Introduction – Building Margin


1. the space around the printed or written matter on a page.

2.  an amount allowed or available beyond what is actually necessary.

3.  a  limit in condition, capacity, etc. beyond or below which something ceases to exist, be desirable or be possible.
a border or edge.[1]
Mrs. Hicks, my second grade teacher, taught me that I should never write in the margin. There had to be white space on all my work – basically an inch of margin on the left, an inch on the right, an inch at the top and a little at the bottom. Never write in the margin. You HAD to have a margin. I didn’t know why. I just knew that if you did write in it, she didn’t like it and would use the red pencil to let you know it!

In college, the same rules applied but now there was the tricky problem of setting the tabs on the typewriter so that you had margin. (For those of you who’ve never used a typewriter, well . . . you’ve missed a great experience!)

By the time I went to seminary, I had a computer and with this great invention, I could easily set the margins. The GREATEST thing about this tool was the ability to turn a 4-page paper into the required 5-page paper by increasing a 1-inch margin to 1.5 inch. You could also decrease the margin if you had been too verbose. This is more my problem these days.

Margin. Important in writing. Crucial in life.

Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes in his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, “Margin is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. It is the leeway we once had between ourselves and our limits.” [2]

Margin is crucial in our lives. No margin leaves us running from one activity to the next. Not enough margin means our energy reserves are used up quickly and we struggle to make it from day to day.

Why is margin so important? Researchers, counselors, and physicians can give you many reasons. I can only tell you what I know to be true in my own life.

Twelve or so years ago, I reached the bottom of a very dark pit. I was running from activity to activity. Working in the church, trying to be the best parent I could be to our son and the best wife I could be to my husband, smiling as best I could, inwardly though, I was falling apart. I tried to hide it. I did an okay job at the church but at home, not so much. Noah, my husband, frequently said to me: “Trish, I’m worried about you.” But my response: “Oh, I’m fine!” But you can only say that for so long. Eventually I could hide it no longer.

I was spent. I had no reserve. I wondered how I, an ordained minister, could feel so far from God. “Where are you, Lord?” Shouldn’t I be able to pray more and pull myself up from this “dark night of the soul”?[3]

But it wasn’t that easy. Diagnosis? Clinical depression. Prescription? Therapy, medicine, rest, prayer.

I didn’t get well overnight. It took a long time. (One day, there will be another book that will tell the story of my journey. Not this one.)

Seeking to stay “well” continues today. And that’s why margin is so important to me. I KNOW that when I don’t have margin in my life, the reserves get emptied quickly. When there is no margin – no room, for rest – no room for renewal – I see the signs of wear and tear on my soul.

My lack of margin did not cause my clinical depression. I know clinical depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. BUT margin helps me to be a healthier self – for God, for my family, for me. It helps me serve God fully and faithfully. God’s desire is that we have the abundant life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10: “I come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

Joyce Rupp, a member of the Servite community (Servants of Mary), published this reflection some 30 years ago that summed up the need for margin in my life:

Can it be?

Have I for so long

Forgotten to feed myself?


For nigh a year now

I was slowly starving

Getting lost in busy days,

Tossing aside the hunger

That chewed away inside.

Yet, I did not die.

By some quiet miracle

I made it to this moment

Of truth:

I nearly starved to death.

It was not my body

That I failed to feed.

It was my spirit,

Left alone for days

Without nourishment or care.

And then one day

I paused to look within,

Shocked at what I found:

So thin of faith,

So weak of understanding.

My starving spirit cried the truth:

I can!

I will!

I must

Be fed! [4]

How’s the margin in your life?

How’s the margin in your finances? Are you living on the edge of your reserves? How about your moral margin? Flirting with disaster or keeping a safe distance?

How about your family’s margin? Do you meet each other in the driveway, all going in different directions?

How about your margin for God? Is God getting what’s left over or are you deliberately creating space for God?

Margin is that space in our lives in which we are fed, renewed, and restored. Margin is that space that keeps balance in all areas of our lives.

Why do we try to do without it? Mrs. Hicks told me I needed it, and aren’t our 2nd grade teachers always right?

– Trish

Introduction from devotional book Building Margin for a Balanced Life, part of the current sermon and small group series at Pine Valley UMC

©Tim Reaves and Trish Archer

All rights reserved



[2] Swenson, Richard. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 1992.

[3] Reference to poem and treatise, The Dark Night of the Soul, written by 16th century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic, Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591).

[4] Rupp, Joyce. Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1985.

2 thoughts on “Introduction – Building Margin”

  1. Many of us have been down the depression. Many of us don’t want to talk about it because we think others will judge us! Thanks for putting things in perspective!


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