Hello, friends! My name is Mandela Thyoka, a registered medical doctor, church elder, husband, and father. I’d like to share with you how I learned to successfully fulfill multiple roles and live a balanced personal life as a church elder. You may be thinking, When has this ever been possible? True, it is not possible on our own strength. As Jesus said, “‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matt 19:26, ESV). God, who calls us to ministry, will equip, direct, and strengthen us.
I have been a church elder for more than fifteen years, having served in three churches under five different pastors, and I have often struggled to perfectly balance work and my personal life. However, I have come to learn that there is no “one-size-fits-all” blueprint for a successful work-life balance. So this article provides pragmatic—not prescriptive—principles from my experience that have helped me to effectively meet multiple expectations while living a balanced and successful personal life. I also recognize that each elder has a unique set of multiple roles that may have an impact on how one effectively balances them. As the popular proverb says, “experience is the best teacher.”
The four main areas of life that an elder must carefully consider are the spiritual life, the family life, the professional life, and ministry. Illustrated in the form of a pyramid, I have listed them in order of decreasing priority, with the most important at the base of the pyramid. These four main domains are not mutually exclusive, but each ought to receive its due attention and priority.
The spiritual life forms the first and broadest building block on the pyramid, emphasizing its practical importance in the life of a church elder. Included in this domain are devoted personal prayer, Bible study, and meditation time—quiet time listening to God’s still, small voice. The spiritual life forms the foundation of one’s life; if one gets this part right and balanced, then everything else will easily follow, up to the apex of the pyramid.
We are relational beings, created by a loving God in His own image (Gen 1:26–27). It comes as no surprise that family life forms the second most important domain. It is imperative that we devote quality time to our personal and family relationships. While family life places huge demands on our time, when we devote quality time for our spouse, children, extended family, and friends they form a pillar of strength in our other roles. Some of these responsibilities to our families include children’s playtime, school activities, and homework. Similarly, quiet time with your spouse often helps maintain a positive and successful relationship.
Our professional work, which provides financial income for our families, impacts so much of our lives, with most of the hours of the day spent at work. Unfortunately, most work schedules are fixed and nonnegotiable, leaving no room for change. For example, as a medical doctor I usually work an eight-hour day on weekdays with possible weekend cover on a rotational basis. Like many other elders, I find these hours can be long and unsociable, adding pressure to the other domains of life and jeopardizing the quality of my free time. One of the main ways to guard against professional work encroaching on other domains is to make a rule to not bring any work home—even with deadlines looming.
Church ministry is one domain that can easily be an overindulgence to the detriment of the other domains. This is usually due to the fact that we believe it is alright as long as we are doing God’s work. However, we have also been called to be faithful stewards, particularly in regards to time. In my years in ministry, I have come to recognize that there is strength in shared church responsibilities through delegation and total member involvement, offering adequate peer support to those who need it most.
ALL OTHER BUSINESS (OTHER ROLES)
Unfortunately, as with life in general, there will be other responsibilities outside these four domains. These all fall into this last category, a proportionately small block at the apex of the pyramid. I leave this domain to the mercy of the other four domains. When it comes to “all other business,” I am more than happy to say no to requests, especially if time does not permit. It is also in this domain where I have often found many distractions that need to be identified and avoided.
BALANCING MULTIPLE ROLES
I discovered early in my ministry that balancing these multiple roles was paradoxical, if not impossible by human standards. There were times when one role became a priority over the others, necessitating more attention devoted to it. This is when, through prayer, I learned that my biggest and first challenge was to have a sure foundation. I started to spend time with God in prayer, Bible study, and meditation as the basis for my spiritual strength. My time with God is the most important, as He is the source of all my strength. We would do well to follow in Jesus’ footsteps (Mark 1:35). Starting each day at His feet makes you face the challenges with hope. I also started to purposefully devote quality time to my family, who then supported me in my other roles. These two domains—spiritual life and family life— formed the non-negotiable parts of my life.
MY TIME WITH GOD IS THE MOST IMPORTANT, AS HE IS THE SOURCE OF ALL MY STRENGTH.
Time is the most precious commodity elders must manage to stand the best chance of maximizing their different roles. In order to make effective use of time, a lot hinges on prior preparation and planning, either personally or with your family. We know that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. This is why I have learned to plan for the short and long term, making sure to clearly set goals on what I want to achieve in each of my roles—especially in my spiritual and family lives, which are pivotal in the life of an elder.
MAXIMIZING OPPORTUNITIES FOR TEAMWORK AND SHARED RESPONSIBILITIES ALLOWS FOR A BALANCED MINISTRY WITHOUT THE RISK OF BURNOUT.
Looking back on my career, the most productive time of my professional life as a medical doctor was during the four years when I worked in London, a two-hour train ride each way from my base in Doncaster. I maximized the “dead” time of the commute by catching up with other parts of my life, allowing me to switch off from work and just be with my family when I arrived back home. I strongly believe we should separate our personal and professional lives, not allowing either to encroach upon the other. While both are important to our physical and mental well-being, neither should be neglected. Only then will our ministry become joyous and fulfilling rather than arduous and burdensome.
BENCHMARKS FOR A BALANCED MINISTRY AS A CHURCH ELDER
1. Spending time with God. Spending quality time with God (personal Bible study and prayer) recharges your spiritual life and ultimately helps you achieve all the other benchmarks.
2. Looking after yourself. It is one’s own ultimate responsibility to maintain health and well-being through adequate exercise, sleep, and rest.
3. You cannot please all people all the time. While this is a people-oriented ministry, it is inevitable that some will not be pleased with our service.
4. Some tasks are thankless. These tasks still need to be done, but do not expect a “thank you” in return.
5. Minimize idle time. Idle time is the tempter’s treasure.
6. Know when to say no. Know your limitations and avoid taking on too much, recognizing that no is as perfect an answer as yes.
One major mistake I made during the early part of my ministry was not spending enough time with my family, as we all had busy lives at work or school. Even simple things like family mealtimes were lost in the busyness of our days. So, we agreed that we would make time every Sunday morning to have a full English breakfast together as a family, and just sit around the table after breakfast to talk with each other. Our children would reflect on their experiences in the previous week and we would then make plans together for the week ahead. This helped us bond, recognizing the value of our time together.
It’s also important to schedule time for adequate rest. This can easily be neglected in a busy life, but the importance of getting eight hours of sleep daily and periods of exercise and rest during the daytime cannot be overemphasized.
In conclusion, it is not always easy for a church elder to successfully fulfill multiple roles while simultaneously maintaining a balanced personal life as a church elder, but there are some principles that are pivotal. The first task is to prioritize your various roles and allocate proportionate time to each role. This ensures that your spiritual life becomes foundational to everything you do. Secondly, purposeful planning, both in the short and long term, allows you to set goals for each role. Finally, maximizing opportunities for teamwork and shared responsibilities allows for a balanced ministry without the risk of burnout. As such, the benchmarks for a balanced life in ministry are spending quality time with God and your family, looking after yourself, knowing and recognizing that you cannot please all people all the time, recognizing that many tasks are “thankless,” minimizing idle time, and knowing when to say no.
IT IS NOT ALWAYS EASY FOR A CHURCH ELDER TO SUCCESSFULLY FULFILL MULTIPLE ROLES WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY MAINTAINING A BALANCED PERSONAL LIFE AS A CHURCH ELDER, BUT THERE ARE SOME PRINCIPLES THAT ARE PIVOTAL.
Mandela Thyoka is a physician and elder of the Doncaster Seventh-day Adventist Church, Yorkshire, England.