I noticed a beautifully designed sign at the entrance to a store in the mall that said, “Work Without Boundaries!” The shop sold electronics—smart phones, personal planners, pagers, wireless devices, and an array of gadgets, communications tools, and new inventions that help customers stay connected to their jobs and their peers wherever they may find themselves. The boundaries of time and location no longer limit our capacity to work. We can receive phone calls, text messages, e-mail memos, and news updates anywhere, anytime. Wonderful.
In case you haven’t noticed, the line between being “on the job” and “off the clock” has been fading. I’ve fallen into the trap as much as anyone. I find myself making phone calls while driving to work, checking email on my iPhone during lunch breaks at restaurants, speaking with superintendents on days off, texting other bishops while exercising on the walking trail, writing on my computer long before sunrise, and answering email late in the evening before going to bed. The office and its responsibilities are always in the palm of my hand or no farther away than the briefcase I carry at my side.
Sometimes I read an email on my iPhone while sitting on the couch late at night, decide to respond while I’ve got the time, and so I shoot off an answer thinking that it will be received and read the following day during business hours. Much to my chagrin, I sometimes receive a response within minutes from the pastor, superintendent, or colleague I’ve emailed. Why should I be surprised? Whomever I have answered evidently has the same habits I do. But what in the world are we doing conducting our business at 10 p.m., especially when it’s work that is not particularly urgent?
Obviously, pastors serve in a vocation involving urgent matters that do arise and require our response no matter the day or time. Members face unexpected tragedy that moves us to their side regardless of our plans for a day off or the lateness of the hour. But these kinds of urgencies are not what I’m talking about. I’m describing the tendency for people to take their work with them everywhere, all the time, work that is not in any way urgent.
Three boundaries come to mind that usually partition work from the rest of our lives. First, there is the boundary of place. Are there things we carry away from the office or the workplace that rightfully belong there and not at home or in the car or on vacation? Some people have jobs that end when they leave the building, and much church work has that same quality. Do we really need to be sending memos to the Administrative Board from home at midnight? (That’s always a sign that something is amiss!) Some people bring home conversations about work to the family dinner table, and others do not. What is your “place boundary” for your work and how do you manage it?
Second, there is the boundary of time. With new technologies, we really can stay connected with coworkers, supervisors, or clients twenty-four hours a day. Is this a good thing? Do we have the personal discipline to ignore evening emails that pertain to work? Can we wait to respond to them during office hours? I recently heard about a study with physicians and their “on-call” hours. Even when they received no interruptions or urgent calls of any sort, physicians that are “on-call” feel a level of stress significantly higher than when they know ahead of time that they are in a “no-call” period. Anticipation, mulling over, preparation, readiness, and preoccupation about patients fill their time when they expect that any moment the phone may ring. They seem distracted during “on-call” in a way that they do not during “no-call.” Their anticipated responsibilities limit family engagement, distract from leisure activity, and even interfere with the intellectual capacity to read a book, enjoy a concert, or watch a movie. What’s your “time boundary” look like, and how do you manage it?
Third, the boundary between work and non-work often becomes blurry. For a church youth director, is attendance at a high school football game work? Lunch with youth at school? Hosting young people for an evening of pizza in our home? Yes. Yes. Yes. For a pastor in a small town, does having coffee with members and friends at the local diner count as work? Well, yes and no. Depends. Does fishing with a member of the congregation count as work? No. Not really, unless…. Does networking through Facebook with members late at night count as work? Well…. Am I working when I’m driving for four hours to an event in Springfield? What about when I’m staying in a hotel after the event? Well, yes, kind of…. Is it work writing a blog entry at home, texting a conference member to set up a lunch meeting, answering a question by phone while out walking? What is work, and what is not?
I recently read about a workers’ union that is pushing for overtime pay for employees who answer their cell phones or send text messages or answer email after hours if it relates to work. Many of these employees are required to carry their phones and expected to answer them if something arises. So, are they “on the clock” while sitting in a movie theater with their family if the phone suddenly vibrates?
I don’t presume to have all the answers, and I’m as guilty of blurring boundaries as anyone else. In fact, I’m drafting this blog post at home at 9:30 p.m. while watching TV with my son!
But I’m certainly aware of the risks of a life without boundaries. The last thing career-driven, materialistic, workaholic people need is to have their habits confirmed by the personal practices of their religious mentors. Speed and spirituality seldom mix well together. Sabbath involves a conscious and deliberate effort to lay aside work and engage spiritual realities. Sabbath reminds us, “I could be productive today, but I choose not to. I choose instead to orient myself toward God and to nourish my relationship with God and others.” Rather than figuring out how to release work from its boundaries so that it dominates our entire lives, our task is to develop a spirituality without boundaries, an understanding and experience of God’s presence in all that we do, including our work, our leisure, our home life, and our worship.
What are the risks of “Work Without Boundaries,” and how do you cope with them in a balanced way?
Yours in Christ,