Got margin? How are you feeling right now? Energized…or weary? For me, the last six weeks have been grueling. A Pastor’s life-flow is similar to that of a teacher’s: a leisure stroll through the summer followed by a flat out sprint in the fall. In the past six weeks I helped transition our son to kindergarten, performed a wedding in New Haven and served as a groomsman in my friend’s wedding on Cape Cod. During this time, our church launched our revamped offering of small group Bible studies and ministries and I kept to my preaching schedule of two services each Sunday for ten weeks straight. I don’t say this to complain, just to confess my sheer fatigue!
But I know I am not alone. As a pastor, I come in contact with people every day who are worn down & depleted. Dr. Richard Swenson, a medical practitioner and author of the book Margin, describes this epidemic in his patients who are “…depressed, stressed, and exhausted. Some are desperate. Their jobs are insecure…They are over their heads in debt. Their marriages are in trouble. Their sons are using drugs, and their daughters are getting pregnant. These patients don’t know what to do or where to turn. They have no social supports, no roots, no community. Their stomachs won’t stop burning. They can’t sleep at night…”(29).
Dr. Swenson argues that many of our hurts and pains are due to overload, to a lack of margin and boundaries in our lives. We are pushing ourselves too hard, too fast, and too often with no reserves. Dr. Swenson defines margin as “…having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence” (13).
We tend to justify our behavior in the sacred name of “productivity.” That is, our frenetic activity is making money or producing a good or service that other people need or want. It is true that Americans are renowned for their productivity. A 2006 U.N. report revealed that the average U.S. worker produces close to $64,000 of wealth per year. Ireland came in a distant second at $56,000 a year. Yet we win for the wrong reasons: we work more hours than most other industrialized countries. In fact, when it comes to the most output by working hour, we lose to the Norwegians. The average Norwegian generates $37.99 per working hour while the average American generates $35.63 an hour while the French are a close third with $35.08 per hour. The average U.S. employee works 1,804 hours a year compared with 1,407 for the Norwegians and 1,564 for the French. We are working more hours but not producing more per hour.
And what do we gain for all this hard work? Apparently not contentment: a 2008 World Values Survey found that Americans ranked 16th out of 97 countries when it comes to contentment. According to the survey, people in poorer (and less productive) countries like Columbia, El Salvador and Malta are much happier than Americans are.
So it is obvious that we need more margin: we need less work and more rest and recreation. Of course God has been informing humans of this reality for a long time. He invented the idea of margin. That is why the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8) says “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” By observing the Sabbath, we store up margin by way of our time and energy.
It doesn’t stop there. God intended for margin to exist in our finances and relationships. Deuteronomy 15 says “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts…Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite.” This included the freeing of one’s servants. Furthermore, Leviticus 25 proclaimed the “Year of Jubilee.” Every 50th year the Israelites were commanded to reconnect with their family by returning to their ancestral property. Additionally, the land got a rest: people were not to sow or reap but simply gather what food was available.
How does all this apply to you? It’s time to figure out how to insert some margin into your life. It might mean removing some unnecessary activities from your schedule, or turning off your cell phone & taking a nap, or walking on the beach, or praying, or reading the Bible. These kinds of activities are productive in all the right ways!