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Margins: Are yours sufficient?

To enable everyone to stay safe during the past twenty months, we’ve become familiar with social distancing and keeping the right margin between each other. (Although these guys aren’t wearing their masks!). I want to think about the word ‘margin’ in a different way though. For this couple to sit talking on these benches, there had to be a decision to take some time out, to head to the park and sit down. We will see that these kinds of decisions can change our lives. 

I was reading Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s book called Spiritual disciplines handbook recently where she relates the following story: A friend of mine tells of how the word of God came to her one day through her four-year-old daughter. The mother was busy hurrying her daughter out the door when the little girl replied, “Mommy. Stop. Why are we always in a hurry when we never go anywhere important?”  This girl intuitively knew that rushing got in the way of what was important. Life is too precious to miss; the faster we go the more likely we are to miss what really matters. 

In his book Margin, Richard Swenson writes that ‘progress (and success) sabotage margin.’  We are robbed of any margin because we are needed and the work must go on. However, it’s our fallenness that moves us in this direction – success doesn’t have to cause a lack of margin but, if we let ambition take over, or neglect boundaries in our lives, it will. Margin exists for relationships whereas progress is focused on ministry goals. 

Margin is the amount of time, space or resource allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the opposite of overload. For some reason, we don’t immediately realise that we need some margin when we are tired, stressed or overloaded. We conclude that all this stuff in my life has to be done, so I had better do it. 

Lack of margin is a fairly new phenomenon. I grew up without a mobile phone, computer, email or films and TV shows to access at will. My parents bought our first TV when I was six and even then, it only had programmes for part of the day. We didn’t travel anywhere apart from a two-week holiday that we could reach by driving for half the day. I wonder sometimes, “What did I do with all my time?”   Well, as I think about it now, I spent time learning piano, riding my bike with friends, enjoying Epping Forest at the end of my road with my dog, and having a relaxed, enjoyable life. Today hurry sickness has taken over our lives with time pressures, deadlines and expectations of accomplishing more this year than last. 

Can you imagine reading a book without margins? A page full of words without any spaces would be too much to take in – our eyes need the margins and spaces to be able to read easily. What about reading a long sentence without commas? Commas are there to enable us to pause and take a breath. What about driving on country roads without margins? When the margin is cut down on motorways during road works, it adds a little more stress to our driving. Think how much it costs to put in all those hard shoulders along motorways. They are there for emergencies – how important they are. 

We seem to constantly want to live our lives without margins. Over this coming week or month, where do you need to create margins?

  • How present are you for people? If every minute is scheduled with agendas, and you are pushing straight on to the next thing, when will those sacred conversations take place? 
  • How much time do you give to processing decisions? Important ones require time and discernment for clarity. 
  • What about a special meal with your friend, spouse or family?
  • Think about creating some space between one meeting and the next. 
  • What about yourself? Do you set aside enough time for quiet meditation, devotion, and catching up with yourself? 
  • Some may need to create some margin for more sleep, others might need to find their margin by sleeping less. Do whatever is needed, but let’s not wait until we are sick before we are forced to have some margin time.

Our creator God put a margin in place after he had created the world, to spend time to evaluate, reflect and enjoy the fact that “it was good.”  Taking a Sabbath is an important margin practice. Taking the dose weekly can save our lives!

In preparing for the Leadership Development Course we’ve run for many years, we added a fifteen minute margin space in moving from the first session to the next. Just a quarter of an hour has made all the difference to reduce stress, give people time to breathe (and a needed bathroom break) and pause before moving on to something new. 

To create some margin in the middle of the week, instead of having our normal afternoon session going into the meal at 18:30, we prepared sandwiches after lunch for the evening. Then we had an early session that enabled everyone to have a long break from 16:30 through the evening; everyone enjoyed that extra margin.

Margins are important throughout our daily life – and in whatever we are doing. We have run several online zoom training courses and recognise how important breakout groups are to bring margins into a 60 to 90 minute session. Human beings can only sit still and focus for a limited time and so having breakout groups, activities, games and role-plays enables us to take in so much more of the content and process it more effectively. This change of pace, movement, talking and involvement acts as a margin. Having even a one-minute silence at the end of a talk creates a margin for thinking personally and applying something into our own context, which could easily be lost by moving straight into the next thing. 

I enjoy (well, endure might be a better word) exercise. To help inspire me, I often use a motivational video presenter to spur me on. After a strenuous exercise, he always provides a margin for me to catch my breath and breathe more deeply. At the end there is a cool down. These again are necessary margins. We recognise that our bodies need them, but often don’t realise our emotions, minds and hearts need them too. 

Relational margins are some of the most important times we need to schedule into our diaries. Times to simply talk, process and catch up with all that has taken place. When friends or married partners don’t have regular time to share their hearts, unload, and talk about the joys and challenges, we miss out on life. Over the past years, I‘ve added a grandparent role to my life and have had to create new margins in order to spend time in Australia and Calgary. Creating margins means cutting something out which isn’t always easy. We have to recognise that we can’t continually keep adding things into our lives without letting other things go. 

Here are a few more simple thoughts for adding some margin space:

1. A commitment at the start of the day. It is so easy to start the day in a rush and then carry a sense of anxiety, pressure, challenge or stress with us. Right at the beginning of the day create time to be still and prepare yourself for the coming day. Give thanks for what you are grateful for and receive healing, forgiveness or grace for things that are challenging. Identify what God’s priorities are for the day ahead and pray a blessing on those that come to mind. 

2. Time to be present in a meeting. Before you begin a meeting, allow time for people to become present. Create some catch-up time and provide a welcome cup of coffee. Give some time to breathe before the next agenda item. You may want to have a creative icebreaker to help people share where they are at, how the week has gone, to identify the pressures and take a moment to listen and connect with others. 

3. A meaningful prayer to start a meeting. Of course, we hope all prayer is meaningful but often we start with that prescribed prayer rather like a traditional grace before a meal. What about giving a minute of meditation time for everyone to focus on Jesus and hear if He has something to say to them. 

4. Take a pause. Instead of speeding from one thing to the next, just add in a margin space. It can be as little as a minute or extend it to five, ten even fifteen minutes. You may want to sit still or go for a walk. Take some deep breaths and ask the Lord if he wants to say anything to you, or just enjoy the silence. You will feel your body, soul and spirit coming back into alignment. 

5. Enjoy some reading. Read slowly and read for transformation rather than information. When a word or phrase stands out, stop. Let the words resonate as you meditate and allow the ideas to inspire, encourage or challenge. 

6. Journal. I use the ‘day one’ app for my phone that synchronises with my computer. When I have a spare moment, I take out my phone to journal thoughts or go through some of my spiritual rhythm practices. This creates those pauses in the day that help to keep me on track.

7. Time for relationships. Book into the diary those important times with people you want to connect with before the moment is stolen by the urgent and unimportant. 

Adding margins is the way we counter our fast-paced, urgent, busy world. Adding space works as an antidote to our workaholic, helpaholic, stress-focused teams and workplaces. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says, “We can get so busy doing urgent things and so preoccupied with what comes next that we don’t experience the NOW. Afraid of being late, we rush from the past to the future. We don’t get to our futures any faster if we hurry. 

So, look at your days, weeks and months and add in those pauses, those fifteen minute retreats from the day, those margins that will keep your mind, emotions, hearts and bodies all on the same page. Remember, margin must be cultivated, it doesn’t just happen.


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