There is a postcard taped to the wall over my desk with a picture of Olivia (the pig, for those not familiar with children’s literature), and she is walking across a tightrope with a look on her face that does not inspire confidence. Also on the wall over my workspace: a print of The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a picture of my kids (circa Christmas 2008), the quotation, “nothing is too wonderful to be true,” a photograph of three female priests and mentors who together embody almost everything I want to be, a picture of a tree my friend painted, another one of a bird that a different friend created, a RealSimple one-week workout routine, a torn-half-sheet of paper with three key ideas scrawled during a meeting about my dream for our church, a postcard with a verse from Walt Whitman, and there is a post-it that reads “smoothie instead” which is meant to help me make better choices at lunchtime. I am realizing that this collection might just be a visual representation of my quest for balance. It’s all there: family and kids, church and vision, exercise and diet, art and poetry. But it’s the picture of Olivia on the tightrope that sums it all up for me most days. I am in search of balance, and occasionally the search itself brings more anxiety into my life than any of the component parts.
Three years into ordained life the kids arrived and, after maternity leave, so did the return to full-time work. For me, this was both a call-based decision: I love my work, and a financially-influenced decision: our mortgage is a two income mortgage. But six years into ordained ministry, three years into motherhood, and two years into the onset of migraines, I went to speak with my supervisor about changing not how much I work, but when and where I work.
Some vague background: I work at a resource sized church with two male clergy – one of whom is my boss, and a lay staff of about ten. If that sounds grand, we should be a four or five clergy parish, and our lay staff does yeomen’s work. I have two children, and my husband has a professional degree with a stressful and fulfilling full-time job, not clergy.
Here’s what I brought to my supervisor: coming in about an hour and half earlier each morning, leaving two hours earlier with the lost time made up for on our very long Wednesdays. I also asked only to be required to be present at two evening events per week. I had to-date avoided offering my cell phone number to parishioners, and I do not receive work email from my phone. Both of these are practices I share with him and my other colleague. I offered to change these practices to make myself more accessible. He received the proposal, honored my request to consider it for a time and to discuss it later. Two weeks later we talked about it, and he said, “no.” His reasons could be unfairly summed up in the rationale that (a) it was going to make his job harder – other staff might want their own new schedule, and that (b) he firmly believes in a “ministry of presence” – I would be unavailable to parishioners and staff. He’s right, of course, about part a, but I think that’s why they pay him more: to manage a staff. And he’s right about part b, if you live in a world without cell phones, voicemail, email, and other such marvels and you also live in a world where parishioners drop-in all the time without appointments.
So, I read Womenomics by Claire Shipman and Kitty Kay (good, but not always applicable). I read Happiness by Matthieu Ricard (wonderful). I did the six week Re-Frame Productivity plan (Google that, it’s awesome). I read blogs (hit or miss). I channeled Michelle Obama (belted cardigans do make you feel powerful). I went on a guided retreat (came up with the most beautiful life-plan you’ve ever seen). I talked to my husband, my friends, the aforementioned mentors, my dog, God (patient, all of them). Everyone agreed with me (except for the one person whom I needed to agree with me).
We have not revisited the proposal; though in the turn-me-down discussion, he did say that we could talk about it again later. I’m the one who hasn’t brought it up. I still want a different pace, but recently I’ve made some other decisions. Routinely, I used to arrive at work a good forty-five minutes before my supervisor, my 8:30 to his 9:15 – both of us aiming for 9:00. I’m a morning person and he’s not. Clearly this morning time was less valuable to him, so now I go to the gym when my husband takes the kids to school, and I get to work at 9:05. I’m exercising regularly for the first time in about six years. I also quietly leave early some days, because while you might assume he is tight about the clock, he is very laissez-faire about comp time. It doesn’t get me home or to school at the ideal time every day of the week, but some days are better than no days. I’m hoping next to find a window of time to do some creative writing on “work hours.” I am writing this article on church time! Shhhh!
It’s not really flex-time, but it is, for me, working flexibly. I’ve observed that my boss values some time more than other time, and so I’m here during those times. And I know that it’s worth it to drive home for dinner or baths between events. I’ve also found that I can do other things while I’m being “present” in my office. Some of these solutions may seem obvious to you, dear reader, but I was hoping for a perfect solution and missing the smaller opportunities. I wanted a perfect and consistent schedule, and in seeking that I was sacrificing the real goal. Part of me still hopes for a different pattern to my days, but, collectively, the small choices do make me feel less like Olivia on the tightrope, and more like I am doing my best to respond to Walt Whitman … Did I tell you what that other postcard above my desk says?
That you are here – that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. From O Me! O Life!
I am here, with this identity, the play goes on, and I will contribute a verse.