Stop Compartmentalizing Your Life

imagesI offer this advice to pastors and Christian leaders. But it’s especially important to the lives of bi-vocational ministers/church planters for the Kingdom. Stop compartmentalizing your life.

I think ‘compartmentalizing’ is the default mechanism. When we get too busy, and we are juggling a new job, family, personal time and church leadership, we set about to organize and balance. We allot hours to job, to church, self-care time and to family.

This is a mistake for many reasons. One of these reasons is it cordons off church as a separate compartment from other areas in your life. Church now is a “job,” a task. And now anything that is organized with people of God becomes a task, a job, something to allot hours for. But I reject this. I believe church is a way of life. Everything you are living is church, including your family and your work. Once church becomes a task, you will start becoming resentful if it takes too much of your private self-care time, or too much of your family time.

Once you separate your family time from church time, you train your family to see themselves as separate from the church. You start saying things like “I need to carve out some time for my family” whenever church life demands some of your gifts. You in essence train your family into “going to church.” And you are now on your way to training your family to be a self-enclosed nuclear therapeutic entity that you “go home” to in order to feel better about yourself. This is bad for your family and bad for you. Even worse, the church is now a service to help your family be more healthy, less dysfunctional. This will always lead, I contend, to your family being less healthy and more dysfunctional. (Read David Matzko McCarthy on the closed household versus the open household)

The strategy of compartmentalizing allows you to center your life in three or four centers instead of one. It will always make life more busy. It’s always harder to juggle three or four balls than one.  You actually are now spending more time on the actual “juggling balancing” act. You inevitably will default into the one place you are feeling more loved or getting more self affirmation from. You will be spending hours at work if you’re loving that, and avoiding family or church. Or defaulting to your family and avoiding church. Or perhaps you will spend all your time at church and work or family or self are ignored. You will become angry when the church is not paying you more. All of this is recipe for disaster if you ask me.

Instead I propose you stop all that. Stop compartmentalizing. Seek instead a regular rhythm. A way of living under one Lord for all of life. Where work, family, “alone time,” and church life becomes part of one life in His Mission.

Learn to see that when you are with church people around a great meal with your family, you are actually spending rich time with your  family as well. Practice being present with Christ and the presence of other people wherever you are and with whomever  you’re with. Let God work in it all. Learn to listen to the workings of God in all things.

This life of “presence” with God in His mission will (I suggest) transform your family, work, church and yes, your alone time. You will become sensitized to when work has become an idol, family has become idol, your own quiet time has become an idol, and yes, when church has become an idol. Your rhythms will be off. People around you will ask where have you been?

There are always seasons in all of this. Times when family needs more attention, work and church needs more attention. And yes, even when you need to get away and be alone for a prolonged period of time. But people around you, including the church, should know and understand. They will also feel it when you have overdone it and have made one particular area of your life an idol.

I suggest if you cannot do this as a pastor, you cannot and should not ask others to do it. Pastors expect everyday people with full time jobs and families to give time to the church. They in essence are asking their people to compartmentalize their lives. And so the church in N. America has become just another compartment. We pastors get mad when people can serve the poor in a program because their family comes first or their job requires too many hours. I suggest, we cannot ask the people we lead to do something different if we ourselves can’t do it. This is why bi-vocational pastoring is so healthy for the church.

I am sure this life of “one center under one Lord” looks differently for full time clergy pastors than it does for bi-vocational pastors who plant communities. I think the same principles should apply even when church equals work for you. Nonetheless, I believe this is essential for bi-vocational pastors who plkant communities with other bi-vocational pastors. If you don’t get this worked out in your life, I suggest major dysfunction in your life and in your church awaits.

What do you think? How have you worked this out in your life? 


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Posted in Bi-Vocational Leadership, Church Planting, Missional Leadership
10 comments on “Stop Compartmentalizing Your Life
  1. Cal says:

    This was good.

    Even as a non-Christian, living in secularized home, the trickle down effects of this thinking infected me. When I first converted, my first community was filled with “fellowship” but shallow friendships and relationships. There was a period, when I realized worship was deeper than singing rock-ish songs and I could read or listen to sermons online, where I stopped “going” altogether.

    Compartmentalization is an all-around disease. It doesn’t mean we don’t make mental demarcations, but they’re worth a grain of salt, and are drawn in dotted lines instead of solids. It’s all apart of the “sunday-christian” sickness and just general schizophrenic insanity. It sure makes things, in their place, look neater.

    But, as it was once said, serenity now, insanity later.


  2. Dave,

    Great piece! I think this works, as you note, for anyone in ministry. And, I believe this really lays a great line down for a theology of vocation for anyone considering a way out of juggling the problem of busy life.

    I wondered if there was a way to draw some Deleuzian parallels, but I am not yet adept at making the appropriation work with his virtual reality (problem) and actual reality (temporal solutions).

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Josh Luton says:

    Spot on. I don’t think I’ve worked it out, but I have noticed a certain “presenteeism” at work and elsewhere in life. Your emphasis on “under God” takes the onus off the individual and invites participation, instead of thinking everything depends on “me.” Good word to ponder.

  4. Well. That hit me just where I didn’t want to be hit today. It’s good to bring the various responsibilities I have into conversation with one another in order to present one unified life rather than a fragmented life. What are some practices you have discovered which can help unify a compartmentalized life?

  5. Aaron Cantrell says:

    Great word, David. I am a full-time minister in Central IL and have in the last couple of years began the journey toward “Family On Mission” that you may have heard about from 3dMovements. It is revolutionizing my family. We are all beginning to see ourselves as Missionaries looking for what God is doing wherever we are. Even our 10-year-old came home this week and told us that he found God at work in his public elementary school through his serving the custodian and his friends at his school. He has his eyes open for God.

    We are building an extended family of people on the fringe of our church through 2 Missional Communities serving a poor neighborhood in our city and serving the special needs homes in our city.

    This could only happen by breaking down the compartments of our lives and seeing all of life as we are missionaries to our own neighbors and cities.

    • David Fitch says:

      Great and encouraging word Aaron.
      I learned about that through the wonderful work of Matzko-McCarthy mentioned in the post. Of course 3DM is helping many people understand these formative ways in our lives.

  6. hamos says:

    Absolutely – why we haven’t figured this out before now disturbs me. I was taught in college to compartmentalize but the last 12 years of life have been about blurrier the boundaries to recognise that God is in all of it.

    I often use the idea of rhythm with people too as it makes much better sense.

  7. Mark Day says:


    This is something I think about a lot, especially in relation to work / family compartmentalization. I grew up in a small rural town. My friends’ Dads were all farmers. They never needed to section off ‘time with the family’, because in one way or another the family was involved in work. The younger kids were playing nearby or hanging around while Mum and Dad did the work, and as they got older gained more responsibilities on the farm. The disconnection between work and family was barely noticeable.

    The office job presents a very serious barrier. Mum and / or Dad spend most of their day at work and the kids at school. How then do you ‘de-compartmentalize’ when the hours in your day are simply structured in a compartmentalized fashion?

  8. Thanks for this post, David. It intersected with a conversation w/ fellow Christian leader/friends on Facebook, particularly around the issue of student debt and its impact on the church. How that works out in my own context, I wrote up a little blog post on that if you’re interested in engaging there:

    Thx, again! Grace and peace…


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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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