The use of time in ministry

The fourth in a five-part series on pastoral leadership

Doug Burell is a Baptist pastor from Rome, Georgia, and the director of Discovery Resources.

Few issues are more important in the lives of ministers than how they spend their time. But we are weary of "techniques" and the abundance of books and plans that promise to make us more efficient and productive.

Let's face it: most of those technique books and materials only add to the "clutter." They're great on paper, where everything can be neatly outlined and categorized into time slots, where children don't call the office with a stomachache, or where church members don't have unexpected medical emergencies. They may work in the "ideal world," but what about where you live?

How are you to deal with the demands and distractions of ministry and the minutia of administration while seeking for a fresh way to communicate the gospel and provide leadership and vision to God's people? What is a minister to do? How are we to manage our lives and spend our time? How do we rise above the confusion and somehow "order" our world as leaders in the church? Is it possible to get a handle on the issue of time?

I believe it is possible. But only if we keep it simple. Here are several straightforward "keys" to spending your time in a way that will please God and help you remain "sane."

1.  Acknowledge that time is "no respecter of persons."

It's been a hard lesson to learn, but I have found through the years that time waits for no one. In other words, you get tardy slips after the bell rings, and the plane leaves you if you don t get to the airport on time. My wife coached a basketball team this year. The girls worked hard and had a good team. But they lost one game by forfeit because they didn't have enough players present at game time. Two minutes later two of our girls made their appearance. But it was too later The loss meant they didn't finish the season in medal position.

Time moves on relentlessly and stops for no person. So time cannot really be "managed" or controlled, and time can never be "saved." The time of our living is simply here upon us, and we either live wisely today or we do not.

2. Check your attitude toward time.

Chuck Swindoll is quoted as saying, "The longer I live, the more I become convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I respond to it." If that is true, then it is especially true in relation to the issue of time in the lives of ministers.

How we think about time will influence how we organize ourselves to spend our time. It will also influence what we believe we can do or can't do. Sometimes in mistaking our "busyness" for "godliness," we ministers get into the habit of telling ourselves how much we are doing and how much we are needed until we believe that no human being could possibly do all that we have to do in the time frames given to us. This sort of self-talk tends to be self-fulfilling. I have found that some positive thinking patterns can make a difference in this area.

You might want to try a "can do" approach to how you spend your time. Decide that you can manage yourself so that you have time to do the things you need to do. The important thing in the preceding sentence is the word "need." This calls for some soul-searching. What do you really need to be doing? That brings us to the third time key.

3. Choose your priorities for living and live by them.

This doesn't have to be complicated. Three 5" x 8" index cards and an ink pen could be all the tools you need. On one of the index cards, write your life's purpose in the following form: "God has created me for the purpose of . . ." On the second card, compose a statement expressing how you believe that purpose is to be lived out. That card might begin with "I am to live out my purpose by . . ." On the third card, write three to five life goals in the order of their priority. Then keep these three cards before you regularly. Pray over them; share them with your family and with your church if you can.

The key issue is choosing. We can't have everything.We can't do everything.We must seek God's guidance, make some choices, and live by these choices. These free us and guide us in spending the time of our lives.

4. Create a time budget to guide your routine.

Question: "How do you eat an elephant if you are in the jungle?" Answer: "One bite at a time!" It may seem too simple to mention, but breaking down our time and our tasks into "bite-sized" portions allows us to do what otherwise seems impossible.

Surely most of us have experienced the value of having a budget (or plan) to guide us in the wise use of finances. Most congregations employ a budget to guide them in spending the moneys received. Of course, sometimes the "plan" has to be amended because of unexpected expenses (the roof or the furnace needs replacing). But without some plan of action and goals for ministry we would flounder without direction or energy. The same is true in relation to how we use the resource of time.

Each person has to find a routine that suits him or her, so I wouldn't presume to tell you what is best for you. However, it is important to set aside blocks of time that will enable you to live according to the priorities God has revealed for your living. That undoubtedly means that you must proactively reserve and protect such time for your family for your spiritual enrichment, for reading, writing, planning, and being with people.

Some of us in ministry have found it useful to take a week each year away from the ministry field for prayerful study and planning. I use that time to plan my preaching and teaching schedule and to go through those items that I do not want forgotten or crowded out. In this time I make a folder for each sermon and study for the coming year. I put themes, ideas, outlines, or support materials in each folder as starter materials. This sort of advanced planning has many benefits to both minister and congregation. I come back refreshed with a new vision for the coming year and able to communicate that vision and the details of my plan to the key leaders of the church.

It is also important to find a consistent weekly and daily rhythm that will guide you through distractions and help you accomplish the daily and weekly tasks of ministr¡ helping you avoid a serious backlog of unattended duties. Our various personalities demand different schedules and degrees of structure, but some routine is always important.

To use a simple tool that fits your needs, commit your routine to paper, schedule appointments, and check off accomplishments.

For some this will consist of a simple pocket calendar and a daily "to do" list. For others it may mean a full-featured pocket planner or computer software. But each of us needs to break down our goals and tasks into manageable parts that can be remembered and recorded. This frees our minds to be fully "present" with others and to be creative in our writing and preaching.

5. Enlist the help and feedback of others.

Finally remember that ministry is to be lived as a "dialogue," not as a "monologueÌ' In other words, there needs to be room for feedback and flexibility in our routines. We must be willing to get help from others where it is needed and to adjust ourselves and our schedules to meet the needs of others. Don't be afraid to ask others to help you.

If you have a secretary or staff assistant, you may want to enlist his or her help with keeping your calendar or reminding you about appointments. If you are the only staff member, ask a member of the congregation to assist you in this area. There are many tasks of ministry that you ought to delegate or share with others. And this gives them the joy of being in a ministry partnership with you.

Finding just the right amount of tension between being too "slack" and too "rigid" in the expenditure of time will make the difference between being "out of tune" or "in harmony" as you play out the time God gives you for living and ministry.


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Doug Burell is a Baptist pastor from Rome, Georgia, and the director of Discovery Resources.

July 1997

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