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


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