I am sluggish on Mondays, yet extremely motivated on Thursdays. My thoughts are creative and clear in the mornings, but when I attempt deep thinking mid-afternoon I often feel like I’m running in sand. My soul always feels different in January than it does in August. Why is this? As a ministry leader, I’ve had the sense that timing is crucial, but I’ve never known why until recently.
I enjoy Daniel Pink’s writings, so I was eager to get my hands on his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The premise: When we do things matters more than we think. Why do regularly scheduled breaks significantly increase student scores? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why do prison boards grant parole for more inmates in the morning than in the afternoon? Science proves that we function rhythmically in our 24-hour cycles.
What we do is important, but when we do it is crucial. By knowing ourselves, we can maximize our days by aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythm, that natural inner process that regulates our cycles of sleeping and being awake.
Although Pink writes primarily for a secular business audience—as far as I can tell, he has no strong religious affiliation—ministry leaders can glean much from his book. As pastors know, efficiency and ministry don’t often mix. Ministry can feel chaotic and exhausting, each day riddled with interruptions. Pastoral care issues can surface at a moment’s notice.
Years ago, I heard Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren say church leaders should focus more on energy management than time management. We often use the clock as the marker of our days. However, since all leaders have limitations and need replenishment, focusing on our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy levels seems wise.
Understanding our unique wiring
We are prone to forget just how intimately integrated our bodies and souls actually are. How we work; when we interact with others; what gives us life, joy and energy; and how we refuel have implications that go well beyond the physical realm. How we work, lead, and minister influences our levels of peace, our ability to be fully present with others, and our expressions of joy, kindness, and patience.
Each of our bodies is different, of course. Some pastors are monkish introverts while others are flaming extroverts. Some are early birds and others night owls (as well as those who live in the middle, which Pink calls “other birds”). Some are slow processors; others are quick on their feet. Some do the best work in isolation, while others are best when collaborating with others.
Leaders don’t have to fall into the comparison trap by constantly checking how they are performing against other leaders. Since we’re different, we shouldn’t be tempted to believe that we must accomplish the same quality and quantity of others—or accomplish it in the same way or even at the same time. The fact that we are wired differently is not bad; in fact, it is a tangible expression of God’s work creatively and compassionately stamping upon each one of us the imago Dei. The apostle Paul wrote about the beauty of difference in how God graciously and generously provides the body of Christ with gifts to be used for his purposes (Eph. 4:11-13). Peter echoes this sentiment as well: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Because of our unique wiring, it’s important for us to spend time in thoughtful reflection: When do I feel most alive, most energized, fully present, and wildly creative? When in my day or week do I feel most depleted and exhausted? And where, when, and with whom do I refuel after my spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical tanks are empty? The answers to these questions carry significant implications that can determine how and when we schedule meetings, engage in sermon preparation, hold staff meetings, return phone calls, and even check email.
Planning our day with a kingdom trajectory
Pink shares that we have a daily peak, trough, and rebound in our motivation and happiness. For example, we possess noticeably higher levels of energy in the morning hours, peaking right before lunch. We then experience a “trough” in early afternoon, when our energy and motivation wane significantly. It makes sense why Spanish culture embraces an afternoon siesta. Pink shares in his book that British researchers sought to identify the exact time when people’s energy bottoms out in an average day. They found it to be 2:55 p.m. (The next time you yawn or notice your energy lagging, glace at the clock. It’s eerie.) And then, in late afternoon and early evening, we rebound to find more energy and motivation, usually somewhere between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. (Pink points out the fact that bars call this time of the day Happy Hour isn’t a coincidence.) Then, we slide back to a low energy level as it gets later until we eventually slide into bed.
This awareness of our circadian rhythm has helped me think carefully about what scheduling looks like in ministry. For example, if I start my day leading a marital counseling session, the couple may leave encouraged, but I am wiped out the rest of the day. I’ve had to learn to schedule counseling sessions in late afternoon or early evening in order to preserve my energy and my sanity throughout the day.
Mornings often set the tone for the day. Although we’re not more spiritual if we get up early, it can have numerous benefits. The Gospel of Mark records: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (1:35). We can’t tell from the text if Jesus awoke early as a regular part of his routine, or even what time he set his alarm (though I am curious what “very early” meant in the first century), but he does give us a model for starting our day with a kingdom trajectory. Arriving at the office, mornings may be the best time for sermon prep, staff meetings, or even difficult conversations, where we can meet people climbing toward the peak of their circadian rhythm as well.
Afternoons, when the post-lunch trough sets in, can be set aside for responding to emails or working on logistical tasks that may not take a great deal of brainpower. Most ministry contexts may not allow a nap every afternoon—although Jesus and Elijah give us prime examples of power naps in Scripture—but there are other alternatives. For example, an afternoon meeting can easily be turned into a walking meeting if the weather is pleasant.
The late afternoon rebound can be a wonderful time to spend with family or connecting with other life-giving friends or staff members. Some pastors I know enjoy going to the gym after they leave the office. And as evening slips into night, and our energy wanes once again, too many night meetings, activities, or events can be unhealthy.
Scheduling breaks is important as well, according to Pink. For example, getting up every 45 minutes from our sermon prep for a quick walk down the hall to refill our water bottle may have more positive effects on Sunday than we realize. Those who come from a more liturgical tradition often speak of the benefits of the Daily Office. Praying the hours forces us, in the best sense of the word, to stop what we are doing and pray set prayers, often in a standing or kneeling position—a benefit that extends well beyond just our spiritual state. Rich Villodas, pastor of New Life Church in New York City, shares that these sacred prayer breaks are often the most refreshing parts of his day.
Reevaluating ministry Mondays
With the demands of Sunday, we must be very careful with how we spend our Monday. For many pastors, Monday is often the most depleting and discouraging day of the week. Exhausted by the adrenaline hangover from yesterday, we second-guess our sermons, see the attendance and giving records, and try to stave off the feelings of discouragement and depletion.
For years, whenever elder meetings occurred (which often ended quite late), I’d fall into bed and realize with dread I had scheduled an early breakfast in the morning. Over eggs and toast, I would be outwardly sluggish and inwardly frustrated, frazzled, and annoyed. When I finally grew sick of this exhausting pattern, I learned to block off an hour or two the morning after an elder meeting to allow myself the opportunity to replenish physically, emotionally, and spiritually before diving into the day’s ministry responsibilities.
This “Monday hangover” is one of the reasons my pastor friend and I cohost the weekly podcast Monday Morning Pastor, where we seek to support and encourage ministry leaders on their most vulnerable day of the week. Tara Beth Leach, senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena, California, shared in an episode her Monday patterns: She would come into the office early, exhausted, and hit the day hard. But it wasn’t working; she realized she needed a drastic change or burnout would soon come. “I had no idea how awful Mondays were. It took me an entire year to realize I need to do something different on Mondays.”
She overhauled her schedule; now she enters into Mondays slowly and deliberately, sometimes going for a hike or enjoying a good book. She meets with her executive pastor at a Starbucks a town over to reflect on the weekend services and celebrate where God was at work. “There was something about not meeting in the office on Monday psychologically that is really important for me,” she said. Leach often spends her Monday lunch with a group of local pastors in what they’ve dubbed Pastor Triage, reminding each other their identity on a Monday is not tied to what happened on a Sunday. She also refers to a Monday morning “to-don’t list”: check email, log onto social media, hold staff meetings, and meet with disgruntled people. I think Daniel Pink would be proud.
Recognize and embrace the seasons
Churches have circadian rhythms too, though they are seasonal rather than daily. Church culture often mirrors the school schedule, whether or not we have school-aged children. Fall is a time of new beginnings and high momentum. With school back in session, new rhythms develop for both families and churches. Leaders cast the vision for the year, small groups launch, and programs start; this carries us up to and through the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Winter can start out strong. January is often when people are back with excitement, energy, motivation, and anticipation: a new year, a new time of possibilities and fresh starts. Churches use this time to recast vision or launch new programs or small groups.
Spring gives way to March and April, the season of Lent and Easter. It is not a peak or a lull but seems to stay somewhere in the middle. May and June lead us to the end of the school year and graduation, right into the summer months. While summer brings recreation and vacation, attendance and giving are often low—the church’s trough.
Once I began to notice the seasonal rhythms and grew to embrace them, I was more readily able to lead our church in ways that met what people were already feeling. The church calendar, of course, can be a wonderful way to place spiritual training wheels on our lives, teaching us to ride with joy and wonder as we embrace the seasons of the year, such as Advent and Lent. Even learning to embrace ordinary time can bring its own joys and surprises. Mark Buchanan’s book, Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul, has helped me welcome the seasons as they come. Just as it is important to embrace the seasons of the calendar as they come, it’s wise to embrace the seasons of the ministry calendar and our soul as well.
Leave margin for interruptions
While intentionally aligning our schedules with our circadian rhythm, we must still remember that interruptions are a significant part of our calling. Patience and flexibility are prerequisites to faithful ministry. In Luke’s gospel, we read the intertwined stories of Jairus’s daughter and the woman subject to bleeding. Neither of these interactions was scribbled in Jesus’ day planner. In fact, the healing of Jairus’s daughter was interrupted by the woman who was subject to bleeding. If we zoom out of the larger picture of Luke 8, we see that Jesus is interrupted from his interruption from his interruption! Despite these detours, Jesus never seems flustered or irritated. The interruptions didn’t keep him from his ministry; they were ministry.
I, like many others, are tempted to jam as much in a day as I can, stacking meetings and appointments one on top of the other. When I fall behind, one meeting running long and dipping into another, I become distracted and flustered and sense my irritability rising.
When I realized this about myself, I began to schedule with more of an accordion approach, leaving at least 15 minutes of breathing room between each meeting. This simple change has given me space and time to be more present. It allowed me permission to embrace the interruptions and to see them as invitations and opportunities, not fires needing to be extinguished quickly. Expecting the interruptions has brought more tenderness and awareness to my day, rather than a rigid, let’s-push-through-this kind of approach. A breathable schedule allows me to see and embrace interruptions with a posture of receptivity rather than irritability.
While we seek to be more disciplined in how we invest our time, we also need to extend compassion to ourselves and others. Structure is important, but so is flexibility. This is a work of sanctification, but also a form of grace. We won’t always get it right, and that’s okay. Above all else, we’re simply attempting to be good stewards of the limited resource of time God has entrusted to us. If we learn to steward the gifts of time and energy—not just how but also when we use them—our ministry can be more fruitful in service to the King.
J. R. Briggs is an author, leadership coach, and the founder of Kairos Partnerships, an organization committed to helping hungry kingdom leaders become healthy and resilient.