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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Rules for the Too-Busy

“While I understand the reasons for believing the pastor needs to be the primary evaluator of staff, my personal concern comes from my sense of overwhelm-ment I already experience sometimes with this work.  There is not enough time to do all that needs to be done…”

Bee eye from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Jack Wolf, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

This is the comment of a student in a webinar I’m leading on aspects of small church ministry.

And I get it.  I, too, feel as if I don’t have enough time to do all that needs to be done.  I work days, nights, and weekends, and it’s still not enough.  I always feel as if I’m letting people down.

And the harder I work, the less able I am to find my way out of the maze because every demand on my time begins to feel as important as every other demand.  In my beleaguered mind, there are no clear priorities and nothing that can wait, just an unending series of equally urgent needs and tasks.

I wish I thought this was particular to me, but I think most ministers suffer from a sense of having too much to do.  It may be because we need to be needed, it may be because our members have gotten busier but we haven’t yet responded by adjusting our understanding of how to manage a congregation, or it may be because we actually believe we’re supposed to be available 24/7/365.  Whatever the case, our tendency to overwork feels as if it’s a “wicked” problem like income inequality or climate change–a messy, widely-shared problem with innumerable causes and no ready solution.  And wicked problems are notoriously hard to solve.

So, what do we do?

First, a brief detour into how humans learn, courtesy of Ben Vermaercke and the Harvard Business Review.  In an interview with HBR’s Alison Beard, “Rats Can Be Smarter than People,” Vermaercke explores why rats outperform humans in some circumstances. Human brains have been conditioned to look for rules, because rules increase the brain’s efficiency.  We’re taught them in school, at work, and by our parents, and we can make many good decisions by applying them.

But in other situations, for instance when we have to evaluate a job candidate, there’s too much going on for simple rules to work, and then we have to consider many factors and rely on gut feelings.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evidence showing that humans have a harder time learning how to integrate information in this way because they continue to seek rules even when there are none.  Rats, apparently, don’t have the same problem 🙂 .

There’s a lot more to the research than I have time to explain, but I’m going to suggest that, even if every minister’s sense of overwhelm-ment is an instance of a “wicked” problem, it may be that we are moving too quickly to assume that there are no ready solutions.  Maybe we can start to address the problem, at least on a personal level, by going back to the basics.  Maybe what we really do need is Strunk and White on ministry–a few short, clear rules.

Rule #1:  Just stop

I’m not suggesting that you abandon your current life, as tempting as that might be.  You don’t even have to stop going to meetings or reading your email or writing sermons.  Instead, find times every day to stop doing work-type things for just a few minutes.  Sit for 10 minutes and breathe between meetings.  Walk around the block or up and down the stairs.  Stare out the window.  Retrain your mind and your body to put space between tasks so that your blood pressure and other stress reactions have time to re-set.  This isn’t even hard, it’s just something that we don’t usually do.

Rule #2:  Pay attention

This is harder than just stopping because most of us are focused on today’s “to-do” list, or how little sleep we got last night, or how completely annoyed we are with whoever or whatever is annoying us right now.  Our brains go faster and faster, and while we can occasionally manage to physically stop moving, it’s much harder to stop thinking, especially about responsibilities and problems.  So lift your head and look around.  Pay attention to whatever is fascinating or lovely or joyful.

A few years ago, my mother and father, who live on an acreage near a small town in Iowa, experienced a Category 5 tornado.  The tornado didn’t actually hit their house, but it wiped out a third of the town, including friends’ homes.  A nearby farmer ended up with debris from the storm littering the field he usually used for grazing cows, so my parents ended up with a few cows and their calves in a small bit of pasture outside their kitchen window.  My mother was unexpectedly enchanted with how peaceful it was to spend time every day watching cows.  The world is full of moments like these–a hummingbird at the feeder, the feel of the soft fur behind your dog’s ears, the taste of green chiles, the sound of snow.  You only need to pay attention.

Rule #3:  Start now

Tomorrow may already seem too booked to try anything radical–meetings all day, a confirmation class to teach, a spouse or partner who needs your attention.  Maybe next week.  But there is never a perfect time to start something new.  There is only this time, now.

Ultimately, the reason we all feel too busy may be that we’ve lost track of what it really means to be the church, and that’s a wicked problem that it will take all of us to solve.  But each of us has some control over what we do tomorrow, and I think it’s time for some new rules:  Just stop a few times a day, pay attention to the good and the lovely, and start…right…now.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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