Renewal Leave Reflections: The Nature of Work
After worship on June 5, I closed and locked the door of my office behind me, and I walked out of the empty church building. Fifteen weeks later, I unlocked my door and entered my office again. The gift of time for my renewal leave had come to an end, and it was time to get back to work.
The final few weeks of my leave were interesting, especially in conversations with friends who assumed that I was already mourning the impending return to work life. My response, however, was not grief or anxiety; instead, I responded “I’m ready.”
In many ways, my renewal leave was exactly what I had hoped it would be: relaxing, rejuvenating, fun, calming. In other ways, I was surprised by things that I didn’t expect: how tired I really was; how difficult it was to not work; and how activities that I had thought were relaxing were ultimately clever disguises for work.
The first few weeks of my leave, then, were spent figuring out where this line was between work and rest. I struggled mightily with not being productive. I felt guilty because I felt lazy. So, I tried to assuage my guilt by doing some reading. I have a large pile of books that I haven’t read, and I intended on getting through that pile with this enormous gift of time. But it became quickly apparent that reading those books, heavy with theology, was somewhat enjoyable; but ultimately, I found that these books constantly made me think about my work, responsibilities, and duties as a pastor. Reading these books, in other words, led me to work.
The same could be said for writing. I have always enjoyed writing, finding that it helps me to organize and express my thoughts in a clear and concise way. But writing, too, turned out to be a very heady pursuit, and I became anxious in trying to make this task something of a self-imposed daily routine.
Thankfully, two weeks into my leave, I had planned a five-day trip to Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery in northern New Mexico. The monastery is tucked away in an extremely beautiful, secluded canyon; and it is a quiet place, where listening and praying is prioritized over talking and producing. There, amidst the beautiful red canyon walls and the bubbling Rio Chama, I was able to discern something that would guide my activities for the rest of my leave and beyond: rest would be defined as anything that gave me life; and work, conversely, would be defined as anything that took life away.
This was incredibly useful for me because it gave me a standard by which I could make the most of this gift of time. If reading theology books and writing was causing anxiety and depleting my energy, then I gave myself permission to not continue with those activities. If going on miles-long runs or completing long-dormant house projects brought a sense of satisfaction and life – even though by all accounts they are ‘work’ – then I was free to pursue them.
I oriented the remaining weeks of my renewal leave around this maxim, and my time away was all the better for it. Indeed, it has helped me to understand some of the same patterns that I sense in my post-renewal-leave life, too, which has helped me to be able to set better boundaries around what is and what is not ‘work.’
These two questions – What gives you life, and what takes life away? – can be deeply philosophical; but they can also help to give you a practical way of ensuring that you are living a healthy and balanced rhythm of life. I hope that you’ll take some time today to do something that gives you life.