Embracing the Mess

When people ask about the kind of research I do as a sociologist, I usually give the “in a nutshell” description that I study work-life balance for clergy families. And then I promptly follow-up by saying I don’t really believe in work-life balance.
Work-life balance is a common phrase in our culture and a concept we put on a pedestal in hopes we will one day get there. The fact that we idealize work-life balance speaks to the reality that we need better options for the myriad pressures individuals and families face. Careers, kids, aging parents, volunteer work, commitment to a faith community–not to mention self-care and plain old sleep–all compete for our attention and time each day. And since there is only so much attention one can give and only so much time in each day, we frantically try to balance it all out in hopes that we don’t give too much to one area at the expense of another. It sounds nice in theory but in practice this approach is an absolute recipe for failure.
Why did I give up on work-life balance? There are many reasons I find this concept unrealistic and unhelpful in thinking about ways to manage competing demands, and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect and write on this in several contexts and from multiple perspectives. As a sociologist, I am increasingly aware that our lives, commitments, pressures, and pursuits are incredibly complex and fluid, evolving as our broader social, political, economic, and cultural landscape also evolves. And as one who is (like everyone) trying to do more than just keep my head above water when it comes to career, family, faith, and self, my experiences and perspectives have taught me that a top priority at one moment may quickly fall to the bottom of my list as circumstances shift and that it’s okay to live into those changes. The scales are always tipping back and forth, rarely balancing out and more often creating something a bit messy and out of sorts. I think we need to embrace the mess.
It wasn’t until I experienced life in a clergy family and started studying other clergy families that I truly realized how misguided work-life balance really is and where I learned that embracing the mess is the way forward. I don’t like messes–few people do but assuming we can seamlessly balance it all is sort of like hauling the dried-up Christmas tree out of your house in January and thinking the process will be neat and tidy. It’s not and it never will be so why even create such unrealistic expectations? As I’ve lived into life in a clergy family, I’ve found that it’s a lot less about balance and a lot more about weaving together a life. Terms like “weaving” or “integration” are more in line with my experience and the experiences of those I interviewed. These terms provide more salient imagery because they imply mutuality, fluidity, and complexity. When we weave pieces together, we are creating a complete whole where the various elements offer shared support. It can be neat and balanced, but when there’s a snag in the fabric, the other parts keep the whole together. That’s more in line with my experience.
“Weaving” is a theme for this blog and the metaphor I will use to frame my reflections on on faith life, friendships, self-care, family, and identity. If you are hoping my posts will offer a quick, magical solution to the competing demands of clergy family life, you may be disappointed. I hope instead you continue along on this journey as I write more about what it means to embrace the mess, and why that can be a really great thing.
Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD


Weaving Work, Family, and Faith

In a recent interview, researcher, professor, and best-selling author Brené Brown shared that after giving talks on shame and resilience–the topic for which she is not only best known but also deserves significant credit for bringing into the forefront of public discourse–she frequently hears people say, “I already knew everything you were talking about, I just didn’t have the words.” Brown’s work has always resonated with me, partly because of her ability to give language to real human struggles but more so in the way her writing weaves together research with personal experience. Indeed, Brown’s movement toward household name status came out of widely viewed TED Talk in which she shared her own experience of rebuilding after a breakdown and how that season informed her professional pursuits. It is a posture that is brave and vulnerable–concepts at the heart of her research–and what makes her so skilled at giving people the words for what they already know.

This new, online space at Ministry Mentors is my own effort at drawing together my professional life as a sociologist, researcher, and educator with my personal story rooted in a rather unexpected journey as a pastor’s spouse. I describe my identity as a pastor’s spouse as “unexpected” because my husband, Aaron, did not intend to pursue traditional parish ministry. His ten-plus years as the pastor of a vibrant urban congregation came as a call–literally, by phone, from denominational leaders asking if he would consider joining a co-pastor team to revitalize a dying church–and spiritually, in now recognizing God’s movement in his professional path.

Where did I fit in all of this? What did this mean for our family life? Our shared commitment to being part of faith community? Our social life? My identity? These are questions I asked a lot in those early days of Aaron’s ministry and I’m admittedly still seeking answers. What I do know, though, is this journey led me down a path much like Brown’s where my personal life intersected with my professional life in ways I never thought possible. As I began exploring these questions around clergy family life and what they meant for me and my family, I decided to ask these questions of others, spending the next ten years studying, analyzing, writing, and speaking on the intersections of work, family, faith, relationships, and identity among clergy families.

Which brings me back to this blog I am calling Weaving Work, Family, and Faith. This is a place for reflection on the complicated, messy, but life-giving realities of being a clergy family. It is a space for connection with others. And it is an opportunity to think about the ways our lives are never separated into neat, tidy compartments. In writing about the intersections of my research and my own life, I hope this becomes a space where readers discover something new, but also one where they find themselves saying that same line Brown so often hears: “I already knew everything you were talking about, I just didn’t have the words.”

Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD



Lenore Knight Johnson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Trinity Christian College. Her research areas include religion, gender, families, and social inequalities with projects focusing on work-life integration among clergy families, women’s ordination, and a new, developing project on whiteness among social justice oriented Christians. Prior to her academic career, Lenore worked in the not-for-profit sector and social services, primarily in refugee resettlement and immigrant advocacy, a background that informs her interest and experience in community-based and applied sociological research. 

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