By Eddie Pipkin

Overspilling trash cans, overpacked suitcases, overloaded trailers, and overtaxed wifi networks!  Seems like everywhere I look in the past couple of weeks, people are trying to cram too much of whatever into too tiny a space.  This has been true in ministry, too: overscheduled calendars, overstuffed emails, overdone sermons, and overcooked ideas have been . . . well . . . overflowing!  It’s time for us to stop overdoing it.  It’s time to fight the cram!

The cram plagues institutions and individuals everywhere.  Its bloat can cause anxiety and confusion, frustration and futility.  It’s the result of trying to stuff too much stuff into a designated interval (because for ministry, this cramming problem is almost always related to time management – sure, there are storage rooms out there that desperately need a referral back to our spring cleaning blog from a couple of weeks ago – but the real, chronic cramming action involves our disjointed balance between time and content).  Our minds need a little more elbow room!

Here is why the cramming happens . . .

  • We’re trying to do too much with too little. One of the classic symptoms of an under-resourced ministry is when we find too few people trying to do too much too often.  Even for big staffs with big budgets, there will be busy seasons, but if we live in a perpetual state of chaos and careening from one out-of-breath deadline to the next, we either need bigger teams and bigger budgets or to be taking on less.  Let’s remember: a few things done really well always trumps a long list of things done poorly.
  • We’re terrible editors. It’s always more difficult to cut things than to add things.  This is true whether we are writing, planning, or executing.  When we have any idea, it’s tough to set it aside or save it for a rainy day.  If we’ve labored over a paragraph, it’s tough to strike through those words.  If we’ve planned eight steps in a given process, it’s tough to skip from step three to step five.  But our ministry meals are the tastiest when we cut the fat and serve up the lean.  It is the extra work – the words we excise, the micro-planning we end up not implementing – that gives depth and excellence to the things we keep.  Emotionally, it feels like we have lost something valuable whenever we cut something out, but that work lives on in the fullness and focus of what remains.
  • We’re mediocre organizers. Any meeting, program, event, presentation, document, sermon, or even conversation that has not received a little organizational preview and structuring is going to suffer from bloat.  The organizational phase is when the editing happens.  And good organization does not mean that we’re not able to improvise or “follow the Spirit.”  Excellent organization means we are primed to improvise as needed and follow the Spirit with confidence.
  • We’re excellent procrastinators. When we put things off on the front end, we inevitably increase the load on the back end.  Organizational procrastination works a lot like stress eating.  We frenetically indulge as a way to offset our anxiety (see the note below on creating the illusion of productivity).  Procrastinating means less organization, and as noted, less organization means willy-nilly, haphazard cramming, which leads to more anxiety.  Vicious circle.
  • We’re gifted illusionists. Whenever we are in cram mode, it feels like (and looks like) we’re getting a lot done.  But we’re probably not.  Self-awareness means we are able to differentiate between the sugar high of frenetic activity that feels like real work and . . . real, purposeful work.

Here is where the cramming happens . . .

  • Schedules: It feels that we have to fill every hour of every day with meetings and aggressive tackling of to-do lists, but it’s essential that we build in some space for recovery and ruminating. Time and again, studies have shown that we are ultimately more efficient and effective when we schedule designated downtime into our workaday routines.  Also, we just need some “catching up / following up” time, and we should avoid the practice of scheduling back-to-back meetings.  Back-to-back meetings are a scourge that means latter meetings are almost certain to start late, and mental fatigue (sometimes even bladder fatigue) are built into the plan.
  • Programming: Programming and event bloat can happen on the macro or micro level.  That is, we have too many events scheduled, or we can have events that are crammed too full with content.  I was at a well-organized and well-led youth rotation last week that got to the “what the Bible says about this topic” point of the evening and followed the classic break-into-small-groups-and-each-group-gets-assigned-a-Bible-verse format.  The small group I broke off with wrestled with their verse for a while, but we ran out of time, and there was no space left for the larger group to come back together and share what they learned.  The group moved on without a comprehensive or shared understanding of what scripture had to say on that topic.  I would suggest it would be more fruitful to assign the same passage to each small group, let them work through it with a few peers, and then reconvene as a larger group to share insights and reach a consensus about the passage’s importance.  In any programming setting, it is crucial to be clear on the take-away.  What do we want people to walk away having learned or experienced?  If we try to cram in too much, we can undermine that outcome.
  • Communications: Churches are routinely sending very long emails / enews updates, and the truth is that most parishioners are not taking the time to read them in full.  Often, churches organize these emails / enews updates in a chronological format, with what is happening most imminently as the top headline and what is happening farthest in the future as the last article.  But imagine an organizational structure in which we mixed up that order or, even better, had a clear strategy for what was the most important (from a vision standpoint) for people to focus on.  We would probably serve our ministries better to have more frequent, but easily digestible postings of news / announcements (maybe two to three times a week, with a different area of ministry focus for each communication, such as a worship focus, service focus, and growth focus).  Even in the once-a-week newsletter format, we can adopt the strategy of short blurbs with clear links to expanded info for those who are interested.  This is a layering approach in which we make it easy and fast for people to scan opportunities, but we offer easily accessible deeper dives for those who want to know more.
  • Sermons: I wanted to write about this because I see it so often, and it is an area in which pastors could exercise some writing and presentation discipline to connect with their listeners more powerfully.  The temptation to cram a maximum amount of comment into a 20-30 sermon stems from noble impulses.  First, if we have invested ourselves fully into the research and deep thinking that produces an outstanding sermon, it is natural that we want to shoehorn as much of that wonderful content into what we share as possible.  All the background.  All the minutiae.  Every Greek derivation and Hebrew analogy.  Every great joke we came across that touched even tangentially on the subject.  This natural inclination is compounded by feedback that people “really want to be fed” and “want to go deeper into the Word.”  The more footnotes, examples, and quotations we include, the more biblically nutritious meal it feels like we’re serving.  But there’s a difference between an academic seminar on Romans 8 and a sermon that anchors a worship service.  People can process only so many principal ideas in a sitting, and we should be crystal clear on what those actionable ideas are – the ones we want people to leave with and take into the world for application time.  The details we pack our presentation with should serve to flesh out those principal ideas, not convolute and confuse.

Each of these topics could be more fully explored.  Each is a candidate for its own future blog – and if there is any one in particular that you’d like to see us tackle in this space, just give it a shout-out in the comments section.  The overall point is that we have habits as leaders, and if one of our habits is cramming, we are not serving ourselves or are ministries well.

Where do you see signs of cramming in your own ministry?  What bins are overflowing to the detriment of your goals?  What do you need to edit?  Where do you need some space?  Keep it simple . . . superstars!