Chapter 10: Work Vs. Other Commitments: Finding Work-Life Balance

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Gary and Sue started a business three years ago. They bought a carpet cleaning franchise and have been working incredibly hard to establish it. Previously Gary had worked long hours as a manager of a small department in a bank head office. He commuted two hours each day and rarely saw their children during the weekdays. The dramatic change to their own cleaning business was seen as a way to gain more of a work-life balance for Gary, and for both of them to eventually release time and money to serve in a couple of voluntary organizations they are passionate about.

Gary and Sue appreciate the flexibility that working from home brings. However, the business has turned out to dominate their lives in ways they had not expected. Customers can ring at any time of the day or night; they seem to have little regard for Gary’s and Sue’s private life. The level of compliance and accounting means much of their energy is given to paperwork. It regularly takes up what’s left of the evenings after the kids have gone to bed.

The carpet cleaning industry is a competitive market, so margins are not high. If they were to calculate their return on an hourly rate over the three years, it would not be great. But they always knew that the first couple of years would be demanding, getting the business on its feet. In the medium term they are looking to reduce the energy it requires so they can do other stuff. The problem is, they are finding it difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel. The demands of the business show no sign of abating.

Jane is an excellent young lawyer who aspires to become a partner in her law firm. She loves her work – so much so that she puts in many late nights, and even goes to the office two or three weekends a month, to demonstrate her loyalty and support for the firm.

Jane’s hard work, perseverance, and intellectual smarts may soon pay off. Her boss has given indications that she is being considered for partnership in the firm. This will add substantially to Jane’s professional stature – as well as to her income.

However, for some time Jane has sensed that her life may be somewhat out of balance. She feels nagging guilt over being away from her husband and three children so much. He is terribly proud of her achievements, but recently he’s complained that she is becoming a stranger to him.

Meanwhile, Jane’s children are growing up fast! Her son is almost a teenager already. Jane worries that the boy appears so shy and insecure around his peers. And her two little daughters seem to quarrel constantly. Their behaviour irritates her when she comes home, tired and just wanting a quiet rest. Recently she’s even found herself looking for excuses to stay at the office until after their bedtime.

In her few private moments, Jane finds that her relationship with Christ is superficial. She almost never has time to read her Bible, and prays only at family meals or at church. On the other hand, she contributes what she feels is a sizeable amount to her church and to a local youth home. Her pastor has even thanked her on occasion for her support and told her, “We really rely on you, Jane!”

Jane frequently reminds herself that she is on the verge of success. True, she has her nagging doubts about her family life. “If I can just get that partnership,” she tells herself, “I’ll be able to spend more time with my family. We’ll be able to afford all kinds of activities together.”

Steve is the principal of a large city high school. He’s an exceptionally able leader – innovative, caring and a good team builder. When he first took on the job eight years ago, the demands were manageable. Steve and his family had agreed that while working long hours during the week was okay (he leaves home at 7 and rarely returns before 7), as long as the weekends were “school-free” they could survive. However, progressively the demands of the position have increased and it is taking its toll. He physically cannot contain his workload to 5 days per week and his energy levels are also sagging. Each term he survives the last couple of weeks on adrenaline and willpower, squeezing a few days break in the “holidays” to re-energize.

Steve’s own workload is not his only concern. He is becoming increasingly worried about the growing expectations placed on teachers by the system – so much so that he openly states to his staff that teaching should not be the sum total of their lives. He has backed this up with all kinds of mechanisms and processes to ensure his staff are not “owned” by school demands. In spite of his very best efforts, however, two of his most gifted teachers have resigned, and some others are seriously contemplating a change of career.

Steve is frustrated at his failure to achieve the sort of “wholeness” that he and his wife Liz aspire to. But they have always accepted that during this stage of their lives – as Steve invests himself in leading a school – there would be a cost to pay. For them it has been viewed as part of Steve’s calling. (And this has raised a very frustrating tension for Steve regarding his involvement in his church. He has never really felt affirmed for his leadership role in the education sector. Nor has he experienced any validation for his belief that the school community is his primary missionfield. Instead he has often been made to feel as though he should be contributing significantly to leadership within the church.) However, the stress this is putting on their family, on their significant friendships, and on their capacity to contribute to the kingdom in other ways is becoming intolerable.

More than we bargained for

Gary and Sue, Jane, and Steve have all got more than they bargained for. They’re seeking to follow Jesus in roles that are taxing and exhausting.

Demanding roles such as these are increasingly common in our developing society. They have been fuelled by a number of factors such as unrealistic expectations from employers, the rapidly increasing pace of life, a cultural fixation on productivity, and lifestyle expectations that grow with each passing year and each new product.

Many jobs can become all-consuming. They end up owning us – rather than liberating us to serve.

For Jesus followers, all too aware that paid employment is only one of a number of ways we could potentially serve God, this creates all kinds of dilemma. A major tension develops between the job that dominates our time and energy, and the other competing commitments in our lives – such as family, church involvement, voluntary service, etc.

What do we do with all this?

The usual answer is that we have to make some degree of trade-off. But that’s the dilemma. We struggle to know where we should employ the gifts God has given us, how much we should commit ourselves to, and where to draw the line. This is a problem not just for those of us with a super-enriched personal ambition – or a driven personality! Lots of Christians genuinely want to make a difference. We’re often just not quite sure how much of our energy should be consumed by our paid employment.

“I want to make a difference, but at what cost?”

This dilemma is particularly acute in certain industries and professions – careers, like Steve’s, where a high minimum of hours and effort is required if we’re going to contemplate it as a worthwhile venture.

For example, take the world of politics. The sheer demands and expectations of public office mean that it must command the majority of a person’s time and energy. Nothing less will allow a reasonable shot at making a success of it. The question deserves to be asked: Are those expectations reasonable and fair? But the question doesn’t change the reality. If you want to be a successful politician, the job will inevitably take the lion’s share of your time. Even more so if you reach cabinet and party leadership levels.

This means that people contemplating such a career are faced with difficult choices.
It’s not surprising that in this context some career politicians have chosen to remain single or childless, so as to give the majority of their energy to the role. And it’s very easy to understand why so many politicians struggle with failed marriages and relationships. The job becomes all-consuming, and a life outside of it is difficult to maintain.

Many CEO’s and high-end managers in the marketplace experience the same challenges. A close friend of ours in his mid- to late-forties was offered a dream position – one that in a sense he had been preparing for all his working life. It was to lead a midsized international company. He had the skills, having previously run a smaller company. He also had the passion to genuinely make a difference. His faith had substantially shaped the way he viewed leadership and the management of staff.

The major sticking point came in the form of two primary commitments. First, he would have to change cities. Second, the new challenge would demand a very high focus of his time and energy – even higher than his current position called for.

Caught in the dilemma of whether to accept or not, he and his wife visited several close friends to get some perspective. On one level it was enormously tempting – with great potential to serve God and others. However, ultimately they decided the cost was too high – to the family (their children were in the teenage years), to the church they were committed to and serving in, and to the wide-range of voluntary and community roles both of them played. These relationships and opportunities for service were too important to surrender.

Our friend’s decision to turn down the opportunity should not be interpreted as the only way to deal with such a tension. For others the sacrifice of wider dimensions of life may well be appropriate – at least for a period of time. No rule can be applied.

The tension between the demands of our paid work and the rest of our lives is not one many of us will resolve completely.

Employing others

If we’re in the business of employing others – either as an owner or a manager – we also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our employees are not consumed by their paid work.

But to achieve this we will often have to go against the trend. Increasingly employers are looking for more than their pound of flesh from their workers. It’s not uncommon to find bosses demanding that employees make work their first priority, with anything else in their lives getting the leftovers. This pressure becomes particularly acute in times of high unemployment and shortage of work.

Colossians 4:1 is a clear reminder of our responsibility when we direct the lives of others:

“Masters, treat your servants considerately. Be fair with them. Don’t forget for a minute that you too, serve a Master...” (The Message)

  • Some questions that are useful for employers in this regard, are:
  • What is reasonable to expect from my employees? (We recommend undertaking a dialogue with them on this question. You might begin by getting them to identify what they think is reasonable.)
  • What can I do to assist my employees develop a healthy work-life balance?
  • What example am I modelling of a healthy balance?
  • Is the working environment I’m creating one that encourages growth, development and fulfilment for my workers?

Being an employee

Of course, biblically there are mutual responsibilities in the employer/employee relationship. Justice and fairness for both is the goal. Workers are worthy of their hire, but on the other side of the equation, they must be fair to their employer. It cuts both ways.

All too many Christian employers we’ve talked with tell stories of Christian employees who fail to give of their best, and shirk their responsibilities. It’s important to reflect regularly on Paul’s words to believers in the employ of others. Admittedly, the master-servant relationship is not directly parallel with today’s employment situation, but the challenge is still relevant…

Servants, do what you’re told to do by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being Christian doesn’t cover up bad work. (Colossians 3:22-24 The Message).

As we’ve already noted, employers can have quite unreasonable expectations of their employees. That being the case, as employees we need to develop some benchmarks – what do we believe is a fair and reasonable effort to give to the job? If our boss is continually taking advantage of our preparedness to go the extra mile, guidelines of this sort will help us make a considered response when we need to draw the line.

Two questions will help us establish a fair perspective on this:

  • What am I prepared to give (in time and energy) as an employee? What are my bottom lines?
  • Is what I’m prepared and able to give, fair to my employer? And what kind of remuneration and conditions would reflect that?

There’s no substitute for discussing this directly with the boss and working out some common understanding. To be sure, many people find the prospect of doing this rather daunting. If there is someone you trust who can be part of these discussions, to act as a support person or advocate, you will find that hugely helpful.

For everyone!

Regardless of whether we employ others, are employed, or are self-employed, a question worth pondering regularly and prayerfully is this:

  • There are certain roles and responsibilities that I have (in my family, in the community, in my church…) or that I feel God wants me to undertake. Is there anything about this job that is going to work against me fulfilling them?

This is a question of priorities … and also of stewardship. How much of my time and energy should I give to this job?

Each of us is unique, and there is no standard answer to this question. What might make it right for one person may not necessarily make it so for someone else. Furthermore, the full demands of a role are not always visible to begin with (both in our paid employment and in our voluntary roles). Our own skills and abilities may draw us naturally to a deeper involvement. And our circumstances will change many times throughout our lives; what might be appropriate in one season may not be in another.

Nevertheless, a genuine “Where and how does this role fit for me right now, Lord?” is the right question. It will give us something to reflect on, a perspective that will widen our insight and understanding. And, like our friends who chose to consult others in order to get some perspective, so each of us should be developing relationships with a select few who can ask the questions, offer thoughts, and pray for us. Ultimately, of course, the choices are ours to own and make. But thank God for others to help us along the way!

Issues of busyness and work-life balance

We’ve sought in this chapter to reflect a little on the ethical issues of what is reasonable and fair in our obligations to one another as either employers or employees. And we’ve also considered the need to steward well our time and energy.

There are of course, significant related issues surrounding matters of work-life balance and the exhausting cycle of busyness that we often find ourselves caught in. We’ve addressed both these matters in a previous book of ours – SoulPurpose: Making a difference in life and work (NavPress NZ) – in particular, the chapters entitled “Learning to be an effective juggler” (chapter 8), and “Mind your own busyness” (chapter 9). You will find much to help you there.


1) Read again the three brief case studies at the beginning of this chapter. What questions/issues would be most relevant and helpful for each person to reflect on?

  1. Gary and Sue
  2. Jane
  3. Steve

2) Do you think it’s ever appropriate for a Christian to take on a job that is all-consuming? If you were to contemplate such a step, what criteria could you use to determine if such a position was right for you?

3) Think back over the short sections entitled “Employing others”, “Being an employee” and “For everyone!” Use the questions listed in each section as a basis for your personal reflection. Then, if you are part of a group, discuss your thoughts.