The Quest for Balance in Ministry


Finding balance in ministry often seems like the proverbial quest for the Holy Grail. The quest often proves long, arduous and mostly elusive. Ministers have justly gained notoriety for sacrificial service to the neglect of personal and family needs. This stance and style inevitably creates a life woefully out of balance. Physical and psychological problems, exhaustion, chronic stress, burnout, disrupted family relationships, and spiritual malaise often signal a life stretched to the max and out of balance. So how does one begin a successful quest? In answer I offer brief insights from creation and the ministry of Jesus. Additionally, I offer an observation discussed in my book, Reframing Your Ministry: Balancing Professional Responsibilities and Personal Needs (Evangel Press, 2007).

First, the quest requires learning or re-learning an important lesson from creation; all activity, even in ministry, should be balanced with rest. God himself models this pattern for creative activity. Thus, while he creates a hospitable world, he made space for rest. In the narrative, one finds rest between each creative “day,” in the pauses for evaluation and appreciation, and the institution of Sabbath. The message rings clear in God’s modeling and words: Creative activity is best done by interspersing it with rest. Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel reinforces this message. An emphasis on activity parallels a prominent place for rest. Mark 6:31, where Jesus called his tired, hungry disciples to come aside and rest awhile, serves as an example. Granted, one finds different interpretations of this passage, but one of the messages seems clear to me: Finite disciples need space and time to address their needs, even in the face of ongoing ministry demands. Giving ourselves this permission often requires acknowledging our limits and graciously accepting these as part of the divine design for humanity. Additionally, it means balancing engagement in ministry with disengagement. Disengagement often means finding space for rest without guilt. In this regard, Helmut Thielicke struck a heartening cord: “Take my word for it, you can really serve and worship God simply by lying flat on your back for once and getting away from this everlasting pushing and producing.”1

Second, the quest requires boundaried living. Again, I appeal to creation. Genesis 1:2 presents a world which is formless, void and chaotic. God orders it through creating boundaries between the various bodies. We find this emphasis in recurring words like “dividing” and “gathering.” Similarly, I suspect much of the chaos we experience derives from too-porous or non-existent boundaries: We can easily confuse ourselves with others and take on responsibilities rightfully belonging elsewhere. We can confuse ourselves with our role, leading us to seek our identity in producing and achieving. Moreover, we often do not know how to graciously say “no” to demands which push us way beyond our divinely ordained limits.

Finally, the quest requires rethinking ministry. Many ministers I encounter see it exclusively in other-centered categories. For them, ministry principally involves serving others. However, I think that under the umbrella of ministry, we need to make space for caring for ourselves and those close to us. This constitutes foundational ministry; it creates a healthy basis for serving others. Without space for this kind of ministry, serving others can sometimes produce disastrous results for the minister, his or her family and the congregations they serve.

Significantly, when we ignore the quest for balance, we miss a golden opportunity for influence. Like us, the average person in the pew also struggles with finding balance. They too can become addicted to pushing, producing and advancing to the detriment of their quality of life and relationships. Workplace programs emphasizing work-life balance and addressing work-family conflicts demonstrate balance as major issue for everyday Joes and Janes. Thus, when we fail to seek balance, we miss an opportunity for modeling and making the healthy, balanced life God intends, real for our parishioners. Although this ought not to principally motivate us to seek balance, the spill off could have marvelous consequences for harried parishioners and help create more hospitable environments in which to serve.

[1] Thielicke, Helmut (1995). Beyond and producing. Leadership, 16 (4), p. 86.


Dr. Anthony Tony J. Headley is a psychologist and professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary. He conducts seminars for clergy and other groups in the United States and internationally. He is the recipient of the University of Kentucky’s Office of Minority Affairs’ Architect of Dream Award. He also received the National Institutes of Mental Health Trainee Award. He and his wife, Adina, have three children.