In the field of positive psychology, focus is placed not on the diagnosis and treatment of maladies but on creating the conditions for human flourishing. A key aspect of thriving is engagement, when we are so into what we are doing that everything else fades into the background while we are doing it. The flow model developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that for a person to be deeply engaged in an activity, her skill level must be in relative balance with the challenge of the task. If her skill availability is high while the difficulty of the task is low, she will quickly get bored. If the challenge outweighs her talents, her anxiety ratchets up.
What does the flow model reveal to you about your work? Specifically:
When are you deeply engaged in ministry? At these moments you are most likely living into your God-given calling.
When are you bored? Though you might have developed some reliable skills to carry out these less scintillating tasks, you are not building on your innate strengths.
When are you anxious? There is such a thing as a healthy stretch, which is a challenge that fosters our personal or professional growth. When we are overextended, however, we can start to believe that we are frauds and worry that we will fail those who rely on us.
Take a look at your responses to the above questions. What are the percentages of time spent on engaging, boring, and anxiety-producing tasks? Everyone has some tasks that fall into the latter two categories – that’s part of work life (and adulting in general, for that matter). But if those aspects are disproportionately large, it’s time to look at ways to revamp your job description. What dull or stressful assignments can be eliminated or shrunk if they’re less essential or redistributed to others who can do them better and with more enthusiasm if they are truly important? Your personnel committee or pastoral relations committee might be able to help you assess this.
If there’s not much that can be changed, then it’s time to consider whether your position is still a good fit for you. If not, what might a great fit look like? Your gifts are too valuable not to be fully engaged.
A couple of weeks ago I wrapped up a three-session course on resilience in ministry with some fantastic clergywomen. We talked about the emotional labor that gets dumped on us by parishioners – bless their hearts – and the ways it siphons off both professional and personal joy. The question that popped into my mind was, “What do we need to refuse to care about more than our people do?” One of the participants anticipated that I was going to use the word “carry” instead of “care,” a leap that took us into rich discussion. Maybe we shouldn’t refuse to care. Maybe we can’t not care. But that doesn’t mean we have to carry all the worry and responsibility – especially around this emotional work – that others offer us.
I can care that you’re in conflict with another church member without inserting myself into the conflict.
I can care that your feelings were hurt by not being nominated for a lay leadership role while remaining clear that the decision was a good one.
I can care that you don’t think I visited you often enough in the hospital without doubting my intentionality around how I spend my ministry time.
I can care that you heard my sermon in a way I did not intend and still trust that the Spirit did its work in and through me.
Caring vs. carrying all boils down to the hard work of self-differentiation: here is where you end and I begin. When we are clear about our strengths, purpose, and role, we can begin to crawl out from the weight of others’ expectations while remaining connected to the people around us.
During a visit to New York City a few years ago, I picked up a print of the iconic “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” photo. It depicts eleven construction workers casually enjoying their lunches, despite the fact they are suspended – UNTETHERED – 840 feet above the city streets. (The picture was taken before the terrible nuisance of safety standards.) The image really grabbed me, though it took some reflection to figure out why.
Then I realized that this is how I see my ministry. Risky. Exhilarating. Collegial. Soul-feeding.
Coming out of seminary, the plan was to serve one church after another, with long tenures in each position. My career has looked nothing like that, which was a source of great anxiety for several years. Now I realize I’ve had the opportunity to be nimble in my professional life. I’ll never be rolling in cash Indecent Proposal-style, but my work brings me joy and fulfillment. And my purpose is clear: facilitate health in clergy and congregations so that together they can focus on the work God has for them.
At times it feels like my feet are dangling from the girder and the wind is kicking up. But as long as I’ve got a job to do and good people to do it with, I’d rather be on the rail than have two feet planted on the ground. I keep this photo around to remind me of that.