The Habit of Time Management
Good discipline in time-keeping is needed for church leaders to avoid wasting time in church ministry. Seek to make good time-keeping a habit.
In the 1930s, Professor J.D. Bernal once had to fill in a government timesheet. For each of the hours of his long day, he simply wrote one word: “Thinking”.
Faced with the incessant demands of your ministry, you might feel you haven’t time to do any “thinking”. But it seems to me an article with hints and tips on time management could help us to become more productive, and get a better work/life balance.
A famous leadership insight started with the heading, ‘Arrive Early, or Not at All!’ A bit harsh you might think. He’s simply making the point that in a job where time constraints are important - and affect many others - it is inconsiderate or worse to keep others waiting unless it is genuinely unavoidable.
How does that look for us as church leaders?
Well, the hearse can be late for the funeral or the bride can be late for her wedding. But you’d better not be. Nor can you preach for as long as you want. The funeral director won't be asking you again in a hurry. The bride and groom's family will wonder whether you will ever let them get to the reception.
Time management, then, is crucial.
But even ordinary church life requires good discipline in this regard. Most of us get this right on a Sunday, but we can get tardy about other meetings: staff, elders, deacons, trustees, mid-weeks, pastoral, the list goes on. A culture of starting late develops, which wastes a lot of time.
Unlike some of the intractable problems in people’s lives (for example the disappointment of a Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10), you should be able to do something to solve your poor time management.
Once good time-keeping becomes a habit, you can concentrate on the tasks at hand. It is like a gifted musician: the hours taken to form a good habit enable you to perform well for a lifetime.
Let’s take these one at a time and offer some advice on each.
Spiritual time management
Spiritual time management is the most important place to start.
Paul Mallard, pastor at Widcombe Baptist Church in Bath, regularly reminds people of a basic 2 × 2. Whatever else you make time for, make time to read and pray, and then to read and pray.
It may sound basic, but it is the secret of longevity in ministry: hearing God's voice in his word and talking to your heavenly Father every day as you journey ‘homeward bound’.
Sadly, too many believers, and leaders, never master this spiritual time management discipline.
Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (don’t let the title put you off) says you need to know the difference between the urgent/non-urgent and the important/non-important.
He says you pretty much ignore the non-urgent and the unimportant. Deal with the urgent and important. Delegate/empower others for urgent but not important issues. Then plan time to ponder and think through the important – even if they are not urgent. Don't neglect the effort that is required to do this just because it's not on the urgent list!
Another church leader takes an approach we can call 6 × 6. What six tasks are you going to focus on in the next six weeks? It helps you think about your priorities, and plan to set aside proper amounts of time to deal with six key tasks you need to get done. Writing these down on six cards and carrying them around with you will remind you of what you need to focus on.
For a minister, it may be books you must read, difficult conversations you've got to have, a series you must plan, or dealing with a problem that you have shelved for far too long. In a team setting, it is particularly crucial that you focus on what you need to do. Remember the saying, ‘if I don't do this task, no one else will’. So, a clear 6 x 6 written down goal, shared with the wider team, will help you build in accountability.
A Christian leader I know encourages a disciplined approach to emails and media. Research in the United States suggests many people check their smartphones 50 times a day, with some registering over 200 looks 1.
You may not be that bad, but they can hook you, can't they? And as you glance to see what is coming, don’t you also just check a news website or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page? And another 10 minutes goes. Or is it just me?
There is a tyranny about emails, WhatsApp notifications, and the like. They scream ‘urgent’, but they aren’t usually. This leader suggests that you check notifications twice a day; at 9am and 5pm. The 5pm check will lodge in your mind, enabling you to think and deal with them then, or at the 9am check the next day. And a 9am check will enable you to deal with anything that truly is important and urgent.
Managing the tough stuff
The morning is usually the best time to practice ‘delayed gratification’. That is, don't put off the tough, demanding stuff. Get it done first, then enjoy the more pleasant less-demanding tasks later.
Think back to your school days. Didn’t you enjoy the weekend so much more when you got your homework done on a Friday night?
Managing your time like this means that in the morning – when you are often fresher – you will have time to drill into that difficult passage, read that tough article, prepare that sermon, or do that difficult visit. ‘Go towards the pain’ is a seriously helpful piece of advice to all pastors.
What about ‘batching and breaking’? Instead of meandering through a morning with bits and bobs of not-a-lot, set 50-minute blocks with 5 to 10 minutes of downtime.
In The Coaching Habit, author Michael Bungay Stanier suggests seven great questions to ask someone. He then urges you to listen well and guide them to formulate their own answers to decisions they have to make, or actions they must take 2.
One question is: “If you are saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?”
Too many high-capacity, caring leaders want to keep saying ‘yes’.
Pastors don’t want to disappoint anyone, so they keep acceding to demands and coming to the aid of those who are struggling. But here is the crucial question: if you do that, what are you not doing instead? There will always be a hidden consequence to saying yes.
Asking yourself that question may help you to assess issues better, and then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ more wisely and effectively.
Managing the diary
My final personal tip is to use the diary well. Don’t overfill it. Don’t give answers to requests on the fly. Look at and guard your diary – this really helps.
Protecting ‘first, second, third gear times’, Sabbath principles, date nights, and times in which to do nothing in particular (Ecclesiastes 3:6b) are also much easier if you control your diary properly. It goes without saying that you should consult your spouse to ensure you are on the same page!
Lots to take in, I know!
Habits take time to develop, so be patient with yourself and others. We are all lifelong learners. We can all be grateful to the Lord for his patience with us.
1 Jean M. Twenge, The iGen; Why Today’s Super-connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us (Atria Books, 2017)
2 Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever (Box of Crayons Press, 2016)