Consider the pastor with a priority.

At 8:30 on Tuesday morning he's at his desk, refreshed, motivated, and abounding with energy to tackle what he considers his most pressing problem. His church sits at the edge of a growing medical complex in a southern city with a large ratio of retirees. The potential—yea, the need—for ministering to these people weighs on him. Very little has been done.

Now he sees some light. One gifted leader has volunteered to get involved. A businessman on the board has hinted he would give heavily to support such a ministry. The board itself has endorsed the idea, and dozens of church members have signed "I'm interested in helping" cards. One person added an enthusiastic note to the card.

So with yellow pad in hand, our hero considers his priorities for the week:

1. Call the businessman; have lunch soon. Too bad! He just left for two weeks in Hawaii.

2. Call the board chairman; light a fire under him. The board chairman must wear asbestos pants. He wants to know if it can wait until next week.

3. Drop by and see the volunteer at her office. She runs a small accounting firm. Oh, no! This is the first week of April. She's probably working right through lunch hours and into the evenings.

4. Sound out the woman who scribbled the note on the card. Well, so much for that. She had almost forgotten she wrote the note. Compulsive type, probably, who wrote it in a fit of enthusiasm. But she's already up to her earrings in community club work.

Frustrated, the pastor turns reluctantly to another task. Well, at least he can work on next Sunday's sermon. He doesn't depend on anyone else for that.

The People Problem

The problem will return, however, to plague him, just as it does every other church leader. It's the gap between what we think should be done first and what we can actually do. It's the pull between priorities and our ability to move the resources needed to attack the priorities.

We know what's important—but without the right people in the right place at the right time, we can't get very far.

Now I think I hear a few solemn counselors of Job dismissing the problem with "We must wait for God's timing" or, "You must always put people first." Those answers are much too simplistic. For the pastor who has already waited on God to confirm a set of goals and priorities, this is a multifaceted problem.

For one thing, the church, from a human perspective, is a volunteer organization, and pastors must understand how to work with volunteers. An entire genre of literature has developed on this topic, and as you read it, it's easy to conclude that if you follow the rules, you'll get as much from volunteers as from paid staff. Not true! Some volunteers are highly committed, but in most cases they have at least one other major commitment—earning a living—that cannot be shelved.

Bill Templeton, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, says flatly, "It always takes longer with volunteers." Templeton's organizational skills plus his highly motivated style turn on a lot of laypeople. "Yet," he says, "I'm a realist. I allow volunteers more time than I'd like and certainly more than if I were doing it myself, so I'm not disappointed."

Templeton must have heard of Murphy's Law, which says that if anything can go wrong, it will. A contemporary sage has formulated O'Toole's Comment on Murphy's Law: "Murphy was an optimist." My own corollary to Murphy's Law is that the more people involved in a program, the greater the probability that something will go wrong. People get sick, they forget, have accidents, take on too much, lose interest, have second thoughts, and fail. These are the joys and the drawbacks of working with people.

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