Unless the hours in a week are harnessed meaningfully, they become a wasted natural resource. Time waits for no one; time returns for no one.
— Greg Asimakoupoulos
Did you know that an American president spent as much time in his White House bedroom as he spent in the Oval Office? His name was Calvin Coolidge. History reports that on average Coolidge slept eleven hours each night.
Compare that with this extreme opposite: the president of a seminary I attended averaged only four hours of sleep each night. Apparently that was the only way he could juggle lecturing, publishing, administrating, and keeping up with an extensive speaking schedule.
We are each different. Our internal clocks and personal preferences determine, to a large extent, the way we order our days and nights. After a full Sunday of preaching and pastoral care, for example, many pastors routinely take Mondays off. For them it is an absolute necessity to recharge their emotional batteries for the week to come.
Other pastors, however, work Mondays. They insist that the day-after depression often following Sunday should not ruin a perfectly good day off. Rather they choose to feel lousy at church, spending Mondays dealing with administration. Later in the week, when they are brimming with energy, these pastors take a day off.
Who's to say which is right?
The same is true of pastors organizing their weeks. Every pastor, every method, is different. Some plans are more formal, others more dynamic.
I wondered how other pastors approach their daily and weekly demands, so I called a few to find out. Through a series of phone interviews, I discovered that pastors view their work through one of three paradigms: a weekly flow, a daily flow, or an 'ebb and flow.'
A popular model I encountered was touted by pastors who see their responsibilities in repeatable weekly rhythms. Earl Palmer, pastor of University Presbyterian Church, sees all of life this way. He believes that a weekly rhythm is the essence of a balanced life for all Christians, not just pastors.
"Until you can make sense out of seven days," Palmer says, "you can't make the most out of an individual day. That's the significance of the fourth commandment."
The beat of these rhythms is sounded by the days of each week. The divider tabs of a Daytimer are not only symbolic of this compartmentalized approach, they are a constant companion of those practicing it.
"I wouldn't dream of going anywhere without my personal calendar," confided Don McCullough, pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church. "Everything relating to my ministry and personal life is bound by those three silver rings."
His dividers separate daily appointments, prayer lists, sermon outlines, illustrations, expense reports, staff notes, and a phone directory. The days of his week are similarly categorized.
"Mondays are my days to deal with adminis-trivia. It's the only week day I handle correspondence. Tuesdays are devoted to basic sermon research and staff matters. Wednesday is my weekly window for creative expression; it's the day I work on a book manuscript, an article to be published, or lecture notes. Thursdays are protected for in-depth sermonizing, and Friday mornings are routinely carved out for writing the final sermon manuscript."
Palmer is also ruthless with his schedule: "I work incredibly hard and long Sunday through Wednesday so I have Thursday and Friday to devote entirely to my messages for this Sunday and the next. If you know what you're preaching next Sunday, you'll do a better job this week."
As one might expect reviewing these two schedules, both pastor large churches where much of the administration, counseling, and pastoral care is distributed among staff associates. Both men are primarily responsible for preaching and managing their staff.
But this approach need not be limited to large-church pastors. Rather than the size of the congregations or the number of paid staff, the key factor seems to be the pastor's desire to control his or her time. Leslie Krober, pastor of the Free Methodist Church in Wenatchee, Washington, began applying the weekly flow model long before his church attendance reached a thousand.
"I began reading material by Carl George of The Fuller Institute that challenged my tendencies to meet people's expectations, no matter how unrealistic," Krober recalls. "Because I don't like people to be upset with me or for programs to fall flat, I'd generally pick up the pieces others had dropped."
Carl George's metachurch philosophy struck a chord with Krober. It called for a style in which pastors manage ministry instead of reacting to it or doing it themselves. "I not only started carving out certain days of each week for certain tasks, but I also implemented my Big Blue system," said Krober.
Big Blue is a large, blue folder Krober keeps on the corner of his desk for calls, letters, projects, or requests that find their way to his office during the week. Rather than yielding to the temptation to drop everything and respond immediately, Krober throws the items into Big Blue and browses through them on the morning assigned to administration.
"When I finally respond to an 'urgent' matter," said Krober, "often the problem has already resolved itself. In the meantime, my Big Blue system has given me protracted sermon time during the week."
Gordon Kirk, pastor of Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California, agrees: if a congregation buys into the idea that ministry is not the exclusive domain of the pastor, believes Kirk, any pastor can make the weekly flow system work.
"When surrounded by a team of colleagues," Kirk insists, "opportunity for rhythmic blocks exist in every pastor's week. That team can be paid staff or volunteer staff. If ministry demands are shared, sufficient blocks of time can be assigned to preparing for Sunday morning."
Those who follow a weekly flow can't imagine life any other way. If there is any drawback to the method, though, it might be the curse of the large church. For Don McCullough, managing a multiple staff and a 2,000-attender church sometimes feels like being an executive of a major corporation rather than a pastor: "I catch myself wondering if I'm available enough for individuals within the congregation or if I'm too protected by my priorities."
The second popular paradigm is the more traditional daily cycle. In a given week, each day, except for the day off, resembles another. Mary Miller, associate pastor of First Wayne Street United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, embraces this pattern.
"After I drop my daughter off at daycare, my work day begins around 8:30 a.m. with devotions in my study," Miller says. "Attempting a quiet time at home with a 2 year old hugging my knees is unrealistic."
From there, her typical day unwinds. She clears off her desk and addresses issues that have surfaced overnight. Then she closes her door to capture an hour or two of uninterrupted study time. By afternoon she is ready to handle correspondence, return calls, and do visitation.
Miller adds, "As long as I can find study blocks each day, my message is done by Thursday evening, so I can enjoy my Friday day off."
Also employing the daily flow method, Carl Taylor, pastor at Buffalo Covenant Church near Minneapolis, finds he studies best away from the phone and drop-in church visitors. "Before I go to the church, I have personal devotions and do reading for my sermon," says Taylor.
By ten o'clock he is ready to tackle administrative and staff-related responsibilities at the church campus. "Each staff member has a bit of my time every day," he says. "In a church of 500 members, the staff does much of the work. I spend much of my time pastoring them."
Although his afternoons vary, depending on who requests an appointment or which shut-in requires a visit, each day is remarkably the same. Administration, pastoral care, counseling, and discipleship occupy a bit of his calendar every day. Evening commitments take Taylor away from home an average of five nights a week. He is either overseeing various committees, counseling an engaged couple, or facilitating a Bible study.
Russ Carlson, pastor of North Haven Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, likes the rhythm of handling bits and pieces of his pastoral kit everyday. Similarly to Taylor and Miller, he protects his morning hours for study time. In addition, he takes five days twice a year to outline six months worth of Sunday messages.
Carlson observes, "That intensive time of prayer and anticipation holds my year together. When the unexpected knocks me out of synch with my daily regimen, the clippings, thoughts, and ideas accumulated since the study week guarantee I'll have something to say on Sunday."
The daily flow advantages are at least two:
• Sermon preparation is distributed over the entire week. If every day has study time built into it, the task of constructing a sermon is distributed over an entire week as opposed to two days.
Taylor muses, "I preach best when I orient my devotions around the Sunday text and allow the overflow of a week of personal worship to spill over into the pulpit."
Miller confesses, "I used to let the sermon go to the end of the week — you know, inspiration motivated by deadlines! The problem was that by waiting until the weekend to birth a sermon, I wasn't allowing the message to become a part of me."
Mary aims to finish by Thursday, so the message can circulate inside her at home on Friday and Saturday. Most of her best illustrations or sub-points, she claims, ambush her on her home days, when she isn't consciously thinking about Sunday morning: "I've preached more than one sermon flagged with yellow Post-it notes."
• It guarantees a time for appointments each day. This allows people access to their pastor without having to wait until "appointment day" the following week. A common daily routine keeps people in full view so their needs punctuate all the week's pastoral tasks. "My style," confides Taylor, "is to make myself available whenever people need to see me."
But there is a disadvantage to the daily flow method: unexpected calls and drop-ins often mess up the schedule. Daily flow pastors can be so committed to accomplishing their plans for a given day that when the unanticipated interrupts the daily schema, their day often extends late into the night. Because their day boundaries aren't as rigid as the weekly flow folks, daily flow people can easily attempt too much in a given day.
Because most people are only free in the evenings, Carl Taylor admits to but one free night a week. He has found that if he isn't careful, consecutive nights at the church result in tensions in his marriage.
For health reasons, Russ Carlson has taken concrete measures to counter his tendency toward workaholism. Early in his seminary studies, he was introduced to the daily flow model with an interesting twist. Russ simply calls it the "twelve-unit thing."
Here's how it works. Every week consists of twenty-one potential work units of three or four hours each: seven days times three (mornings, afternoons, and evenings). The maximum goal for any one week is to work twelve of those units (or about forty-eight hours).
For Carlson a typical week finds him putting in three units each on Mondays and Wednesdays when he has commitments through the day and evening. He takes Tuesday off and works mornings and afternoons Thursday and Friday — two units each day — and then works two more units on Sunday. (A social evening with people from the church also counts as a work unit).
Not only does this breakdown allow him to have most Saturdays free, it also protects four nights a week for his wife and three small children.
"I'm especially pleased with this system," Carlson said. "It is a tangible way of measuring my work as well as my worth. By looking at the units checked off, I can feel good about putting in a good amount of work. I also can give myself permission to quit. I don't feel guilty. After all, there are twelve units blacked out on my chart."
His wife likes the system, too. When she wonders out loud if he is giving her and the kids their fair share, she can look at his chart (which he fills out first thing every Monday morning) and decide with him if "repentance" is required.
When an unanticipated emergency pirates him away from his plan, Carlson's unit count for that week may total thirteen or fourteen. But then he gives himself permission to compensate the following week by reducing his units to ten or eleven.
For Earl Palmer, that's another reason why thoughtful rhythms, whether weekly or daily, should be taken seriously. "As long as you have a predictable pattern built into your ministry, you can handle the occasional crisis day. Subconsciously you know you can return to the rhythm represented by tomorrow."
The twelve-unit method may also be a means to combine the weekly flow and the daily flow model. Repeatable tasks can be assigned to each unit or series of units in a given week. For example, sermon preparation can be done in three units, every Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
Ebb and Flow
Another schedule shrine to which many pastors bend the knee is what I call the ebb-and-flow model. I feel the freedom to name this category because I belong to it.
Whereas the weekly flow tends to characterize pastors leading large churches, ebb-and-flow pastors typically are found in churches ofless than 400. However, the style has less to do with church size and more to do with priorities. As with the other models, this one is also distinguished by a pattern that defines each day. The pattern in this case is flexibility.
"Even though 75 percent of an average week consists of repeatable tasks, average weeks in my church are mostly rare." That church is Bethel Baptist Church in Concord, California, where Larry Baker pastors.
"Every day has its unique demands and wrinkles," he insists. An ebb-and-flow pastor like Baker has a loosely sketched weekly and daily plan. The bulletin tends to be written a certain day. The sermon is tackled at predictable hash marks of the week. The letters to visitors generally go out the first part of the week. But the distinguishing factor of the ebb-and-flow model is that people's needs take precedent over planned routines.
Unlike Don McCullough who only responds to correspondence on Mondays or Carl Taylor who has set times each day to return phone calls, ebb-and-flow pastors respond without delay (even when it means dropping their sermon preparation late in the week).
"Some of my best sermon illustrations," says Baker, "have come out of the emergencies that hijacked my preaching preparation. Responding at the moment connects me to the people for whom my sermon is intended."
I can relate. I resist being shackled by strait-jacket schedules. What will probably prevent me from pastoring a megachurch serves me well in a mid-sized church. People in pain know they have an advocate at the ready. An ebb-and-flow system is user friendly. The parishioner's whims win when I'm asked, "Is now a convenient time, Pastor?"
This model's advantage is its spontaneity. Ebb-and-flow people match their mood and energy level with any one of several tasks they must do before the week ends. In other words, every week is different even though the same things must be accomplished.
I attempt to write the bulletin and construct the order of worship on Tuesday afternoon (it's due on my secretary's desk Wednesday morning). But if my head is swimming from issues discussed at the staff meeting earlier in the day, I may not be ready to think through even my route home in rush-hour traffic, let alone plan Sunday's service. Often my heart is in a better place to orchestrate an order of worship after leading Tuesday night Bible study or before breakfast on Wednesday morning.
Baker speaks for this style's adherents when he says, "There is so much variety in my life, establishing a routine is difficult. What happens today bears little resemblance to what happened yesterday or what will undoubtedly occur tomorrow. The needs of a given day plus the deadlines of each week determine the only rhythm I require."
As you might have guessed, sophisticated calendar systems are not next-of-kin to ebb-and-flow pastors.
Tim McIntosh, pastor at Granville Chapel in Vancouver, British Columbia, carries his Seven-Star Diary with him most of the time. But he admits, "My datebook is more a place to jot notes than it is a prioritizer or planner. I keep most of my appointments in my head."
Although pastors worshiping the goddess of flexibility tend to like their approach, it's not without its drawbacks. Sure it's user friendly, but it also can be abuser friendly, too. I can't count the number of days each month I arrive at the church hoping for an uninterrupted morning of sermon preparation only to become the prisoner of those dreaded pink telephone messages. Before I realize what has happened, both the day and my energy have escaped, and Sunday's guillotine is one day closer.
McIntosh agrees, "Even though I am a spontaneous person and operate best without much structure, there are times when I desire to be more in control. Too often I feel I am controlled by paper and people."
According to my research, ebb-and-flow followers are least satisfied with their organization (or lack of it). There is an underlying desire to find a more lasting freedom than, ironically, flexibility affords them.
Fitting in Personal Time
No matter the variety of routines, the high-wire act of ministry calls for balance. In all three paradigms, pastors contend with the demands between church and private life. None of the three systems guarantees balance.
All the pastors with whom I spoke valued their time with spouse and children. However, those following a weekly flow game plan, I observed, tended to be at home more evenings than those subscribing to the other two models. Typically, they are also early risers, at the church by 7 a.m., so when they come home for dinner, they have no need to return to church.
Family commitments realistic enough not to be consistently broken can act as balancing poles for those on the high wire.
Both Leslie Krober and Gordon Kirk make sure they have breakfast with their families (even if it means driving home from church and then returning). Don McCullough is always home for dinner with his wife and daughters: "That remains a constant even though my girls, who are now older, are off to their own evening commitments after we eat."
Weekly family traditions serve as a safety net beneath the high-tension wire of pastoral responsibilities.
Krober and his sons watch football together every Monday night. Carl Taylor keeps special weekly dinner dates with his wife each Thursday and Friday. Palmer and his wife generally get away to their beach house on Thursdays for two nights (where he does his preparation for Sunday).
McCullough "lives" for pizza with the family on Saturday night. Says McCullough, "My weekend routine (which includes hitting the sack by 8 p.m. on Saturday so to be out of bed at 4 a.m. each Sunday) and our sense of balance is dependent on that traditional family circle of pepperoni and mushrooms. I actually believe pizza is one of the major food groups!"
Although most of those with whom I spoke tried taking Monday as their day off sometime in their careers, most do not anymore.
Larry Baker voices a common view: "After Sunday's intense responsibilities, I'm so drained and empty, I'm basically brain-dead on Mondays. I finally realized I was getting shorted by using the day after Sunday as the one day for me. So I switched: Mondays I now go into the office, meet with our seminary interns, and tackle tasks not requiring much concentration. By Friday, I've got a jump on Sunday morning, and my head is clear. It's a much better day than Monday to give my wife and children."
By the time McCullough has preached three times on Sunday morning, he experiences a similar emotional drop: "Dr. Archibald Hart at Fuller Seminary helped me understand that feeling incredibly low when our adrenal system has fueled us through a several-hour high is only normal. This old maxim applies: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. I have found that my recovery time is faster when I don't fight the depression and exhaustion that hits every Sunday afternoon. If I go home and collapse, not attempting to do anything else the rest of the day, by Monday I'm in better shape, able to get a good head start on my week."
Those with whom I spoke agreed that their effectiveness, efficiency, and enjoyment is leveraged by a day of leisure when they replenish their expended energy pool. For some it is a round of golf. For others it is lunch with their mate. For one it is a solitary sail in his boat on the bay. For another it is a novel or extended time over the newspaper. The day one chooses is not nearly as important as the discipline to take one.
And what of the pastor's need for solitude?
Richard Foster trumpets the need for recovery from racing routines in his classic, Freedom of Simplicity: "I function best when I alternate between periods of intense activity and of comparative solitude. When I understand this about myself, I can order my life accordingly. After a certain amount of immersion in public life, I begin to burn out. And I have noticed that I burn out inwardly long before I do outwardly. Hence I must be careful not to become a frantic bundle of hollow energy, busy among people but devoid of life. I must learn when to retreat like Jesus and experience the recreating power of God."
When I asked those I interviewed about their patterns for recreating, I heard throat clearing and the sound of brain cells turning somersaults.
Leslie Krober confessed, "I'm afraid I'm terrible at factoring in time for myself. I'm a compulsive people helper and problem solver. That's where my energy gravitates, even on my day off."
His is not the only energy that responds to that unilateral gravitational pull.
More than one pastor would relate to the simple joy that accompanies an attentive heart, which, in isolation, observes God's world. The poem, Time For Me, written anonymously, says it well:
Looking through my window
nature lies secure, untroubled, unpressured, calm.
Deeply rooted trees standing upright
rustle in the breeze graceful, quietly being.
Today I feel one with them
no pressure, no people, no distractions, just time.
Time to sit, to think,
to let thoughts drift by
pausing on one here or there sifting, sorting, weighing.
In the quietness I see clearly,
make decisions, reach conclusions.
I feel more complete, sense of satisfaction in
having time for me.
Apparently most of us are still struggling to make space for such uncluttered time.
Time Is Sacred
Although differences existed in the way they viewed their weeks, most pastors I spoke with shared one significant belief: time is sacred and worthy of respect.
Unless the hours in a week are harnessed meaningfully, they become a wasted natural resource. Time waits for no one; time returns for no one. Pastors weep along with everyone else when, before we show up, the majesty of the moment has been dethroned. We grieve lost opportunities with our congregations, and we regret lost moments with our families.
In his book, In Praise of Play: Toward a Psychology of Religion, R. E. Neale noted, "Nothing is more characteristic of modern man than the complaint, 'If only I had time.'"
Christian apologist Michael Quoist adds, "Life is more hectic than we prefer it to be. We pause to regret this every so often but then rush off to attend to whatever is next on our list of responsibilities. But we treat it as a fact of life rather than as a condition that can be changed. And we seldom regard the condition as one which we have had a significant part in shaping."
Recently during a worship service, I interviewed a mail carrier in our community whose life story was written up in the newspaper. His love for his job is easily observed by those who are on the receiving end of his route. Flip Feeney is not just a mailman; he's a "pastor" with a letter pouch.
During the interview, Flip suggested a way for people to enjoy their work more. They should dissect a sheet of paper with a vertical line and then list the things they like about their work in the left column. They then should list the things they don't like on the right side.
"Change what you don't like about what you do or change the way you do it," Flip concluded. "If you can't make any changes, find another job."
I am beginning to evaluate just how satisfied I am with my ebb-and-flow identity. I know I have the ability to change if I really want to. The question remains: "What plan will make me more effective and a better steward of my time?"
Carl Taylor suggests we begin answering that question by identifying our areas of personal strength and giftedness and then experimenting with ways those muscles can be flexed.
Don McCullough, though, cautions against simply accommodating our strengths. For McCullough, the more realistic word is "balance."
"In every church situation we are called to do certain things that may or may not be something we do particularly well," he says. "It is just part of our call. To the degree that need matches giftedness, that's great! Realistically though, we need to discover what it is we can uniquely contribute to this congregation in light of what they need. Once we've done that, we can organize our time as best we can so to invest our unique abilities and focus on those tasks that depend on us."
Discovering our rhythm is much like jogging. When I'm in my stride, I'm oblivious to the pavement, the perspiration, and the pain. I feel I could challenge any world-class marathoner. But I don't always find my stride before the run is done. When I do, it's because I am conscious of various aspects of my body working.
There is no guarantee we will find the stride in our schedules unless we pay close attention to the issue of balance. However, in listening to those who have found their stride, there is no joy that compares with finding a rhythm that works for you.
Copyright © 1993 by Christianity Today
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