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Stop Compartmentalizing Your Life

I offer this advice to pastors and Christian leaders. But it’s especially important to the lives of bivocational ministers/church planters for the Kingdom. Stop compartmentalizing your life.

I think ‘compartmentalizing’ is the default mechanism. When we get too busy, and we are juggling a new job, family, personal time and church leadership, we set about to organize and balance. We allot hours to job, to church, self-care time and to family.

This is a mistake for many reasons. One of these reasons is it cordons off church as a separate compartment from other areas in your life. Church now is a “job,” a task. And now anything that is organized with people of God becomes a task, a job, something to allot hours for. But I reject this. I believe church is a way of life. Everything you are living is church, including your family and your work. Once church becomes a task, you will start becoming resentful if it takes too much of your private self-care time or too much of your family time.

Once you separate your family time from church time, you train your family to see themselves as separate from the church. You start saying things like “I need to carve out some time for my family” whenever church life demands some of your gifts. You in essence train your family into “going to church.” And you are now on your way to training your family to be a self-enclosed nuclear therapeutic entity that you “go home” to in order to feel better about yourself. This is bad for your family and bad for you. Even worse, the church is now a service to help your family be more healthy, less dysfunctional. This will always lead, I contend, to your family being less healthy and more dysfunctional. (Read David Matzko McCarthy on the closed household versus the open household)

The strategy of compartmentalizing allows you to center your life in three or four centers instead of one. It will always make life more busy. It’s always harder to juggle three or four balls than one. You actually are now spending more time on the actual “juggling balancing” act. You inevitably will default into the one place you are feeling more loved or getting more self-affirmation from. You will be spending hours at work if you’re loving that, and avoiding family or church. Or defaulting to your family and avoiding church. Or perhaps you will spend all your time at church, and work or family or self are ignored. You will become angry when the church is not paying you more. All of this is recipe for disaster if you ask me.

Instead, I propose you stop all that. Stop compartmentalizing. Seek instead a regular rhythm. A way of living under one Lord for all of life. Where work, family, “alone time” and church life become part of one life in His Mission.

Learn to see that when you are with church people around a great meal with your family, you are actually spending rich time with your family as well. Practice being present with Christ and the presence of other people wherever you are and whomever you’re with. Let God work in it all. Learn to listen to the workings of God in all things.

This life of “presence” with God in His mission will (I suggest) transform your family, work, church and, yes, your alone time. You will become sensitized to when work has become an idol, family has become idol, your own quiet time has become an idol, and, yes, when church has become an idol. Your rhythms will be off. People around you will ask where have you been?

There are always seasons in all of this. Times when family needs more attention, work and church need more attention. And, yes, even when you need to get away and be alone for a prolonged period of time. But people around you, including the church, should know and understand. They will also feel it when you have overdone it and have made one particular area of your life an idol.

I suggest if you cannot do this as a pastor, you cannot and should not ask others to do it. Pastors expect everyday people with full-time jobs and families to give time to the church. They in essence are asking their people to compartmentalize their lives. And so the church in N. America has become just another compartment. We pastors get mad when people can’t serve the poor in a program because their family comes first or their job requires too many hours. I suggest we cannot ask the people we lead to do something different if we ourselves can’t do it. This is why bivocational pastoring is so healthy for the church.

I am sure this life of “one center under one Lord” looks differently for full-time clergy pastors than it does for bivocational pastors who plant communities. I think the same principles should apply even when church equals work for you. Nonetheless, I believe this is essential for bivocational pastors who plant communities with other bivocational pastors. If you don’t get this worked out in your life, I suggest major dysfunction in your life and in your church awaits.

What do you think? How have you worked this out in your life?  

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.