The Problem of the Circles

three_circlesSince I left parish ministry, I’ve had many people inquire as to the “real reason.”

Well, when I find out the whole story, I’ll tell you…

There isn’t just one, but rather many. And they’re not good or bad or anything.

They just, well, are.

A new call.  A nudge away.  A pull away.  A new mission.  I mean, all sorts of things.

But after serving in parishes for ten years, I do know a thing or two about what kills professional church workers emotionally, psychologically, and physically.  Parish ministry is, as the saying goes, “death by a thousand duck bites.”  I still, to this day, have a post-traumatic stress relationship with my phone.  When it rings, I react negatively.  Even after six months out of the parish I can’t help but wonder who died, who’s pissed, who’s in crisis, or who needs my attention.

Parish pastors aren’t, of course, the only professionals who have this relationship with their phones.  Chaplains, medical doctors, undertakers, and all sorts of on-call professionals know that dread.

But I’m not writing about that today, actually.  I’m writing about a more acute issue, one that leads to burn-out more quickly than the phone, and most any other, I’d suggest.  I’ve named it, “The Problem of the Circles,” and it literally caused me more dread in my years in the parish than most any other problem.

So, here it goes, some truth:

You have circles you run in.  Everyone does. And they overlap somewhat.

Somewhat.

One is your professional circle, or where you do your work.  It’s how you make your money, how you earn the means to eek out your small existence in this corner of the universe.

Another is your family circle, both biological and chosen.  In this circle you form relationships that sustain you and keep you.

A third is your voluntary circle.  For some this takes the form of hobbies, and for others it takes the form of charity or philanthropic work.  In some lives, those two are combined.

These three circles make up our existence and friend-base, even though not everyone has all of them.  In fact, most of the people I’ve counseled over the years are lacking one of those circles.

They’re stuck in their work, and have neglected their family or hobbies.  Or they only have their family, and have no meaningful vocation or philanthropic outlet.

Or they have a meaningful service opportunity, but work sucks and their family is non-existent.

That’s a problem, of course.  And it can be a problem for pastors, as it can be fore everyone.  In fact, I want you to stop and consider what your three circles are right now.  What do you have?

Ok, moving on…

All of these circles will overlap a bit.

But actually, I think pastors have a unique problem when it comes to the circles.

See, most people have three distinct circles: work, family, and hobbies/philanthropy are separate. They overlap, but aren’t the same. They’re different. Comprised of different people and different foci.

But for a pastor, the circles are all one and the same, or at least, that’s the expectation.  I was expected to pull my work, include my family (and pull my friends), and spend my philanthropic time all in the same circle.

If I didn’t show up for a community event at church, did it even really matter?  The pastor wasn’t there, does it count?  Why wasn’t I there?

And if the pastor isn’t at every social engagement, don’t they really care?  Couldn’t they be bothered to show their support?

Pastors are often expected to pull their work, their friends, and their leisure-time from the same sphere, and it’s just often too much.  Because if M-F is for work, Saturday is for social gatherings (that “chosen” family), and Sunday is for philanthropy, when is the time the pastor gets away?

Away to cultivate a new circle?

And not just a vacation…because vacations won’t do it.  Vacations are where you get away from all circles.  We all need a vacation; certainly.  But even week-to-week, we all need time away.

Away to form other relationships.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the last 10 years I received flack because I didn’t volunteer with this pet cause or that pet cause run by various parishes.  If I gave my time to every pet cause, guess what cause would lose out?

My family. Because it would have been, just about, every night and every weekend. Oh, and why isn’t the pastor’s family here?

In that case, my work and my philanthropy became the same circle.

Or sometimes my hobby of writing would catch flack because, well, why wasn’t I working?!

When do you think I do most of my writing? Here’s a hint: it’s usually after 5pm, and often after midnight.

But when you’re on-call all the time, when is time off?

Here’s the thing: everyone needs three circles.  At least three.

A fourth might be a friend group even outside of all of that (usually that rolls into the hobby/philanthropic circle, but can sometimes be a stand-alone group).

But everyone needs at least three circles.  And you need to be free to have them, no matter your profession.  You need to have them so you don’t become co-dependent on any one of them.

And think that’s not a real thing?  How many parents can’t stop over-parenting, even after their kids are grown?  How many professionals never really give it up, even when they’re technically “retired?”

Too many.  We become co-dependent so easily…

So, Beloved, how are you doing with your circles?

Yeah…it can be a problem.

Cultivate them.  You need them. And let others have them.