My ritual is as traditional as a Japanese tea: desk cleared of all distractions, coffee pot cheerfully perking, pencils sharpened and laid out in a row, computer turned on, prayer for concentration and clarity uttered.

I thrive on a quiet day of study and sermon writing. The process enriches me spiritually and energizes me for ministry in teaching and preaching. My well-being does not depend so much on the weather (I do better when it rains, anyway) or even my spiritual condition (this time has always included a process of spiritual renewal and personal commitment); instead, the question is whether I can get through this day without too many interruptions.

Clergy cocooning, would you say?

But for how many of us is this ideal the reality? Pastors walk a tightrope between two conflicting expectations placed upon them by parishioners: to produce thoughtful sermons (or Sunday school lessons) and to be available to every member of the congregation when needed. Sometimes these two expectations collide in that "now or never" moment interrupted by an important need. How can I cut down on interruptions and still be assured that no one's needs are being overlooked?

Identifying the Culprits

The first step to gaining control of the interruptions is to identify which type is the primary problem.

The telephone: Bell's blessing is sometimes the clergy's curse. Everything from the out-of-state telemarketer to the in-house intercom have the knack of finding me at my most productive time of day. Unscreened calls can turn off concentration and creativity within a matter of minutes.

Drop-in visitors: Ethel just happens to be in the building and thought she'd stop to find out if I'm coming to the singles' potluck tomorrow night. Children from the nursery school press their puckish noses against my window hoping I will come out and dispense a little hug therapy. Pastor Jim drops in to check details of a program. The chairman of the building committee has just met with the town planners and wants to give me a progress report.

The opportunities for ministry cross my doorstep wearing faces of anxiety, love, apprehension, curiosity, and sometimes, deep pain. I love these people, and I am here to serve them. But when am I going to finish this week's lesson on Exodus?

Crisis: John is dying. Would you come to the hospital? Tom has decided to leave Patty unless she will consent to counseling today. Are you available? The kitchen stove has burst into flames. Quick! Where is the fire extinguisher? These adrenalin producers don't happen often in my experience, but they're non-negotiable.

Because we are called to ministry, which means servanthood and availability, we are trusted to balance the legitimate needs of our congregation with the equally legitimate need for quiet production time. On one side of the scale, I am careful about conveying to church members that I am available. Tensions boil if parishioners cannot reach me by phone and wait two or three days for a return call. Resentment builds if the impression is given that I am hiding behind a closed door and a secretary.

In a sense, we earn the right to work without interruption. Church members have deep discernment when it comes to the meeting of their needs. They have an uncanny sense of whether you are with them at the moment or your mind is wandering to the theological journal on your desk. The question I ask myself often is, How am I responding to my parishioners in those chance encounters and spontaneous moments? As a rule, can they see me when they need to, and am I willing to work with them until the "business" at hand is finished? As they sense my commitment in those everyday contacts, they do allow me the time I need later for reflection and uninterrupted labor. When I "make the rounds" with my presence and keep up with my phone calls, they are more likely to forgive me when I choose to hole up for a few hours to write a sermon.

Investments in Latitude

How do I manage? Three investments I make that pay off later are visibility, anticipation, and positive PR.

Visibility: I make it a point to be visible and accessible when our Tuesday morning women's Bible study breaks up at 11:30. I wander around the courtyard with a look of anticipation and greeting, answering questions, stimulating thought for future projects, perhaps inviting a troubled soul to share her concern. Aside from being extremely productive this respite comes at a good time for a breather no matter how intense my work is. Whenever possible, I try to mingle with every fellowship group that meets at the church, and particularly between services on Sunday morning. My presence alone often will remind someone of a message he was going to give me (ah, a future interruption averted!) or a comment she wanted to pass on.

Anticipation: Staying in touch with needs in the church helps me anticipate my involvement in developing situations. Then I can provide assistance in advance of my scheduled "alone" time. Further, I keep track of those responsibilities that require coordination with others in the church. Industrial engineers refer to the "critical path." Am I standing in the way of progress in any particular area? Is a committee waiting for my input before proceeding? Have I promised something but not delivered as expected? The goal is to respond to these claims on my time earlier rather than later, so that my conscience is clear for concentrated effort.

Positive PR: I am continually amazed to discover that people have little idea of what I do in a week's time. Such ignorance can be a helpful conversation starter with unchurched neighbors, but with the board of elders it can be damaging. One of the investments I make is to keep the elders with whom I work closely informed of my activities. I don't keep a work log, but about once a week I speak with the elder responsible for adult ministries. I share my goals for the week, a general outline of my schedule, and prayer concerns (including the need for some uninterrupted time). Over the months, this communication has built an atmosphere of trust and respect as well as advocacy when needed.

Three Lines of Gentle Defense

Having justified the need for uninterrupted time and considered the investments that pay off later in precious peace and quiet, we're now to the critical question: How can we cut down on interruptions without being rude or neglecting people?

I like to think of having three lines of defense.

The first line of defense is an overall organizational strategy: I find out how much time I need by identifying tasks that require the most concentration or prolonged effort. For me, monthly sermon preparation and two weekly adult education classes fall into this category. Sermon preparation takes me four hours for brainstorming and exegesis and another six to eight hours for actual writing. One of my adult classes requires six hours weekly, which can be divided into two blocks if necessary.

Second, I look at the week's schedule and determine the times when I am least likely to be interrupted. My office days are Monday through Friday. Although I would prefer to begin my preparation for Sunday responsibilities on Wednesday, Thursday is a more realistic day because there are no group meetings at the church and the phone rings less frequently. During weeks that require sermon preparation, I use Thursday as sermon day and carve out blocks of three or four hours on Monday and Friday morning to prepare for classes.

The rest of my week falls around the following contour: Monday tends to be a quiet day in which I concentrate on long-range planning and follow-up from Sunday contacts. Tuesday is set aside for staff meetings, appointments, and interruptions. Wednesday is an odds-and-ends day of many thirty-minute tasks and therefore a good day for interruptions. Once I determined this weekly rhythm, I was able to relax more with the interruptions, knowing planned quiet time was coming later in the week.

Third, I establish some "pass interference." One of the secretaries in the office screens my calls and takes messages. In fact, I schedule my study time around Elaine's availability since I share her time with another ministry area. A pastor I know does not have a full-time secretary. His solution is to turn on a phone answering machine with the message, "Hello, this is Pastor John Smith at First Church. I am working on Sunday's sermon today, but would be happy to call you back between 12 and 1 or between 4 and 5 this afternoon. If this is an emergency, please call 555-1234 and the message will be brought to me immediately." The emergency number belongs to one of the deacons, who would be notified anyway in the case of an emergency. Another church has several pastors and an "on-call" schedule, permitting most pastors on any given day to work without crisis interruptions.

This basic strategy cuts down significantly on unwanted interruptions. But what do you do when someone gets through at an unwelcome time? The goal becomes one of limiting the time spent on the interruption. To keep my mind on track as the telephone rings, I quickly jot down my next point or a key phrase to help me zero in again when I return. Then I greet the caller or visitor with a clue that I'm in a priority project. Body language, such as remaining behind my desk, gives a hint. Or when a telephone caller greets me with "How are you?" I respond with a cheerful remark that I'm making great progress on a challenging sermon! This is usually enough of a hint that the caller will state the reason for the conversation without further fanfare. After assessing the urgency of the matter, I then do one of the following:

Refer. I pass the problem to someone else. If appropriate, I redirect the question or concern to a secretary, an elder, or another knowledgeable and caring person. I don't want to give the impression of "passing the buck" irresponsibly, but my experience has been that there are others just as capable as I am to deal with many questions that arise.

Postpone. "Gee, I'd love to chat about your trip to Israel. Let's make time tomorrow afternoon when I can really enjoy all your pictures." Stated positively and with genuine affirmation, this response becomes the catalyst for deeper fellowship at a better time.

Quickly fix. Sometimes it is easier and takes less time to deal personally with the question or problem that arises. If this is one of those cases, I smile warmly and put everything I have into that brief moment of ministry. We are called to be servants of the kingdom, which requires us sometimes to carry a little hay.

Drop everything. There are days when I suspect God has something else in mind for me than what is written in my calendar. One day our nursery school director introduced me to a mother who was obviously distraught. She asked if I would take the time to talk with her. My initial response was, Oh, not today, Lord! But there was something in that mother's eyes that conveyed fear and agitation, so I brought her into my office. She poured out her family crisis to me and eagerly sought my counsel for her dilemma. How could I have known in advance that this was the day the Lord had prepared for her to commit her life to Christ? She continued to stop in periodically (not always at a good time for me), and as her faith was strengthened, she was able to face her difficult situation with courage. And to think I could have blown it completely for the sake of a rigid schedule. So I keep an open mind and a willingness to accept gladly the possibility that this interruption really may be God knocking at my door.

Mary Holder Naegeli is associate pastor of Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church in Moraga, California.