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Don't Look Now, But Next Year's Coming!

By John Simpson.

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.  It takes only one phone call to move you from order to potential chaos. So let me begin with some brief observations:

  • Many ministers convey the impression of ongoing disorganisation. Too often there 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.  Most ministers are solo operators.  There is no one looking over the shoulder. Provided the vicar turns up for Sunday's service on time (actually a problem for some) and the PCC meeting, 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 ministers work from the manse or vicarage 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 clergy manage to have three meals at home most days - another plus.
  • The claim that the ministry has unique pressures attaching to it needs to be balanced up with the way in which so many of our people have to live their lives.  Anybody holding down a good job these days is 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 running along 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 minister 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 Baptist pastor who leads a deacons' meeting into the late hours may be forgetting that some of the lay leaders need to be up and gone early and do not have the option of a later start as the pastor may well have.
  • Any non-stipendiary or part-time minister will have even more challenges to deal with especially if there is another job to attend to as well.  This calls for 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 the year? 

  1. Start planning the year a few months ahead.  Don't leave it till February has come and gone.  Buy a diary containing a year's spreadsheet so that you can always have a good overview of the year at a glance.
  2. Identify your special calendar dates and insert them first. These are usually the 'holy times' which should have precedence. They include:

  • Family birthdays
  • Family traditions (e.g. regular trips and events, watching the Cup Final, ice creams on the beach in January, climbing the highest hill in the area on midsummer day!)
  • Anniversaries and birthdays
  • School holidays (if only so that you are aware of when people may not be around!)
  • Your own holiday breaks
  • Your preferred night at home which is non negotiable
  • Your day off (and educate the church about this)
  • Plus any event of personal significance

  • What are the fixed dates when you have to be on deck?  For example:
    • Sunday services!
    • Staff meetings
    • Church leaders' meetings
    • Church meetings  
    • Other committees (church, denominational, other) on which you serve
    • The regular commitments associated with your ministry: Religious Education classes, Chapter/fraternal meetings, in-service training)
    • School assembly (yes, in these days of continuing change, your participation is needed)
    • Are there deadlines by which you must have reports or documents finalised? Put them in now.
    • Any weddings on the drawing board for next year?

  • 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. You may not be able to get to them all but you will be able to get to some with early planning
    • Quality days for reading, study, prayer, reflection and 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 at least each year.
    • People days: if you don't plan time to spend with people and stay with it, you will become increasingly 'busy' and study bound and simply not catch up with your congregation.  A regular visiting time (although it may have to flex) will help keep a balance between paper and people. 

  • Then there are those demands which no one can anticipate:
    • Illness in the congregation
    • Bereavements and funerals
    • Family traumas needing your attention
    • Church upsets
    • Unexpected needs in your own family  
    • The knock on the door
    • The cry for help on the phone

    Since planning cannot help you here very much, patience and grace can.  A life which has benefited 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 diary in ways which are achievable leaves a minister 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. Don't forget to stop and smell the roses along the way. 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.
      • 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.

    The Revd John Simpson is General Superintendent of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.

    Ministry Today

    You are reading Don't Look Now, But Next Year's Coming! by John Simpson, part of Issue 21 of Ministry Today, published in February 2001.

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