Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives
by Richard A. Swenson
One of the most significant books of recent years — and one that should be a must in every pastor's library — is Margin by Dr. Richard A. Swenson (NavPress). Although Swenson writes to the general public, his message could not be more applicable to any of his readers than it is to those in pastoral ministry. As defined by the author, "margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. It is the leeway we once had between ourselves and our limits." (pp. 91-92) In the same way that a lack of margin on a printed page is aesthetically displeasing, hard to comprehend and even somewhat chaotic, our lives will become overwhelming and endangered when they do not contain sufficient margin.
To be healthy, says Dr. Swenson, we all require margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time and finances. "Conditions of modern living, however," he writes, "have drained these margins rather than sustaining them. In emotional energy, seldom have we been so stressed, so alone, and so exhausted in spirit. In physical energy, we are overfed, underactive, and sleep-deprived. In time, our clock-dominated nano-second culture leaves us wheezing and worn out. And in finances, universal indebtedness makes our societal landscape look like a fiscal Gettysburg." (pp. 100-101)
Christians in general, and pastors in particular, often respond to such cautions by misusing Scripture. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," said Paul. And if Paul could do it, can't we? Swenson says no, reminding us that it is God the Creator who made limits a reality, and it is the same God who placed them within us for our protection. We exceed them at our peril!
What are some of the symptoms that should alert us that we are running out of margin? Swenson points to depression, mental fatigue, chronic anxiety, negative thinking, impatience, apathy and anger in the psychological realm. Cardiovascular stimulation, gastrointestinal overactivity, headaches, weight changes, insomnia and clenched jaws are on the list of physical symptoms. Margin is also threatened by any overload of activity, change, choice, commitment, competition, debt, expectation or ministry. "Seeing the great number of needs, pastors and laypeople often place unbearable demands upon themselves — and others," writes Swenson. He quotes a physician who often counsels with pastors, "Many ministers today are headed toward the mental, physical, and spiritual salvage yard because they expect too much of themselves. And most do not have a clear idea of the forces driving them to that tragic end." (p. 85)
"Actually," Swenson confesses, "margin is not a spiritual necessity. But availability is. God expects us to be available for the needs of others. And without margin, each of us would have great difficulty guaranteeing availability. Instead, when God calls, He gets a busy signal." (pp. 99-100)
If you love Truth, you will not desire more from your days on earth than simply to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. God expects balance from us more than excellence. Swenson urges us to remember that it is okay to rest physically, emotionally and spiritually. "God rested — and He wasn't tired." (p. 232)
When I was a young child, I heard someone say that everyone should have a safe place, a secret location where they could go to get away, relax and reflect. It seemed like wise advice, so I set out to find one for myself.
My story may not surprise you. It may even sound familiar. I could spend six or seven hours effectively listening in our counseling ministry, then arrive at home distant, distracted and deaf.