Conquering the Clock

You don't have to be a slave to the tyranny of the clock. Thomas L. Are is fighting back and regaining control of his life. It isn't easy, but he is making progress.

Thomas L. Are is pastor of the Shallowford Presbyterian church, Atlanta, Georgia.

We had just finished supper, and I was heading for a meeting when my wife grabbed me. "Do you realize that it's been thirty-two nights since you were home when the children went to bed?" she shouted. "Where do we fit into your ministry?"

I didn't know. "There's only one of me, you know!" I exploded, already frustrated by the never-ending demand on my time." All I get is pressure from home and criticism from the church. I just don't have enough time!"

"You have twenty-four hours a day," she shot back, "just like everybody else. It's a matter of priorities."

She was right, of course. I knew it then, and I know it now. If I were not careful, I could spend all my time at the church. I guess I feel more competent as a pastor than I do as a husband or father. At any rate, I manage to average six days and five nights a week at the church. But even that's better than it used to be!

I am the resident theologian, the father of all church happenings, the local expert in evangelism, stewardship, church management, and worship. I lead small groups, teach classes, and make calls. Some days I feel as though I direct as much activity as the control tower of the Atlanta airport, and the eleven o'clock sermon comes every week, ready or not.

My second year in the ministry, I went to see the doctor, complaining of being tired. "I even wake up tired," I told him.

"Tom," he said as he wrote out an unusual prescription, "take this and you'll be OK." It read: "Once a day for a week, drive into the heart of Greenwood Cemetery. Look around. Take your time. Notice the tombstones. Then say aloud, 'Most of these folks were convinced that the world just couldn't get along without them.' Slow up! You don't have to save the entire world, not all by yourself."

I didn't take his prescription. And I'm still tired.

I'm not the only one. Our whole society runs revved up. One pastor said, "I live at such a pace that if I miss the first section of a revolving door, it throws my schedule off for the rest of the day." We laugh, but we also groan a little. He describes a bit of each of us. We seem to think the only way to succeed is to rush.

An old man carefully drives along the expressway at 40 miles per hour, cars zoom by, and drivers shake their fists as they risk a chance to pass. He is a driving hazard.

Finally, a patrolman pulls him over. "Old man," he asks, "do you know why I stopped you?"

"Sure," says the old man as cars whiz by, "I'm the only one you could catch."

I'm afraid that if I slow up, I, like that old man, will get caught. So I use long weekends and daylight saving time to squeeze in more work. Some call it the "BMB" syndrome—"Behold Me Busy." It's as though I owe it to God to be tired.

Yet it's foolish to think God finds joy in my exhaustion. When I'm tired, I don't think clearly or relate well either to God or other people, including my family. I tell myself that I work best under pressure. But that's not true. I may work harder when I am pushing toward a deadline, but that doesn't mean I work better. The truth is, I don't work as well as I would have if I had managed my time better, or, more accurately, if I had managed myself/better in the time I have. Unlike money or talents, God gives each of us an equal amount of time. We are responsible to Him for our use of it. We never "make time" or "save time." We simply fit ourselves into the time we have.

Today's pastor is in trouble. One study shows that the average workweek for a parish pastor is 66.7 hours. I believe it. Every pastor I know struggles with this matter of time. He is expected to respond to every request for his services, day or night. "I hate to bother you on your day off, but..." constantly invades his private time. He seldom escapes the frustration and anxieties of his working day, and more ministers than ever are joining that growing alumni group of ministerial dropouts. Others who stick it out find their marriages falling apart. A friend of mine said, "Honestly, Tom, if I don't get a break soon, I'm going to hurt somebody. I get so angry at times, it frightens me."

I do too, but I'm doing better. I have made some changes that have put me more in charge of my life. I never planned before. Every good manager knows that to fail to plan is to plan to fail. Yet most mornings I arrived in the office and picked up the first thing that caught my attention. Often before finishing it, I would switch to something else that needed doing. All day long, I leaped from one chore to another until time ran out. Then I complained about how time flies and what a busy person I was!

Of course I kept appointments, usually five or ten minutes late. I spent half my traveling time rushing somewhere to be late. It was hard to learn, but I finally had to admit that even when I planned a time to leave, I seldom left on time. I had programmed myself to be late.

Today, I keep a legal pad on which I write out a daily schedule. I make it into a desk calendar with a page for each day, a new pad for each month. I write down what I need to do on future days, such as prepare for a committee meeting, pick up shoes at the shop, or write a letter to Mr. Brown. Some things I schedule months ahead.

Each morning I check my list for the day and add to it the current things I carry in my mind. I write them down, no matter how impossible they might be to forget. This simple procedure eases the continual rush-hour pace at which I am prone to live.

With a list visibly before me, it's easy to put things in order of importance. I used to tackle the easiest things first, setting no priorities. Now, I concentrate first on the things that really count. If some nonessentials are left undone, it's OK. I've still had a productive day.

I even school myself to do the most dreaded task first. Whether it's making a phone call or working on some project I'd rather not do, I get it out of the way first. That makes the going easier for the rest of the day. Otherwise, I postpone the unpleasant chores and live all day with them hanging over my head.

"A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind," I once jokingly said. I bragged about having a pile of work on my desktop for all to see. But a messy desk clutters. Some of the busiest executives I know keep everything out of sight except the one project on which they are currently working. I strive for that goal. But I'm not trying to become an order nut. I am working for efficiency, not neatness. A cluttered desk causes confusion and wastes precious time.

I try to answer or discard all correspondence as it's received. This keeps me from having to reread it. If I need more information before it can be answered, I begin to research it or schedule in my legal-pad calendar when I will deal with it.

Two other mistakes I sometimes still make have nothing to do with the calendar.

First, I often eat too much lunch. Then for an hour or two, I'm dying to take a nap. Though I stick it out at the office, I'm sluggish. I feel better if I have a light lunch. My waist does too, but that's another chapter.

The most lasting mistake I make and the most difficult for me to overcome is feeling guilty about the things I don't get done. I come home at night carrying a burden for people I did not see and things I did not do. If guilt were a positive influence and motivated me to do better, it might be worth the destructive agony I carry inside. But guilt never helps. It blocks. Perfectionism grows out of my insecurity, not my faith. It's the result of my fear that God won't accept me unless I earn it.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that we are valuable to God because He loves us, not because we perform. He does not load us down; He sets us free.

Contrary to the impulse to make every minute count, I now think it's important to waste a little time. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously, and it gives me an opportunity to think and reorganize. A certain subconscious quality comes into play when I am out of gear that enables me to work more efficiently later. God seems to get through to me best when I have stopped.

God gives us one day in seven to rest. Even Jesus, with all He had to do in such a short time, took time to rest. He said, "Come . . . apart. . . , and rest a while." Our generation seems to be coming apart; we just don't rest!

I have learned to schedule time for rest and to protect it. From time to time, I slice out a day or two. My wife and I get a live-in baby sitter and go to a motel. We'll do something together that we like to do: eat a good meal, go window shopping, spend some time doing other things, eat blueberry pancakes for breakfast, and come home. We always have a fuss. Yet we talk and share more in this short twenty-four hours together than we have in the previous six weeks. At home the only time we have to talk is late at night when the children are in bed. By then we are tired, and we just don't feel the same way about things when we're tired.

Four years ago we went through a stage in our marriage in which we had to schedule one night a week to talk. No matter how late I came home, she would wait up, and we just talked. We belonged to a small group of two members.

I also plan prime time with each of my children. It's impossible to be available to all four of them at once; someone always feels left out. (Usually the older ones, because the little ones demand my attention.) So I have a night out with Tommy. We go to a ball game or do whatever Tommy wants to do. It's just the two of us, and we can talk without interruption. The next free night will be dad's night with Martha for shopping or eating out. Gene is retarded. Going with him to the mall or watching planes take off at the nearby airport not only gives us time together but allows a more relaxed time back home. Gene loves to go. Then after special time with Jim, I start over.

This kind of private time with dad also helps the children understand when I say I need some time to be alone with mother.

On the Christmas tree, I hang lOU's to my family: "This card entitles Jimmy to a night of bowling with dad" or "This card is good for one fishing trip." It's imperative for all of us "too busy" people to make time for our families. And to make it count!

I have learned to so value our time together that I can say No to outsiders. One woman will not speak to me now because I once said, "I'm sorry, but I just don't have time to pray at horse shows!" Sometimes, for the sake of a relationship, I will do things because of a friend's interest. But other times I have to take care of myself by not burning out on low-priority requests.

There was a time when I thought it was worth any price to have people say, "Tom sure is a good guy!" But I'm not Superman, and I can't live up to everyone's expectations. That means I admit my limitations and take charge of my own life. Part of my responsibility is to me. This means I sometimes say No.

Even Jesus said No to some who sought His help. For His own reasons, He "withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed" (Luke 5:16), leaving behind a multitude who had sought Him out for healing. Jesus paced Himself; He felt His life was significant. He planned His ministry and took the time He needed for rest.

I believe my life is important too. When I speak to my governing board about my time on and my time off, it's better for me to announce than to request. No one else can possibly know what my commitments will allow and when my inner being demands that I have a break.

A pastor's emotional life is like a roller coaster. In one afternoon I move from the low of conducting a friend's funeral, to hearing a parishioner's verbal attack, to celebrating marriage with a young couple. Sometimes I need to get off the track, and it's not fair to me to have to get someone else's OK before I can stop for a while.

My friend John, who serves a neighboring church, limits his workweek to four teen units. Each day has three units; morning, afternoon, and night. If John works Monday night, he will take off Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. He claims seven units a week as his own.

Another friend in ministry takes the first seven days of each quarter as vacation. His contract allows a month each year, so he claims the first week every quarter. No matter on which day it starts, he comes back on the eighth day. "It's great," he told me. "I'm always either just getting home from a vacation or getting ready to go on one."

I don't need, nor can I manage, that much time. But I have discovered this: If I do my job, if I lead exciting worship services, if 1 communicate to the members of the congregation that I care for them, if I plan programs they can look forward to, if I see that we have good Christian education and manage to keep a balanced budget, then 1 can do anything else I need to do without criticism. However, let me fail in any of these "rent-paying" responsibilities, and I can't seem to do anything without someone's reaction. My time off relates directly to the quality of ministry I offer.

These changes I've made in life style make me a better pastor than I was when working thirty-two nights in a row. And it's better at home, too!

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Thomas L. Are is pastor of the Shallowford Presbyterian church, Atlanta, Georgia.

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