Live, Work, Pray

The old office routine of nine-to-five has become a thing of the past, with more and more women feeling the pressure to work harder for longer or fearing for their jobs. Sarah-Jane Marshall talks to two busy working mums about living and working for Jesus in the 21st century workplace

The modern workplace is, for many people, an increasingly stressful environment. Recent findings published by social research agency, NatCen, don’t make for comfortable reading: almost one in four UK workers has a high sense of job insecurity, feeling that it would be “easy” or “very easy” to be replaced at work. One in five people have received a pay cut in the past three years and just under half of us work overtime in an average week. Most strikingly, the majority of UK employees are not able to leave their problems at work, with eight in 10 saying they “keep worrying about work problems” when they are not working. The net result: both job satisfaction and work-life satisfaction are lower in Britain than in almost every other European country.

With an increasing number of women continuing to work during motherhood (either out of choice or financial necessity) there are particular work-life challenges facing women. The line between ‘work’ and ‘home’ is increasingly porous as advances in technology enable work to be done at home, ‘on-the-go’ and at any hour. ‘Double shifting’ is widespread, with women continuing to do the majority of chores around the home on top of their paid work. It is no surprise therefore, that many commentators are warning that women in particular are struggling to manage work-life balance and are succumbing to stress.

So, as Christian women, how do we cope with the demands of the 21st century workplace? I met up for coffee with two Christian women who know a thing or two about leading busy lives. Alison works four days a week as director of a small consultancy. She is wife to international businessman Ian and looks after four energetic teenagers and a dog. Alex also works four days a week as commercial director at a multi-national consumer products business. She is married to senior director Mark and soon expecting her second child.

As we began to talk about our experiences of wrestling with work/life balance, it soon became apparent that none of us particularly liked the phrase!

Alison: “The phrase ‘work/life balance’ implies that ‘work’ and ‘life’ are two mutually exclusive segments – that when I take off my suit and put on my casual clothes, I am transformed into a totally different person. As if the decisions of the working day couldn’t possibly affect my mood around the dinner table, nor the state of my marriage affect my ability to concentrate at work – we all know that this is not true! We serve God both at home and at work as whole individuals called to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.”

Alex: “‘Work/life balance’ can also carry negative connotations of the value of work. It can sound as if work is the dull chore that we do only to fund the fun segment in our day called ‘life’. I find it hard to believe that a really stimulating meeting should be seen as ‘dull work’ and cleaning the toilets when I get home should be seen as ‘life’!”

Indeed, Colossians 3:23 paints a rather different picture. Here we are instructed that whatever we do, we should do it as if working for the Lord. There is no divide, therefore, between the work we do in the office and the work we do in the home, but both are opportunities to serve God.

Alison: “The phrase also suggests that there is in fact a perfect balance to be struck – that a ‘balanced life’ is one that never involves exhaustion, pressure or hard work. That if only we were to find the perfect ratio of time spent at work and at home, then we would float beautifully through life without ever putting a hair out of place!”

The reality is that good work can be, and often is, hard work. Teaching a class full of children during an Ofsted inspection is hard work. Equally, mothering small children on very little sleep is hard work. Both can bring the Father’s smile.

Finally, the concept of balancing suggests that, before we have attained this perfect harmony, it is all about coping. That it is inevitable that working women will be constantly pulled in two directions and the challenge is simply to hold it together in the middle without being ripped in two. God’s vision for our lives is so much richer than ‘survival’. Our whole lives are filled with opportunities to bless and serve others, and to be blessed and served in return. Living and working with God is an opportunity to join in with his plans for the world. At times, yes, this will feel like hard work but it is always foremost an opportunity, rather than a problem to be managed.

So now that we had established that a ‘balanced’ life was not the goal, I asked Alison and Alex what they have learnt about creating working patterns that enable them to be faithful and fruitful for God, both at work and at home.

Ask God what he wants you to do

Alison: “Too many working, Christian women I know carry so much guilt in this area because they are trying to please other people. We can get so tired out trying to satisfy the different expectations of society, family, friends and colleagues that we don’t ask God what he wants us to do. I found Mary Ellen Ashcroft’s book Balancing Act: How Women Can Lose Their Roles & Find Their Callings really helpful. It reminds us that, as women, we too need to take time to work out our callings and not just respond to tasks in the assumed roles we think we ought to play.”

Alex: “I agree. It’s a case of continually coming back to God and asking him how we might best serve him in this season of life. And it will look different for each of us – there is no one rule that fits all. I have recently taken the decision to move companies with a buy-out. From the outside it may not have been the obvious thing to do, but I made the decision because I felt I could best be used by God in the new role. Because of this I feel very peaceful about my decision.”

Be prepared to be flexible

Alex: “Sometimes I think women can feel that there are very limited options, but there can be so many creative solutions if you are prepared to make it work. Many companies are willing to negotiate part-time agreements in order to retain valued staff, particularly for set periods of time. I was fortunate enough to be able to negotiate working three-days-a-week when my little girl was still small.”

Alison: “My working patterns have changed so much over the years. Now my children are older I find that ‘homework time’ after dinner is a great time to get some more work done. This way we can all work together and the children have hard work modelled to them. As a church community we need to learn to be more flexible too. When my husband was working in Paris Monday-Thursday every week, we would rarely be able to make it to a mid-week home group. Instead, we got together with some other working friends and started a group that met every three weeks or so on a Friday evening. Because it was on a Friday night we were able to stay much later and this became a really precious time of fellowship and support.”

Train yourself to be fully present

Alex: “For women leading busy lives there is a real discipline in training yourself to be fully present to the task at hand. In a work context that means making sure you are giving your absolute best. Working part-time doesn’t have to mean part-productivity! At home too, there is a discipline in giving your full attention to the person you are talking to. For us, dinner time is a critical time when we can put all distractions aside and enjoy being together.”

Alison: “There is a similar discipline in training yourself to be present to God in the tasks that you are doing. I found LICC’s PrayerWorks initiative really helpful in this area. Their one-line prompts to pray give a daily suggestion of how I can pray for my work. The latest prayer journey looks at the area of stress and fatigue, and how this prevents us from being fully present to God, ourselves, others and the day.”

Make sure technology is your slave, not your master

Alex: “Technology has improved the way that we work phenomenally. It makes business more efficient, more global and more profitable. At the same time, we can easily become slaves to our smart phones. I find it so rude when a person checks their e-mails mid-conversation! They are certainly not being fully present!”

Alison: “Putting boundaries on your use of technology can ensure that you remain in control and are not controlled by it. We have a ‘no mobiles upstairs’ rule, which means that quality time with the family is not disrupted. It’s another instance of being intentional in our decision making, so that our choices are driven by biblical values and not just the culture around us.”

At the end of our coffee, I feel privileged to have been in the company of two such grounded women. It is evident that they are both confident in their identity as cherished daughters of God. From this flows a desire to lay aside the expectations of others and instead chase after God’s heart for their lives. Neither see their work and home lives as problems to be managed, but instead view them as opportunities to be seized – wherever they find themselves. As the traditional Anglican dismissal says, may we all learn to “go in peace to live and work to his praise and glory”.

Questions to consider

How do I feel about my ability to integrate work and home life? Do I feel that these decisions are right before God?

Is there room for flexibility in my life? Are there ways we could be more flexible as a church community so as to support working women?

Am I able to be fully present to those around me? How might I be able to be more present to God at home and at work in prayer?

How have advances in technology affected the way that I work? How are these changes releasing or enslaving? What boundaries do I put on my usage at home?

  • Sarah-Jane Marshall works with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC) and is responsible for their WorkStart project, which seeks to equip people in their 20s to develop a richer understanding of how their faith interacts with their daily work. Click HERE for more information about LICC courses.