Identifying and sharing the mental load of pastoral work

In any community, there is likely one person ensuring all the plates keep spinning. How can we acknowledge this and ease the load, asks Elana Keppel Levy? How can we work together?

Was the hymn number in the bulletin fixed? Are our Sundays planned through Christmas? Epiphany? Did anyone call Will’s parents? If we’re having a brunch, we’ll need the sign-up for who’s coming. I need to double-check that the form is printed out and someone plans to take charge of it this morning. Did Olivia have surgery last week and I forgot or is it this week? Does that person look mad? What’s this piece of paper doing here? Is that seriously still here from the back-to-school blessing?! I really need to talk to the session about this summer’s mission project to see if grants are available…

Welcome to a version of my inner Sunday morning monologue as a pastor. It was a weird thing for me to type out. Week by week, the more little things that fall through the cracks, the louder this monologue gets, threatening to overwhelm my consciousness with little end in sight.

I was recently having a conversation with one of our church’s elders about my anxiety. I tried to explain how many little things there are to keep up with. I tried to explain how, some Sunday mornings, I can’t go anywhere in the church without seeing some small thing that reminds me of some other thing that will become a problem down the road if it’s not taken care of.

He had all kinds of ideas about how to be helpful: “If you’re doing 20 things, how about trying to do 15 things instead? What can you let go of?”

“No, that’s not the problem. It’s the inner monologue — the worry.”

“I’m concerned that you’re so anxious. It’s okay if a few small things don’t get done. Everyone drops a ball now and then. It’s not the end of the world.”

“But it’s not that — it’s all the little things that add up to big things and become much more serious problems.”

“You know that people are going to be upset about things. You can’t please everyone. I’m on your side. I want to help. It’s not all on your shoulders. You need to learn to delegate.”

As I sat there, trying to make sense of things. I was truly grateful that this elder (and many others) wanted to be in my corner. They don’t want me to be anxious, and they are very supportive of me taking time to rest and care for myself. But … something still wasn’t connecting for me.

My spouse, who was also in this meeting, brought up the “mental load.” As soon as he said it, the term gave me some clarity. The mental load is the work, often carried by women, that keeps a household going. It is the work of tracking a thousand small details to get one kid to practice, another to band, pick up the dry cleaning, sign permission slips, nip conflict in the bud, and so on.

I usually think about mental load in the context of home life, but my spouse was absolutely right. I had been carrying the lion’s share of the cognitive effort to keep the church running for years, ever since we started this joint call. Nobody decided that it would be this way. It’s just that, over time, I became the primary person to make sure the calendar was correct, to double-check that things were ready, to read the room to see how things are going.

It’s exhausting to take the bird’s eye view and simultaneously look at all the different micro-tasks that go into making something run well. It’s not about one person carrying all the weight and doing all the tasks. We know that the church is called to be a community that comes together to spread God’s love, hope, and justice. It’s so much more than having 20 tasks to do. It’s taking the time to figure out all the pieces that go into each day and being sure someone is covering them. That by itself is a

I tried to explain mental load to my elder. I’m not sure I was very successful. Still, we arranged another meeting. Having identified the main source of my anxiety, I sat down before the next meeting and made a comprehensive list of different ways we could establish systems, improve communication, and share this work among a larger group of people.

Okay, yeah, detailing the mental load to try to ease the mental load is a bit absurd. But… I tell you, since those two meetings, I’ve been breathing a bit easier. Just knowing that soon I won’t have to worry about every single little thing not getting done unless I’ve had some part in being aware of the details is a huge weight off my shoulders. It will be much easier to focus on one thing at a time without thinking, “What am I forgetting?”

Paying attention to the mental load isn’t about good time management or delegating or being a worrywart. It’s about acknowledging the invisible work needed to keep a family, church or any group running smoothly. It shifts the conversation from: “What tasks can I take off your hands?” to “How can we do better at sharing the mental load?”

As we enter the holiday season, we know that the number of “small” details are increasing exponentially. At home and work, the mental load might be on the shoulders of one person. If you’re carrying the lion’s share, could you touch base with others about things that need to be done and tracked? If you’re not carrying it, could you figure out who is and learn about what’s happening behind the scenes?

Maybe this is a good way to think about Acts 2:44-45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” We can reset our energies and divvy up that mental load out loud with others on purpose. May we move forward together with glad and generous hearts.

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