out a bit too high. In my mind, it was a first step: get a draft budget first and then begin to adjust the cost to to fit within our available funds.

Well, the pastor in charge saw the budget (copied via email) and sent me an email that this surprised him. I assumed that serving the pastors surprised him. I sent a quick email back (in frustration) that I was surprised he was surprised because I had been clear about my desire to server the pastors. He then sent me an emotional email and after a couple more emails back and forth, we were ready to declare war on each other. We both thought, “What is wrong with this guy?”

The next day we talked by phone and realized that each of us had totally misunderstood each other. It was the proverbial Mars versus Venus issue. He assumed one thing and I assumed another. We were able to resolve what could have been a severe blow to our relationship in a short phone conversation.

Here are some lessons I learned plus a few more about using email.

  1. Never send a first draft email you’ve written in anger. Set it aside and re-write it, several times, removing emotion laden language.
  2. If an email exchange begins to escalate in tone, stop and call or meet the person.
  3. Realize that the human mind will usually assume the worst-cast scenario when an email is misread.
  4. UNLESS YOU WANT YOUR EMAIL TO SHOUT, DON’T USE ALL CAPS OR USE !!!!!!!!
  5. Keep emails short. Think about it. When you get an email that goes off the page, are you inclined to read it?

What suggestions would you offer about minimizing emotions in emails?

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