A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Jim Petty, a former pastor and counselor, about the difficulties pastors often face in time management. What he had to say will help pastors manage their time better so they are more free to offer pastoral care to their congregations.
What makes time management so crucial for a pastor?
I had a teacher at seminary who told us that when he was a pastor, he said to people in his church, “If you want to call me, call me from 8:30 to 8:45 in the morning. And I’m always available, sitting by my phone waiting for your call from 8:30 to 8:45 every morning. And if you don’t call in that window, you may not get me. But if you do call, you will.”
Now he was a very aggressive, competent manager of his time, and that was a very effective way for him to channel all the chaos of random calls into a fifteen-minute period and then quickly get appointments on the calendar: “Okay, we’ll talk next Tuesday; yeah, I’ll meet you for breakfast.”
You can learn those sorts of tactics from any good time management book. But what you learn from the Bible are the core priorities that need to be part of your life.
Is that why you say the key to a Christian’s time management is wisdom, not efficiency?
Yes! I love what Paul says in Ephesians 5:15–16: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” [emphasis added].
Paul says we must be careful how we live, because we are citizens of the kingdom of God, and He does not want us to make choices that invest us outside the kingdom. And Paul ties that into how we use our time, saying we should actually redeem the time we have been given.1 It is an important matter for pastors because it’s an important matter for all Christians.
As you said in your question, the key to Christians’ time management is wisdom, not efficiency. I am not against learning strategies from the business world to conduct my work more efficiently. But that’s not the key to wise time use. Being efficient buys you a little bit of additional capacity, but it doesn’t tell you what to do—and that is where most pastors struggle.2
How does emphasizing wisdom, as opposed to focusing solely on efficiency, help a pastor make better decisions about the use of time?
We need to acknowledge that pastoring is not like running a corporation; it’s more like parenting. Just like a mom raising kids, it’s messy. You are going to “waste” all kinds of time if you’re a good pastor. For example, you’ve got a young person in your congregation who’s addicted to opioids. You finally get her in the car to drive her to a halfway house several hours away, and the next day you hear that the kid left the halfway house! Is that efficient? No. So I think pastors need to lower their expectations on “efficiency” and instead look at what’s important.
How do you think stress leads to unwise time management?
One of the temptations that I’ve had, and I think other pastors have had, is to think we have to do everything. We’ve got conflicts to deal with; we’ve got administrative issues we don’t know how to face; we’ve got people needing counseling; etc. Among all these responsibilities, we’ve got some areas that we’re just plain not good at—but we’ve got to be like Jesus! This is about as stressful as it gets: try to be like Jesus in this situation and meet everybody’s expectations! Pastors can come to the conclusion that there’s no way they can fulfill their role, and so they give up. That’s when they can fall into watching too much television, checking out with music, or taking too many fishing trips. Or, in more extreme cases, a pastor might get involved in some really bad stuff like pornography.
Are there other temptations or mistaken notions that lead to poor time management?
As a pastor, my biggest wrong assumption was that I should have time to do everything that I want to do, including entertainment and rest, but what that does is lead to a life of overcommitment, and you never get everything done. The Christian life is a life of discernment, and you’re never going to be able to get out beyond that.
You’re never going to be efficient enough to do everything you want to do.
A lot of pastors have a vision for all that they would like to do and somehow think that if they could just be efficient enough, they could do it all. I think that’s a wrong assumption. Let me tell you about my experiences, which drove me to this conclusion.
When I was a pastor, we were confronted with the need to start a Christian school. I went to my elders and said, “Could I do this as part of my work as pastor? I’ll just do the Christian school thing in the evenings and weekends, and do the pastoring the rest of the time.” They ultimately agreed to let me do this.
Well, it didn’t take me but about a year and a half before I was so out of gas! I got so stressed about trying to get this school started and keep up with growing the church. The worst part of it was that I put my most creative energy into the school, and when the church was going through a major change, I didn’t have the horsepower to lead the church. And that eventually led me to take a nine-month sabbatical when I was in my mid-thirties just to preserve my sanity. During that time I also made a change from pastoring to working at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation as a counselor and administrator. It’s very easy for a pastor to do this type of thing, and it can have dramatic consequences.
How do you recommend pastors improve their time management?
If you look at a twenty-eight-day period in your life, you have 672 hours to work with. What you do with those hours reflects your priorities, and the Christian life is a life of multiple priorities. But it’s not a life of simplistic priorities. Simplistic priorities would be reflected in this type of thinking: “If God is first, that means church has to be the most important thing on my schedule. And then I guess my wife should be next …” If you have this type of hierarchy in mind and you try to do everything you can think of with the first area of responsibility on the list before you move on to the second one, you probably won’t ever get to the second area!
If we don’t think of managing our priorities in a hierarchy, how are we supposed to do it?
What Paul is saying is that you need to keep faithful to core priorities in every area of your life3 before you go to the less important priorities or the simply good or the clearly optional things in each of these areas. So that involves discerning what your boss really wants from you, what is most important for you to nourish and cherish your wife, etc. Then you translate that into activities, and then you plan how much time you ought to devote to them in your schedule.
The first time I did this, it was wild. Although I only have 672 hours in a twenty-eight-day period, with all the things I had to do on my list, I came out to almost 900 hours. That means I was 300 hours out of the will of God! This was not just a management issue; this was a person thinking more highly of himself than he should and being controlled by things other than the priorities that God has given. Frankly, it was a lack of faith.
So, how did you try to get a better handle on prioritizing your time?
In each area of in my life, I categorized my planned activities:
- Absolute nonnegotiable activities (all placed on the schedule first)
- Really important activities (all placed on the schedule second)
- Good when possible activities (all placed on the schedule third)
- Clearly optional activities (all placed on the schedule last)
Then I added up the absolute minimum, nonnegotiable necessities, and I came up with about 500 hours out of the 672. And then I went back and asked myself, “What are the really important things in addition to that?” And I got about halfway through the important things, and you know what? I was out of hours. I was done. Now under really important things I did put in taking a fishing trip once a quarter, because that refreshes me and enables me to do the rest of my tasks. I also put in sleep and about thirty-five hours in the four-week period for just the messiness of life: getting lost, losing my phone, getting stranded when my car breaks down, and so on.
It seems like it could be challenging to cut out activities you might really like, but which are not really important. What can be done in that case?
True; when a person lives according to core priorities across all areas of life, the first thing that is cut out is the clearly optional stuff. I’ve never had a schedule where I could include things that were clearly optional. I’m sort of at a point now where I’ve got some things that are “good when possible” in my schedule, but my life is mostly absolute nonnegotiables and things that are really important. That gets me to my 672 hours. And what is so cool is that you can look at that, or if you need a more objective perspective, you can take it to a friend and say, “What do you think about what I’m doing to fulfill my core obligations in these areas?”
I have found this exercise to be very helpful, and I have had to do it three different times in my career for my own sanity and to get a grip on how I’m moving ahead.
How does this approach to time management help a pastor fulfill his responsibilities?
Pastors could apply this strategy just to their work responsibilities. So, instead of 672 hours a month, they might start with 200 hours a month.4 In consultation with their leadership team, they can create a list of regular responsibilities (sermon preparation, Sunday morning services, regular meetings with elders and/or deacons, etc.) and discuss how much time is typically devoted to those scheduled activities. At this point, the key question is: “Have these typical time frames turned out to be effective and efficient for their purposes within the range of hours available per month?” If not, then three suggestions might be made. First is the insertion of “cushion time” into the pastor’s monthly schedule. As we’ve stated earlier, there is an inherent inefficiency to people’s lives. Therefore, putting cushion time into the schedule will help to ease the burden of unexpected events. Following a guideline of 5 percent,
There should be at least ten hours in the pastor’s work schedule dedicated to handling the inefficiencies.
That leaves 190 hours for the scheduled activities.
Second, the elders and/or deacons will need to consider how much they are contributing to the shepherding needs of the congregation. They might need further training to become more competent and confident in helping the pastor. Passages like Acts 20:28 and 1 Timothy 3:2 indicate that congregational care is not a one-person responsibility.
Third, beyond the expectation of the leadership team being trained for one-on-one ministry opportunities, the potential involvement of others in the congregation should be considered. Passages like Romans 12:6–8, Colossians 3:16, and Titus 2:3–5 draw all believers into the role of personal ministry. Although there will be limitations with these informal (nonprofessional) ministry opportunities, redeeming the pastor’s time should involve training church members in basic skills of listening, asking open-ended questions for gathering important information, and applying biblical principles to the most common types of problems people face. Teaching these kinds of skills can be woven into Sunday school classes, small groups, and youth group meetings in which case studies and role plays sharpen people’s ministry skills.
Personal ministry (instructing, praying, encouraging, confronting, etc.) can occur across age, gender, professional levels, and ethnic backgrounds. To the extent that it does, fewer problems, questions, or concerns will reach the crisis stage, and less time will need to be devoted to them by the pastor.
For more information, a helpful worksheet, and a case study, see James C. Petty, Priorities: Mastering Time Management (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001).
- “Redeeming (buying back) time” seems to refer to snatching every opportunity you can to live in the light of God’s purposes, especially given the pervasive counter-kingdom priorities of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Peter shares similar counsel with his readers: Christians “do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Pet. 4:2–4).
- “Wisdom helps us understand God’s will by connecting the management of our time and opportunities with what is important in the light of eternity and Christ’s kingdom.” (James C. Petty, Priorities: Mastering Time Management [Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001], 3.)
- In Ephesians 5:18–6:18 Paul mentions responsibilities related to corporate worship (5:19–20), marriage (5:22–33), parenting (6:4), work (6:5–9), and personal spiritual development (6:10–18). “Notice that Paul does not allow us to decide which of these areas of life should take priority over any other area.… He does not see these core values as a list of responsibilities arranged in either descending or ascending order. Biblically, we are not permitted to decide to which areas of life we will apply the commands of God. They must apply to every area.” (James C. Petty, Priorities: Mastering Time Management [Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001], 5–6).
- In 2013, Thom Rainer reported on an informal study he conducted and a formal study conducted earlier by LifeWay. In both cases, the median number of work hours per week for the pastors surveyed was fifty. See http://thomrainer.com/2013/07/how-many-hours-does-a-pastor-work-each-week/.