“You are going to disappoint someone this week. Look at your schedule and choose who it will be. And make sure it isn’t your spouse or your kids.”
These words haunted me for days after I heard them at a leadership forum.
First, it is disheartening to start the week knowing you will disappoint someone. Isn’t that why we work ourselves into the ground? Isn’t the goal to not disappoint anyone, if we can help it? Leaders aren’t supposed to disappoint; they are supposed to lead by example and exceed expectations. They are supposed to use their resources, delegate and figure out how to make it work. They aren’t supposed to disappoint.
Second, choose whom I will disappoint? As in: Make a conscious decision? That means acknowledging and accepting that I will disappoint someone and then committing to it. Can I commit to disappointing someone? And then if I choose whom I will disappoint, do I let her know in advance or do I let her figure it out as it happens when I default? How does a leader navigate this?
Third, make sure it isn’t your spouse or your kids. This one really bothered me. Both pastors, my spouse and I knew what we were signing up for (or at least we thought we did!) when we got married and accepted various calls throughout our lives together. We made vows, for better or worse. We make decisions together. We commit to people and places together. We (try to) understand that ministry is a 24-hours–a-day, 7-day-a-week calling. Most people don’t die between 9 and 5, Monday through Friday. Most deacons meetings happen on weeknights, often at the same time as soccer practice. We can’t be in two places at once and we can’t be all things to all people. Disappointment is part of the deal, right?
I was bothered by how conflicted I was feeling. It was as if I had been given a judge’s sentence, ordered to disappoint someone and then was heavily pressed to make difficult and polarizing choices between my vocation and my family.
And yet, the way the speaker who originated these words offered them, he didn’t sound conflicted at all. He said them as if they were standard operating procedure. This pressed me to dig a little deeper into both my feelings and the context of my angst. My therapist would be so proud that my first thoughts took me back to my family of origin. It turns out this conversation about disappointments spans three (if not more) generations, with some sweeping but helpful stereotypes and assumptions.
My parents are baby boomers. My mother worked in our home and raised four children. My father was an oil executive who traveled considerably. As children, my brothers and I understood our father’s job was to “work at the office” and our mother’s job was to care for us, manage our schedules and our home. It never occurred to us that our parents were making choices. We assumed that fathers worked in an office and mothers worked in the home.
In the boomer generation, many of those who worked outside of the home would consistently choose (consciously or not) their work outside the home over their personal life because that was the expectation. “Work” was what provided income to support the family, therefore it was the priority. Of course, there were times my mother or my siblings and I were disappointed my father was not at certain events or present for special moments, but we knew whatever he was doing was important because he was “at work.” The concept of life-work-balance was barely creeping onto the scene.
We know what this looks like today: Pastors refuse to take a vacation because they can’t imagine how the congregation would survive a potential crisis without them. We have skyrocketing obesity rates and heart disease from lack of self-care and exercise. We answer the phone during dinner. We find our entire sense of identity in the work done at the office. This generation approaches the end of their lives with feelings of regret for not choosing their family more.
Having watched the boomer generation before me consistently choose work or home as a priority, I (along with those in Generation X) struggle with figuring out a life-work balance. Enter the rise of women in the workforce who work tirelessly to “have it all” and balance a full-time career and manage a happy, healthy home for her family. We learn quickly that there is no such thing as “balance,” but rather an ebb and flow to our personal and professional lives as we make choices and do the best we can. My children know that when I am working in my home office, the longer they leave me alone to work, the sooner I will come out, shut the door and give all of my attention to them. I consciously make choices and have conversations with my spouse and our children about how we will collectively and individually spend our time and resources. Often this means someone is disappointed. As previously mentioned, I can’t be in two places at once and I can’t be all things to all people, so choices have to be made. Making these choices is a constant struggle.
We know what this looks like: We have all seen (or perhaps been) parents who are on the phone at soccer games trying to manage both worlds at once. Feelings of guilt plague this generation for not being able to do more, create more and serve more. The exhaustion and fear of failure becomes paralyzing. Social media gives a false impression of the success of others who post seductive images of perfectly coiffed, well-behaved children in matching outfits, phenomenal vacations and generous gifts of cars and jewelry from adoring spouses who always remember birthdays and anniversaries.
The speaker, who announced his edict about making choices to disappoint someone and making sure it is not one’s spouse or family, is a millennial. This generation has been formed by grandparents who told them they wish they had put their family first more and worked less. They watch the Gen Xers before them struggle with the difficult choices made between prioritizing one’s personal and professional lives. They have also watched the divorce rate soar and families torn apart only to be blended and fractured again. Many in this generation are quick to cite self-care needs and vehemently protect “family time” at any cost. Boomers and Gen Xers are often taken aback at the clarity this generation has in their boundaries.
We know what this looks like: Millennials often have the reputation for being self-involved and less than motivated — when actually they can been seen as being incredibly dedicated to alternative ways of living and being in relationship with one’s personal and professional choices. Their choices are criticized because they are so radically different from the two previous generations. But given the lack of contentment and stress plaguing the previous two generations, can they really be blamed for making different choices?
Examining the pendulum swing of the generations in this line of thought has been helpful in identifying the polarizing assumptions on either side. In the boomer generation, it was assumed that work outside the home was more highly valued; thus if one or the other had to be disappointed, it would be the family. In reaction, millennials highly value their families and private time; so if they have to disappoint someone, the assumption is it will be someone at work. In the middle, the Gen Xers feel stuck between the two, wanting to succeed in both realms and not wanting to disappoint anyone. The assumption for Gen Xers is that work-life balance will be a struggle. And it will be a struggle because there is not an easy and clear assumption. Work-life balance is a struggle because it is a conversation rather than an assumption.
I am going to disappoint people. The speaker is right. It is going to happen. And, I can make choices so I disappoint work colleagues (even at church!) in manageable and acceptable ways and still prioritize my family. I can also make choices to disappoint my family in palatable ways when my work needs to take first place. And I do this by engaging them in conversation, not by making sweeping assumptions or leaving them to be disappointed as a default decision when I am out of time.
In the busier seasons of the church year, I know there will be extra activities at church with meetings, parties, programs and service opportunities. I also know these are some of the most special times to gather with family, food, friends and fun. Intentionally planning our calendars with the entire family sets reasonable expectations, clarifies priorities and models for our children that making choices is often difficult and always important. When conflicting dates arise in the calendar, it gives me the opportunity to teach my children that I have to make a choice in which event to give my time and that someone will be disappointed — and that is OK, as long as I disappoint them with advance notice and respect. Disappointing someone at the last minute is the most hurtful way to do it. Often, if one is given advance notice, they are grateful for the information, understand and make other plans. No one wants to be someone’s default disappointment.
It turns out my angst with this speaker is not with his words at all. He spoke from his experience, which is valid, significant and worthy of consideration. My angst is in the either/or nature of his argument. Neither ministry nor marriage and family life are either/or ways of living; rather, they are both/and expressions of our deepest values and convictions. I am called to minister and I am called to marriage and family. Therefore, I will both meet the needs and disappoint the ones I love in all of these areas of my life. And I will do so in conversation with them.
The church needs to be in conversation with me about my schedule just as much as my family does. I have found that many times churches are flabbergasted when they find out how often a minister chooses the church over their family. On the flipside, churches are more likely to understand a younger minister’s choices if they are in conversation about their time and priorities. In most cases, the church knows if their leaders have healthy and content home lives, they will be far better leaders at work. The reverse is also true. If a leader can walk away from her desk and feel good about her choices, she will be more present and available to her family at home.
The pendulum is going to continue to swing back and forth many more times before we get off the cycle or settle in a happy medium. None of the generations gets it completely right. The best we can do is to lead with conversation rather than assumptions because no one wants to be the default disappointment.
Victoria A. White is the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity where she encourages innovation among Christian institutions and their leaders through grant making, teaching, facilitating and writing. She is living life to the fullest in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her adventurous husband and two hilariously mischievous children.