Overcoming Problems in Pastoral Productivity

No one is keeping track of when you clock into work or clock out. No boss is holding you accountable for how you spend your time. Sound like a fantasy world? Think again. It’s the schedule of a pastor. The schedule of a pastor is almost infinitely flexible with no one really checking up on you’re doing. Although such freedom and flexibility can certainly seem like an amazing privilege (and it is!), there are also significant downsides to such flexibility.

The Downsides of a Flexible Schedule

Large amounts of unstructured time can actually lead you to waste time. How many Saturdays have you had the whole day free intent on “getting a lot of things done” and then you did not get done nearly as much as you wanted to? For pastors, the flexible nature of the job leaves us with a lot of unstructured time, which, if not carefully thought through can be wasted. Furthermore, pastors must also be available when other people are typically off, nights and weekends. We need to spend time with people and thus be available when they’re available.

Needing to be available nights and weekends, however, can also place a burden upon our own families. If you spend too many nights out doing ministry, you’re wife will probably let you know, especially if you have kids! Moreover, your own children are your primary mission-field and responsibility. So spending adequate time with your family is essential. Remember, spending adequate time with your family is a prerequiste for effective ministry: “[An elder/a pastor] must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Timothy 3:4-5). 

Problems with Productivity Advice

A lot of productivity and time-management advice contains significant problems when applied to pastors. Here are a few of the problems.

  • A lot of the advice for how to structure your time/schedule is written by managers, and for managers. Pastors, however, are both makers and managers. We need to make content and manage people and ministries. If we approach our time solely like managers, we will not create effective content. Good content is the lifeblood of our ministry. It’s common advice, but it applies profoundly to pastors: you cannot give what you do not have. What this means is that if you do not have a deep relationship with God, which requires much time for solitude and reflection, then you will have nothing to offer your church. If you do not have time to write powerful and effective sermons, your church will be malnourished and weak.
  • A lot of the advice is written by people without children in the home. Productivity-guru, Tim Ferriss no kids. In addition, many pastors who write about time and scheduling are either megachurch pastors with a gaggle of assistants to do a lot of the “manager” tasks for them or empty-nesters, who don’t have young children in the home. So a lot of the advice can be skewed because it assumes that you will have abundant time in the morning or evening to accomplish what you want to do.

Trying to Find Some Answers

Over the past six years, I’ve been in vocational ministry. During that time, I have also started a family, bought a condo, bought a couple of cars, and embarked on working on a doctoral degree. I’ve been tinkering with my schedule constantly. I have not arrived. But here a few answers I’ve found that have been helpful and things I’ve tried that seem to work.

Schedule “blackout time.” You need non-negotiable “blackout time” where all you will do is study the Bible and write sermons without interruption. If this means you need to work off-site, take the plunge and work off-site. If you’re working in a larger church and have a boss who expects you to hold office hours, try to hold office hours in the afternoon. If need be, you could even explain that working off-site helps you be more productive for God’s glory!

I typically devote 14 hours a week to “Deep Work” time. I have been experimenting with “Deep Work Flows” which is essentially a flow chart of the different deep work tasks I need to do. For example, Tuesday morning from 8:30-12:00pm is my most important deep work block of the week. During this time, I write sermons, exegete the Scripture, and study for any upcoming messages. On Fridays, I revise any sermons/teachings I have going on the upcoming week, and then I plan my week.

Divide Tasks By “Kind.” I’ve been experimenting with separating out my meetings and tasks into three kinds: Maker, Manager, and Ministry. The Ministry section is anything where I have to be “on my game.” Sunday morning worship service and Sunday night Youth Group fit into the Ministry section. The other meetings I have that I have to be part of every week, also fit into this category: Staff Meeting and Pastors Meeting. Maker time refers to my deep work blocks on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. It is during this time where I concentrate without interruption on the stuff that needs to be made: content that needs to be written, plans that need to be made, and problems that need to be solved.

The Manager section refers to any other kinds of projects I need to work on, and people I need to meet with. During the week, I need to coach leaders in the respective ministries that I oversee. I also need to carve out time to work on preparing for Sunday, gathering up last minute details and making sure everything is ready to go.

Create an “ideal week.” Next, I tried to merge my deep work time with my ministry and manager time. I wanted to create an “ideal week.” The concept of an “ideal week” is not my idea and if you Google it, you can find in-depth explanations. Creating an ideal week means sketching out how you would want your week to go. Once you create your ideal week, you’d be able to adapt to your current realities.

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