"Time robbers and how to stop them"

Because few ministers punch a time clock or account to any other person for their time, they are easy targets. Here's how to fight back!

Copyright 1978, Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the January, 1978, issue of The Christian Ministry.


Meet my friend Joe. Joe serves a church of about 300 members. He is a conscientious, hard working pastor who takes all of his pastoral duties seriously. Joe enjoys the parish ministry. But he seems to have one persistent problem a lack of time. At the end of a typical day, as Joe re turns home from his usual round of pastoral visitation, administrative duties, sermon preparation, calling on prospective members, and church-related meetings, he always has a list of things that he needed to do, things he intended to do, but somehow just did not have the time to do them. He remembers the calls he intended to make but never found time to make, the book he intended to start reading, the stewardship drive he intended to prepare for. "I just never seem to have enough time. If only there were more hours in a day. Where did my day go?" he asks himself in utter puzzlement as his day ends.

I think Joe's story is typical of many of us ministers. The parish ministry is a multifaceted job filled with a daily round of regular duties, major and minor crises, immediate needs and long-term projects. It is easy to get bogged down and give all of our time to one aspect of ministry at the expense of some other aspect. It is easy to get sidetracked from the things we intend to do and need to do. Because few ministers punch a time clock, or account for their time to any other person, or are engaged in tasks with easily defined beginnings and endings or priorities, many ministers be come frustrated about their poor management of time.

Time management is similar to the management of money. If you and your family continually come up short financially at the end of every month (another frustration for many ministers!), there comes a time when you must sit down and analyze your use of the money you earn, identify problem areas of expenditure, select appropriate solutions from a list of alternatives, and then adjust your spending habits accordingly. Time can be managed the same way.

First, analyze how you presently spend your time. Specialists in time management suggest keeping a time log, dividing your entire day into fifteen-minute segments and then recording what you do during each of these segments of time throughout the day. The time log should be kept for at least a couple of weeks.

Don't think that you already know how to spend your time. Our perceptions of where we spend time, when compared to detailed analysis, usually appear badly distorted. Keep honest! Don't kid your self when you record your activities, or your data will be of little use. Record everything you do which takes time.

Once your time log is completed, analyze your use of time. There are a number of ways to do this. You may want to divide your time in terms of discretionary versus non-discretionary time, with the objective of increasing your discretionary time. You may have no power over some of the things you must do as a pastor, but there are many demands upon your time that you do have the power to say "no" to in order to invest your time more wisely. You may feel that only you are able to prepare and preach the sermon on Sunday. But are you the only one in the church who can prepare for and teach the children's church school class? Or you might want to break down your time between the job, family, community, and personal time. Unfortunately, when a pastor's time is used up by the demands of ministry to parish and community, it is the pastor's family who suffers.

Professor Jack D. Ferner of the Babcock Graduate School of Management, Wake Forest University, notes that re search with large numbers of people's use of time reveals a list of what he calls "Time Robbers."* A "time robber" is something which keeps us from doing other things which have more value or importance to us. The "time robbers" cause us to consume large chunks of time in relatively unproductive, low-value activities. Nineteen of the most common "time robbers" are:




crises, "firefighting"


too long, too many, ineffective

objectives unclear


lack of planning

fuzzy priorities

poor communication

inadequate or confused information

unclear responsibility and authority

personal disorganization—cluttered desk

Personal traits:


ineffective delegation

overly involved in routine, detail work

lack of self-discipline

doing it myself

inability to say "no"

attempting to do too much

leaving half-completed tasks

While these "time robbers" were cited mostly by business executives, I think most pastors would see many that are their "time robbers" too. Let us return to our friend Joe. After keeping a time log, Joe found out that his normal day consisted of nearly two hours of telephone conversations. Joe frequently complained of having to spend much time phoning, checking on parish problems, etc. While contacts made by telephone are less expensive and time consuming than personal visits, Joe wondered if he might cut down on his phone time. Joe was also surprised to find that he averaged seven hours a week in congregational meetings. Since most of this time was in the evenings, it meant time away from his family. Added to these surprising revelations were the discoveries that Joe spent one hour per day just opening the morning mail, an average of two hours per day in his car driving around town on errands, visits, etc., and a whopping forty-five minutes per day picking up and delivering mail at the local post office.

Having identified his "time robbers," Joe was now ready to determine some simple steps to control them. Not all "time robbers" can be eliminated; they may be part of the tasks of ministry, a characteristic of the congregational set ting, or just one's personal style of operation. But we can usually cut down some of the excess by planning some specific actions to better use our time. For example, Joe decided to continue to use his office phone to do necessary checking, follow-up, and administrative communication but he also decided to be more conscious of unnecessarily lengthy conversations, taking the lead in each call, getting down to business quickly, and terminating the conversations when the business was over. When Joe evaluated his plethora of congregational meetings, he realized that he had thought it necessary to be at every meeting. "To be honest, my own pastoral insecurity compels me to be involved in every detail of congregational life. Why can't the church day-care committee meet without me? I could call the chairman the next day and get a report on the meeting. That would be enough."

Of course, there are many meetings that the pastor must attend. But Joe realized that some of his church meetings lasted over two hours not because of the work done but because they were poorly prepared, started late, dragged on, and spent too much time in irrelevant conversation. Joe decided to recommend that: 1) all church meetings begin on time, 2) that no meeting last longer than one hour, 3) and that time be allowed after each meeting for fellowship with refreshments. The church leaders agreed that these were good ideas since people are more willing to come to a meeting that they know will not drag on. Joe also picked up some skills for moving his church meetings along with helps like suggesting that chairpersons plan the agenda in advance and asking a few helpful questions during the course of the meeting like, "Can we get back to the agenda item we were discussing?" and "Aren't we ready to make a decision on this matter?" He was surprised to find that every church committee was able to complete all of its business in the allotted hour. Joe realizes that many things a parish minister does may seem a "waste of time" if viewed from a strictly practical, utilitarian, "businesslike" perspective. An hour spent listening to a troubled teen-ager, a day in which one's planned schedule is scrapped in order to be with a family in grief, a morning for personal meditation, prayer, and reflection, are not wasted time for the spiritual guide, the keeper of the flock. And yet, Joe is also honest enough to know that sometimes a pastor lets the nonessential crowd out the essentials. Pastors com plain that they are too busy to sufficiently prepare their sermons, that they have too little time to spend with their families, that the daily demands of the parish keep them from doing the study, personal growth, and continuing education that they know they need.

How we spend our time tells some thing about our priorities and our own personal needs and insecurities. The goal of wise time management is simply to use one's time to the best advantage.

After true "time robbers" are identified from an analysis of your time log, pick only one or two which are the most wasteful. Then look for a few simple remedies to reduce the "time robbers"; planning your day by listing what must get done, controlling interruptions, set ting aside stated office hours, shortening your meetings, may be among your remedies. Do not rely upon others to deter mine your time priorities. You are the only person who is qualified to judge the relative importance of all the things you must do in a given day. Overcome your ministerial inability to say "no," or "I must go now," or "I'm sorry, I will have to see you tomorrow." When someone calls and says, "Pastor, are you busy? I need to talk with you," respond with something like "I would like to talk with you. How about coming by this after noon at three and we can talk until four." Most counselors will tell you that a definite beginning and ending time for a pastoral counseling session is of crucial importance to the effectiveness of the session. As pastor, you must be avail able and accessible. But if you are always totally, unreservedly accessible you must be neglecting some other important pastoral task.

Poor time-usage habits are hard to break. But it is worth the effort. Keep checking yourself out. Look over the list of "time robbers" again, and think about your own time-usage patterns. If you are able to retrieve only one extra hour a day from expending it for something you don't want to do and don't need to do, this will be one more hour for you to use for ministry, study, family, or much-needed ministerial recreation. What was the point of that story Jesus told about the faithful stewardships of investing our God-given talents wisely? The same point applies to our stewardship of the God-given gift of time.


* Jack D. Ferner, "Get Control of Four 'Time Robbers,' " Pace, July-August, 1977, pp. 32-34.

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Copyright 1978, Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the January, 1978, issue of The Christian Ministry.

September 1980

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