Monthly Archives: September 2010

Would You Work Part-Time if You Could?

Someone told me recently, “I work 10 hours a day and can barely keep up. I love what I do in my job, I just wish there were less of it.”

When I hear things like this I feel grateful that I am able to work part-time. I work 2/3 time and because I work evenings, weekends, and am always “on call,” the mid-week hours are more flexible. So I can take my kids to the park, or get my haircut in the middle of the day and avoid the rush. I don’t have to find time to squeeze in some exercise—it’s built into each and every day.

Yes, it’s challenging sometimes. There is a sense of “falling behind” career-wise. And as a friend and fellow PT pastor put it, “It’s hard, feeling like if you just had a liiiiiiittle more time to spend, this thing you’re working on could be REALLY great.” I knew what she meant. And I know part-time work is not economically viable for everyone. I choose to work part-time because I like it—it allows me to live a more well-rounded life—but I’m able to work PT because my spouse doesn’t. And I feel a pang of guilt when he pulls out of the driveway at 6:50 a.m. to beat the traffic to work, before the kids are even awake. (Getting them out of the house singlehandedly is no trip to the spa, mind you, but that’s another post.)

I hear people talking about what we’re learning from the economic downturn. Some of us hope there will be a resurgence in old-fashioned stuff like saving and living within one’s means. One thing I’m hearing again and again is that many of the jobs that are gone are not coming back. High unemployment could be with us for years. What are we going to do about it?

I’m wading into territory I know little about, but I’ve wondered whether we’ll see the rise of part-time work, and whether we can find ways to make that a healthy change and not just a “best we can do”  thing. There’s nothing sacred and eternal about the forty-hour work week. It became the national standard only in the 1930s, though its roots are much older. It was meant to protect workers from being forced to work too much, not to force them to work “enough.” Futurists in the last century predicted that labor-saving devices would allow us to work less and have much more leisure time, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. We work more than the citizens of any other industrialized country and take much less vacation.

Could more part-time work be part of the answer? Churches all over the place are downshifting full-time staff positions to part-time ones, often with a great sense of shame. Of course these are people’s jobs we’re talking about. But I know folks who would work PT if they could—if they could work out the personal budgetary issues and if their workplace would let them. The person I quoted above would never dream of asking to work part-time because it would be seen as a lack of loyalty, or that the individual “can’t cut it.” If PT workers become more of a norm, maybe that reluctance would change.

Of course one of the major barriers is economic—would people make enough to live on? (That’s where the simplicity/saving stuff comes into play.) And we’d either have to make PT employees eligible for health insurance, or de-couple healthcare from employment (I favor the latter, but that too is another post.)

If the jobs really aren’t coming back… what will we do?

Would you work part-time if you could? And are there other barriers besides economics that stop you from doing so?

One with Authority

Today I had lunch with a member of the church, and we got to talking about leadership styles. I mentioned one of my struggles in that area: namely, how to balance the need for collaboration and consensus with the role of the minister as the vision-caster, the one who inspires folks to think big and look beyond the present into the future. I think new ideas take root more fully if people are a part of the process. I’m a big fan of discernment processes. On the other hand, sometimes people don’t recognize the answer until someone with a bird’s eye view of things articulates it. I have a friend whose church council basically said to her, “We don’t have a clue what needs to happen next, but we trust you, so tell us where we’re going and we’ll follow.”

Part of the tension I’m feeling is that only now, almost a year into my time at the church, do I really feel the future coming into view. I also feel like the trust is still being established. It would not have been effective for me to gallop in and start ordering people around—as if that were my style anyway. However, the time is soon coming when I will be called upon to offer what my ministry coach calls the “I Have a Dream speech.” And this is a bit nerve-wracking. What if I misread the signs? What if the vision is too ambitious? It can be demoralizing. Or what if the church says, “Eh, that’s the best you could come up with?”

As I was pondering our lunchtime conversation in the car afterwards, I found myself in a school zone while a crossing guard was directing traffic.

I was mesmerized. The woman was in complete command of the situation. She wore a bright yellow vest and matching gloves, crisp black shorts and sensible but stylish shoes. Her movements were precise and decisive. With a flick of the hand she made cars move. With a palm upraised, they stopped.

I thought about a training I attended years ago in which the presenter talked about power and authority and used the metaphor of the crossing guard. Let’s face it—those of us behind the wheels of these two-ton machines have the power. We could ignore her commands. We could even mow her down if we wanted to. She is just one person out there, unprotected. And yet when she puts on her uniform and steps into the street, she has authority. We confer that authority on her. But that’s only part of the process—she also claims it for her herself in the way she stands up straight and projects confidence.

And with that authority comes power, just a different kind. A riskier kind, that involves being a little defenseless out there.

Leadership is like that too.

My lunch companion suggested that people are going to listen to what I say by virtue of being clergy, with training and perspective and whatever wisdom I’ve accumulated over years of ministry and just being alive in the world. They confer that authority upon me. I can appreciate that, though I have no illusions that everyone’s going to just go along with whatever I say. I could stand tall and give all the right signs with as much confidence as I can muster and still there is a possibility of getting mowed down.

True leadership is vulnerable, I am realizing again and again.

“It’s Not Fair!”

Either my girls are going through a developmental phase right now, or they’ve picked this phrase up somewhere… but “It’s not fair” has been all the rage in our household of late.

Caroline says “It’s not fair” when I thank Margaret for finishing her morning routine so quickly.

Margaret says “It’s not fair” when a simple coin toss means James gets the toy first.




“It’s not fair” really pushes my buttons. Maybe because it’s used in situations that have nothing to do with justice: my cooing over Caroline’s blond hair as I brush it elicits an “It’s not fair” from the four-year-old brunette. Hmm… I do not think it means what you think it means.

The thing is, I coo over Margaret’s freckles, or the exuberant way she makes up songs. I like to think that such affirmations even out, and there’s something insincere about inventing something to affirm the other person for on the spot just so she’ll think it’s fair.

And I don’t like “Who said life was fair?” …as true as it is. Are we not supposed to be teaching our kids to “seek justice, and love kindness and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8)? The first part of that is about discerning what’s fair.

Still… grr, it’s annoying. I finally snapped last week and told them I didn’t want to hear “It’s not fair” anymore. I said, “Here’s what you can say: ‘I’m sad that…’ or ‘It makes me mad when…’ But I’m sick of ‘It’s not fair.’ There’s another reason I don’t want you to say it but I’ll tell you later.”

The next day, when I wasn’t so irritated, I explained myself, but I busted out that classic parental trope: the starving kids. God help me. I said:

There are children in this world who will die of diseases that you never have to worry about.

There are girls who do not have the right to go to school.

There are people who do not have enough to eat or a place to live.

And those things are not fair.

Do you get how those things are different than the gumball machine not giving you the color you wanted?

Well, it “worked.” They do not say “It’s not fair” anymore. They say “I’m sad” or “I’m mad” or “I feel left out.” To use the mental health term, they make “I” statements. All to the good. But I’m not sure I did the right thing. I think I justified myself by reasoning that they are not equipped to use justice language yet. (Also it’s just darn annoying.) But maybe part of childhood is to try to work out what’s fair and what’s not. And maybe that happens precisely through language. What if Caroline’s teacher calls on boys more than girls? Maybe it doesn’t rise to the level of the above stuff, but it’s still deeply unfair and should be named as such.

I’m curious what other parents (and non/parents) think about this.

Forthright Clarity

I’m thinking this week about bullies, and dealing with bullies, and how we speak the truth in love, as I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon, which will deal with these matters. (Any ideas? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.)

I am remembering fondly an experience from last summer that didn’t relate to bullying, but did exemplify assertiveness at its best:

We had taken the kids and Mom to a “family show” with our perennial favorite, Billy Jonas. I found out about the concert completely by accident—was planning to send a CD to one of our relatives and discovered that he was going to be in town.

Our family adores Billy Jonas. His music is imaginative, smart, funny, and very catchy. He uses a series of found items as instruments, including a bass drum made from a big blue plastic trash can, a Little Tikes chair, and a skateboard. He has drumsticks attached to his Vans which he uses to hit salad bowls, bells and horns. His CD “What Kind of Cat Are You?” was the only thing that quieted baby Margaret on a road trip to Maine several summers ago, and the effect was instantaneous and almost spooky.

And Billy’s concerts are wondrous. He is like the Pied Piper up there, able to teach words and motions in a way that is not at all tedious. Family concerts are a tough gig—you can tell immediately when you’re losing the audience. Yet he got the crowd back when attention spans waned.

For his final song he brings people up on stage and has them “Bang and Sang” along with him on various instruments. We were sitting on the front row and somehow Caroline got invited up on stage.

She is a reserved child in all but the most comfortable settings, and while she had just finished drama camp the day before and had declared her stage fright “cured,” this was a whole ‘nother deal. So I decided to give her one and only one verbal push: “Go on, sweetie!”

Then I stopped to see what she’d do.

caro_billy.jpgShe went up on stage and Billy gave her the Nimbus 2000—a broom stick with a tambourine on top. He showed her the rhythm, a slightly complicated combination of shaking and tapping, which she did perfectly.

Billy then proceeded to fiddle with some of the other stuff on stage to get ready for the song to begin. Meanwhile I readied the camera. I looked up to see Caroline conferring with this idol of her childhood.

I heard her say, quietly but clearly, “I don’t want to do this after all.”

He offered her another instrument which she declined.

What was he going to do? I wondered.

He turned to the audience and said, “Wow, folks… such forthright clarity. Well, it’s always good to know what you don’t want to do. Everybody give her a round of applause!”

She came and sat back down and nestled into me, her eyes rimmed with that red that I remember so well from childhood, when I felt that I had pushed myself too far and felt embarrassed. Another girl was called forward and completed the task, looking at her parents the whole time with an expression of combined terror and shyness.

It is so tough to know how hard to push a child. We don’t grow unless we stretch ourselves. On the other hand, being able to tell someone—especially an authority figure—”I don’t want to do this” is an incredible thing. I hope she will remember how to do this her whole life.

We greeted Billy after the show and he thanked Caroline for coming on stage and also for saying what she was comfortable with. “That’s a very brave thing to do,” he said.

One of our friends who was at the concert was impressed with Billy’s ability to handle the moment so graciously. And then he said thoughtfully, “Forthright clarity. Yes, that’s Caroline in a nutshell.”

…Have you had a moment of forthright clarity? What images come to mind when you consider what it means to “speak the truth in love”?

No is a Complete Sentence

So I’m doing this sermon series called “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Creating Functional Families and Communities of Peace.” We’re dealing with the command to “love our neighbor” and looking at some of the complexities of that (it sounds simple but it’s not, eh?) I have not yet donned a Tina Turner wig…

Anyway, here is this week’s offering:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
September 19, 2010
What’s Love Got to Do with It: Sermon Series
Exodus 18:13-27

No is a Complete Sentence: Setting Healthy Boundaries

The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

I love this story and I don’t understand why we don’t hear it more often. The situation is such a modern one. It would make a great addition to one of those “Jesus as CEO” management books, in a chapter called “The Importance of Delegating.” The story has such a genuine ring to it—these biblical heroes so often seem too good to be true—or too dastardly—but here we see just a little bit of Moses, the stressed-out middle manager. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He’s a bit of a workaholic. He doesn’t know how to say no. My pastoral care professors in seminary would say, he doesn’t have good boundaries. It feels like it could have been written last week… except that we don’t meet a lot of people named Jethro anymore. Which is a shame, because everybody needs a Jethro.

Jethro takes one look at Moses and sees all the signs of trouble. Maybe it’s the bags under his eyes. The brittleness in his voice as he snaps at others. The way he slumps his shoulders and can’t find enjoyment. Moses is overworked.

Jethro says, What are you doing? And Moses, perhaps a little defensively, says, I am doing God’s work. The people need me. This is important stuff.

Moses has fallen into what I’ve heard described as the Messiah Trap: a net that pulls people in because they believe these two lies: “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” and “Everyone’s needs take priority over mine.”[i]

And Jethro says No to that. In one of the most blunt statements in all of scripture, he says, “What you are doing is not good.” Remarkable. Moses is doing good! And yet something about it is not good.

Do you have a Jethro? Someone who can take a long loving look at your life and say, “What you are doing is not good”?

I have a few Jethros—people who help me not to be consumed by good work. But my most effective Jethro is one who is no longer with us. As most of you know, my father died suddenly many years ago. It was two days after accepting my first call to ministry, and two weeks before becoming a parent. Dad died of cardiac arrest. It was shocking, but if I’m completely honest, not truly surprising. He generally ate what he wanted. He didn’t really exercise regularly. He used to be a faithful blood donor until the Houston Blood Bank started putting the cholesterol count on the cards as an “added service”—he didn’t want to know. And he worked too much in a very stressful job.

There’s something powerful in the timing of his death, wedged as it was in between two of the most important events of my life, ordination and parenthood. So he’s my Jethro. At the end of the day, when I am faced with the decision of making just one more phone call, or walking on the treadmill, I think of him. Or when I have an article to write, and the kids want me to read them a story, I think of him.

Who is your Jethro?

* * *

I spoke last week about how we are created for harmony—we are created for community. So I’m not suggesting we remove ourselves from the needs of others. There are people who depend on us. But we can’t let ourselves be consumed. “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” –Thomas Merton

We have to say No sometimes.

One of the ways we say no, one of the ways we set a healthy boundary around our time, is through the practice of Sabbath: taking time each week to rest from our labor, to let everything go for a little while to rest and to remember that the world will turn without all of our good works. Sabbath shows up two chapters later in Exodus, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. I have to think that his conversation with Jethro helped him to receive more graciously the commandment to keep the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath day is a gift for the Jewish people even to this day, because it reminds them of the time when their ancestors (Moses’ generation) were slaves to Pharoah’s command—when they were forced to work, not five or six days a week, but every day of the week. There was no freedom, there was no relief, just constant expectations of doing more, producing more, building more. Thus the Jewish observance of Sabbath is not really about “time management.” It’s not even really about resting and recharging one’s batteries. It is an exclamation to the world:

We are not slaves to the empire any more! We are free!

We make that declaration as well when we observe Sabbath time, when we say No to overwork, when we set healthy boundaries for ourselves. To be able to choose not to be captive to constant work—that is freedom. Sabbath is huge for me and for our family. Our Sabbath time fluctuates each week, but it is one of the most important spiritual practice we do as a family.

But it’s not easy just to lay everything aside and simply Stop.

One of the things I try to do is reframe those loose ends that don’t get done. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I see instead what that unfinished task represents: namely, something else that’s important that I have done:

For example, when I look at our stack of unread newspapers, I think about the hospital visit I did this week. Or when I see the unanswered e-mail piling up, I think about the trip to Baskin- Robbins I took with the family instead. When I look at a mountain of unsorted and unfolded laundry the size of Everest, I see the delightful novel that I read with my feet up the night before!

…Because saying No to something allows us to say Yes to something else.

Moses gets this, I think—Jethro says, By letting go of some things now, you’ll be able to endure in your ministry much, much longer. Moses stops being a Lone Ranger for the sake of longevity. Notice also that Jethro urges Moses to delegate the little things. He’s still in charge of the big stuff. And this may be a good starting point for those of us who have a hard time saying No. Start with something small! (Yesterday at the International Children’s Festival, someone asked me to fill out a survey. I always do those things, but this time I said “Thank you, but No”! It was so small but felt sooo good…)

Now, up to now we’ve talked about setting boundaries around our time. But we also know that there are sometimes people in our lives who are toxic. I’m not talking about dropping people who are inconvenient or even difficult. I’m talking about destructive relationships that drain the joy and purpose from our lives.

It’s hard to know the faithful response to these situations. I heard an incredible story this week from a church member who had a terribly abrasive colleague. She faced a choice: do I ignore, do I fight back? She decided to smother her with kindness. It was a true “slap on the cheek, offer the other one” experience. And that approach with her colleague improved, and opened up some incredible opportunities for her career.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Many of us grew up with the “good girl/good boy” syndrome. We were taught to be nice. We don’t want to make waves or raise our voice. However, to quote a colleague and friend, “It will not shock you to learn that sometimes the response to constant sweetness and niceness and affirmation is not honey but, in fact, vinegar. Sometimes you must raise your voice to be heard. Sometimes you have to hold up your hand and interrupt and say ‘You may not speak to me that way.’ Sometimes you even have to say No. [But] nobody thanks you for setting boundaries, it turns out. They don’t gush, ‘Oh, that was so nice of you!’”[ii] And so it’s hard. And yet it is vital work, being firm and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes, it is precisely the work to which God is calling us.

Read with me, if you will, the poem on the front of your bulletin. It is a favorite of mine and many other folks; I know people who have practically made this their personal mission statement:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

I think there’s something in many of us that bristles at that. “But people are counting on me! I have to save them too!” Yes… and no.

I think the poet knows, as perhaps Jethro also knew, that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves only works… if we love ourselves! I don’t think it’s possible to truly love our neighbor effectively unless we love ourselves.

What’s more, I think loving ourselves is one of our ways of loving God. Not that we are God, but we honor the One who created us when we treat ourselves with reverence and care.

Maybe you’ve heard the mnemonic J.O.Y.—Jesus first, others second, yourself last. That’s the key to JOY, the saying goes, to put the needs of others first. I guess that works for some people, but I have seen that backfire in tragic ways, usually among women. I know a woman named R. who grew up with that message. I led a retreat one time on Sabbath and she argued with me—“I’m sorry, too many people are counting on me; I can’t afford to take time for myself.” Sadly, her health started to fail, but she refused to deal with it until it was too late. She passed away in her mid-50s. Now, there were many factors that led to her death. But I am convinced that the “others always come first” message played a role.

Love your neighbor… as yourself.
You will wear yourself out.
What you are doing is good… but you are doing too much, and therefore it is not good.

* * *

I’ve recently rediscovered what many know as the “serenity prayer.” It’s come back into my life in recent days, and I’ve realized that it’s really a prayer about setting healthy boundaries. Let it be our prayer today:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

[i] When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap, by Carmen Renee Berry

[ii] Many thanks to “Juniper” for this excellent blog post: