The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.
Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.
But this is never failure.
As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.
In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.
For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.
It’s not so different for anyone else.
For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.
And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.
The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.
Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.
In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.
This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.
We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.
So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.
Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.