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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Healthy Tension: Studying with a Holistic perspective

Written by: on October 18, 2018

I was single for much of my undergraduate degree. Married but no kids during seminary; but then had to finish some extra Masters level courses after I’d had children and it required absurd levels of commitment and reorientation. The transition wasn’t pretty. I remember lying on the bathroom floor, plagued by unrelenting morning sickness, with my class readings blurring in front of me. I learned to type essays with one hand while trying to soothe an inconsolable infant, utterly exhausted from sleepless nights. I would think through essays while pushing little ones on the swings at the park, rehearsing the points so I could write them down as soon as I got home. So when I was asked whether I’d be able to handle the balance of family and study during my interview for admittance to this doctoral program, I affirmed with relative confidence that I could, adding internally I’m just that stubborn.

I was encouraged when Rowntree identified as myth that as students we need to “ruthlessly ignore family, friends and social life” [1] and affirmed that longevity as a student required effective balance and the recognition of needing a holistic approach to study. Particularly as ministry practitioners, it would be folly to expect that we could be effective leaders at the expense of family life. Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:5 admonished “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” Scripture identifies that our first responsibility must be to our families, establishing that faithful living must first be lived out in the private sphere before extending to the more public sphere of church leadership and I would venture then perhaps extending to the global sphere. Prioritizing our families will benefit our studies, but can our studies benefit our families?

As we initially position, or reposition ourselves as students, Rowntree recommends thinking through time and space. Time must be ordered intentionally if we hope to accomplish our goals. I once heard in a sermon [2] the advice that, in this age and culture of busyness and full schedule, we replace the words ‘I don’t have time’ with ‘it’s not a priority’. If in that exchange we feel uncomfortable with the statement, we were encouraged to prayerfully reorganise our schedules. Positioning myself as a student requires that my schedule is re-set with schoolwork as a high priority, but within boundaries so that other high priority pieces are not lost.

Creating physical space is further identified as a necessary place of intentionality. This exercise recognises my body as site that requires a tension of comfort and discipline in order for my mind to be able to focus without relaxing into distraction. Given that my work must occur within my home, carving out physical space must be a negotiations with my family and in concert with the spaces they prefer for everyday living. Even this conversation proved a benefit to my 9 year old daughter as we discussed spaces that were best suited for homework and study and she offered to share her own desk with me. Through this, she felt she was able to contribute and partner with me in my academic endeavours as well as us increasing our connection through sharing space. A healthy negotiation process increases the strength of relationship ties.

Family can prove a vital place for synthesis of ideas and critical analysis. Rowntree recommends taking time to summarise the material that we’ve covered in reading or listening and points to family as an ideal location for such verbal processing. The advantages of summarising to an audience outside of the program include the need to be able to translate information from the academic discourse to colloquial terms. It also requires the ability to identify the main points and sub points of articles, books and lectures. If we are lucky, we will even receive some preliminary questions the either lead us to revisit missed information or will help direct us to the further study that will flesh out the concepts.

Learning from listening to lecturers and colleagues is a basic requirement for higher education. If we are ready to more widely exercise this skill, we will “[r]emember that listening skills are not just study skills. They are life skills that will play a vital part in [our] working life and in the quality of [our] relationships with family and friends.” [3] As such, actively listening to our families, is effective training for learning to listen within academia. Furthermore, if we can humble ourselves to learn [4] from family discussions we may be surprised to find their insights and questions can be useful to what we are researching. It will in fact ensure we are positioned for deep learning[5] , as we increase our commitment to broad concepts and understanding rather than mere facts.

The value of decompartmentalizating our lives toward a more holistic view is not restricted to academia. Workplaces are recognizing that family friendly policies lead to greater loyalty of experienced staff[6] and churches have maintained that faith must influence all of life and not just our ‘church’ experiences. A healthy tension must be embraced between necessary boundaries within schedules and spaces; and beneficial overlap in methodologies and the exchange of ideas.

During our program orientation we were warned that our studies would be hard on our families. In that moment I heard the Holy Spirit invite me to declare that it would make my family even stronger. It is my hope-filled expectation, that not only will I grow the body of Christ with my research, but that my marriage will flourish as I use conversation to process my readings and experiences; that my children will witness first hand what it takes to chase a dream and be inspired to do the work their own dreams will require. Rather than shield my family, I’m learning to invite them in, yet as I’m typing this, my husband has taken our toddler out to pick up the groceries and bring me back a coffee. Healthy tension.

1.Rowntree, Derek. Learn How To Study:Developing the study skills and approaches to learning that will help you succeed in university—a virtual tutorial with Professor Derek Rowntree 6th edition. Derek Rowntree 2016. Kindle. Location 242.
2.Sermons I have heard and forgotten.
3.Rowntree. Location 3867
4.Rowntree. Location1623
5.Rowntree. Location 814
6.Fernandes, Paula. “Support Your Employees by Creating a Family-Friendly Workplace.” Business News Daily. December 07, 2016. Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9614-family-friendly-workplace.html.

About the Author

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Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

7 responses to “Healthy Tension: Studying with a Holistic perspective”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    I too am learning that tension does not have to be wrong but it can be healthy, and that usually is dependent on communication. When we do not communicate with those, who are important to us then assuming can lead to bad tension. The “inviting in” part of this post really helped me to understand why my family and I have enjoyed this seminary journey and now doctoral one because I have not separated schooling from my family. While I do not “run” everything by them the things that I think are valuable to them, I share with them and even asked my wife for help, plus the trips I try to involve them in some way. So thanks for bringing clarity to me and now I’m asking myself the question, how can this be applied to other areas of leadership?

    • mm Jenn Burnett says:

      I struggle with some of the other areas a leadership a little bit more. It’s a complicated journey to parent and pastor because the church can be a difficult place to work. I’ve even been very careful to differentiate my ‘work’ from going to church or how we serve God. While as pastors we like to spiritualize our work (as being working for God) I am hoping to avoid my kids resenting God when my ‘work’ takes time away from them. It is also tough to invite my kids into the leadership journey when it is painful; to a certain degree I want to protect their innocence around the church while they are young. My confession is that I find it is a bit tougher to include my family in a healthy way in church leadership.

      • Mario Hood says:

        I relate to this also. It’s a fine line to invite them in on some of the tougher things because we don’t want to stain them, but they will see it soon enough for themselves and I pray that my response has been good for them to follow.

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jenn,
    Well done and well said. Thanks so much for filling in the gaps that my structural reading of Rowntree missed. (imagine that!) I think you are an incredibly wise and courageous leader to actively invite your family into the doctoral learning process. You are wise because we all now know what the bible says according to 1 Timothy 3:5 (way to trump every source by quoting the Word of God!) While we all know this relative to our unique context of ministry responsibilities, how often have we neglected our families in the pursuit of serving God, serving his church? This remains my primary regret from over forty years of ministry. So thank you, for reminding us via Rowntree that we need not neglect our families in pursuit of our learning or our ministry. Instead, we may follow your lead and courageously invite them into the process (tensions and all). Blessings dear friend, H

  3. mm Sean Dean says:

    I was fortunate to have the majority of my masters completed before being married, so relational tensions while in school are new and different for me. I am thankful that, outside of being away for 2 weeks, my family hasn’t really been affected by my studies yet – the advantage of getting up 2-3 hours before everyone else. I’m still working out how it’s going to look once the workload gets more intense. Your idea of health tension is a thing that will play into my plan for how family, work, and school responsibilities are organized. Thanks for that bit of insight.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you, Jenn. I enjoyed this and needed the reminder that I really haven’t determined the best space for my studies yet. And I need to. Home is the most efficient for me – as opposed to going someplace else, packing up everything I need, getting something ordered, setting up my resources, getting on wifi, etc. But I often get distracted at home with ancillary tasks to do. Once I get going at my favorite coffee shop, however, I can make good progress since there is nothing else for me to do (move laundry, clean something, process mail, prep dinner, etc). With my new schedule, I know I need more organization not less – more structure – more clarity on when and where. Thanks Jenn and Rowntree.

  5. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Jenn. I was struck by the sermon you heard, “…in this age and culture of busyness and full schedule, we replace the words ‘I don’t have time’ with ‘it’s not a priority’. If in that exchange we feel uncomfortable with the statement, we were encouraged to prayerfully reorganise our schedules.” I am going to put this into practice. I have appreciated the encouragement that life will happen and we must give ourselves grace. Rowntree addressed the idea of the mythical student and in this culture of superheroes it was a great reminder that at the end of the day we are finite human beings and need to become more human and less mechanistic producers. Thank you for keeping the important things up front!

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