Don’t Look Now But Next Year’s Coming!

Planners and diaries, like fire and water, are wonderful servants but dreadful masters. Given that the day-to-day exercise of the pastoral ministry has such an unknown quantity about it, planning ahead may seem to be an exercise in futility. We frequently complain about shortages of time and the stresses arising from unexpected demands which can throw a day into disarray. We all know it takes only one phone call to move us from order to potential chaos.

Some quick observations:

  • Many pastors convey the impression of ongoing disorganisation. There too often appears to be a basic disregard for even the simplest strategies of ordering one’s life.
  • Of all vocations, the pastoral ministry is one which has minimal provision for any accountability of substance. Many pastors are solo operators. There is no one looking over the shoulder. Provided the pastor turns up for Sunday’s service on time (actually a problem for some) and the leaders’ meetings, there are few questions asked.  This means that acres (or, is it hectares?) of time can be happily wasted without anybody blowing the whistle.
  • Again, unlike most other vocations, many pastors work from home given that there is often not a study in the church. There are positives and negatives here: it means closer ties with the family but vulnerability to many more interruptions, especially if there are young children. Significant numbers of pastors manage to have three meals at home most days. Another plus.
  • Be careful about claiming that ministry has its own unique pressures. Think of those in our congregations who are holding down a good job.   They will be working long hours and carrying heavy responsibilities. Days are long with many workers out of bed and on the road, or the train, or in the dairy before some of our number have stirred.
  • It is not so much the shortage of time which is the problem but the poor use of it. Too often we function in a reactive mode attending to events as they happen without so much as a thought to any proactive forward planning. It is easy to bemoan a full life when it is really a poorly ordered life.
  • The question of attitude to our calling is a fundamental consideration. We would do much better thanking the Lord for a full life (and a reason for living and serving) than constantly complaining about having to do too much. There is the distinct possibility of squeezing a bit more out of each day without increasing the stress level. In fact,the opportunity of having more time to pray, read, plan and visit should be warmly welcomed. But the disordered, undisciplined, complaining pastor will be hard pressed to see this.
  • In wanting more time for our families and trying to keep our priorities right, we need to reflect much more on what we actually do with our time. We need to remain sensitive to the struggles our people have in attempting to achieve the same kind of personal goals. The pastor who leads a deacons’ meeting into the late hours may be forgetting that some of those leaders need to be up and gone early and do not have the option of a later start as the pastor may well have.
  • The pastor exercising a part time ministry will have even more challenges. They have to juggle at least one other job which requires the highest levels of forward thinking and planning.

So what are some very simple guidelines for taking charge of time through the careful planning of a New Year?

  1. Start planning the year a few months ahead. Don’t leave it till February has come and gone. Get your planner set up, or buy a diary which has a year’s spread sheet in it so that you can always have a good overview of the year at a glance.
  1. Identify your special calendar dates and insert them first. These are usually the “holy times” which should have precedence. They include:
    • Family birthdays and anniversaries, or other significant personal/family events
    • Family traditions – the outings, adventures, camps which you like to do each year
    • Your preferred night at home which you try to keep non-negotiable
    • Your day off (and educate the church about this)
    • Your own vacation breaks
    • School holidays – just to be aware of when some of your people may not be around
  1. What are the fixed dates when you have to be on deck this coming year? For example:
    • Sunday services!
    • Staff meetings (if you are on a Pastoral Team)
    • Leaders’ meetings
    • Church meetings
    • Other committees (church, denominational, other) on which you serve
    • The regular commitments associated with your ministry: Local Ministers’ Associations, in-service training, be it on-line or via on site conferencing
    • Denominational gatherings
    • Deadlines for reports or documents for which you are responsible
    • Any weddings scheduled for next year? Preparation/planning for such.
  1. What are those times which you wish to include but which can be fluid or more easily negotiated? Such as….
  • Times for personal retreat and growth – Keeping in mind specialised retreat type occasions which will hopefully become times of reflection and renewal.
  • Quality days – For reading, study, prayer, reflection, sermon preparation. It is better to plan these ahead and spend them away from your usual environment if you wish to reduce the interruption factor. A fixed day in the week is a good idea.
  • Special conferences or training events – In which you would like to participate. Do you know the dates? Aim for one serious study event annually making space for ongoing, regular professional development.
  • People days – If you don’t plan time to spend with people and stay with it, you will become increasingly “busy” and remain study bound. You won’t be catching up with your congregation. A regular visiting time (although it may have to flex) will help keep a balance between paper and people.
  1. Then there are those demands which no one can anticipate. Life’s out of left field calls…
    • Illness in the congregation
    • Bereavements and funerals
    • Family traumas needing your listening ear
    • Church upsets requiring your service as peacemaker
    • Unexpected needs in your own family
    • The knock on the door
    • The cry for help via text message or mobile call

Since planning cannot help you here very much, patience and grace can. A life which has benefitted from some careful thought will often be able to cope with the crises with a much higher level of stability and peace.

Some other suggestions.­

  • A proactive approach to life has a lot more to commend it than a reactive one. A failure to take charge of the planner in ways which are achievable leaves a pastor at the mercy of what others want and what life hands out. It is a stressful way to live.
  • An overview of the whole year will help you to plan special emphases and preaching themes. What ground do you want to cover in your sermons? Is there a book from the Bible from which you would like to preach? Are there specific topics of current interest which you should be addressing? Now is the time to think about these.
  • A reluctance to plan (even in small ways) is to opt for laziness and the poor stewardship of time. What do you want to achieve? What is your dream? What are you doing about it? What drives you?
  • Are you getting enough rest and exercise? An unfit body is an encumbrance. Adequate sleep and frequent walking may do more for the spirits than fervent prayers for rescue from the vicissitudes of ministry.
  • Remember that with the best planning possible, you will not get everything done. Life is too full and complex for that. You will need to check your priorities constantly. Is everything you are doing absolutely essential? Could somebody else do it? Will the earth stop if you leave it?
  • Make time for the serendipity of life. Sniff those daisies and pick the roses. As beneficial as planning is, we are not robots and we respond to the joy and release which comes from the surprises. Being too serious and programmed is a burden. We need all the help we can get to loosen up.
  • Always remain sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. You may have planned out a day well. But the Lord Who guides us each step of the way could have other ideas. Is there a person’s name which has come to mind for no apparent reason? It could be the Spirit prompting you. Give them a call; stop by for a visit. Put your schemes off to the side for a moment. Our super busy-ness may so embrace us that we miss the nudging from the very One Who has called us to serve Him. His plans must always take precedence.

So the need is always for balance:

Look forward to the new year as a friend to be welcomed and enjoyed. Give it your structure; map out your essentials; find ways to use it well. But let the sheer delight of being caught up in the privilege of ministry colour your day. When you need to do the unexpected, do it. You may hear a rousing cheer from the ramparts of heaven.

Rev John Simpson