By Eddie Pipkin

Right about this time of year, it’s fun to take stock of all those New Year’s resolutions that everybody made and how they are all working out.  The gyms are looking less crowded, the local ice cream shop is back at full capacity, and people are peeking at their cellphones during dinner again.  Ah, normalcy!  It’s a great discussion topic for small groups and a terrific conversation starter if you don’t mind awkward excuses  And, of course, we should not exempt ourselves from a purposeful look in the mirror.  But one thing I can assure you, if my many ministry friends are any evidence: 2022 is neither the year when we’ll finally show up on time or when we’ll finally embrace the discipline of timely communication.  Or if it is, my friends have failed miserably in their valiant attempt at reform, bless their souls.

I have always been in the camp that one of the highest indicators of our professionalism and respect for others is represented by showing up to appointments on time, starting meetings on time, calling when we’ll say we are going to call, and responding to texts, emails, and messages in a timely fashion.

Over the last few months, I had an ongoing exchange with a paid ministry leader at a local church which went like this:

  • I sent an email about a project I wanted to talk about with this ministry leader. I received a response two-and-a-half weeks later which said, “Sorry, I’m really busy.  I will call you next month.”
  • Next month came and went. I sent a follow-up email: “Hey, I know you are really busy, and this is not an emergency, but I did really want to have that conversation.”  To which the ministry leader replied, “Sorry, it’s been crazy.  I have a free slot on ____ [three weeks from now] at 5:00 p.m.  Can we talk then?”  Me: “Okay, sure.”
  • Three weeks later, I received a phone message three hours before the reserved time saying that time was now not going to work (“Sorry, it’s been crazy!”). Could you talk now instead?  Called back and got through (with the caveat of “I’m going through the fast food drive, so, sorry, but I’ll have to interrupt our conversation to order and pay for my food).    We had the conversation, for which the ministry leader was more or less present.  We came up with a plan.  There were a couple of outstanding questions that I promised to get resolved by the end of the weekend.
  • Which I did. I sent a text and a follow-up email with the results of the resolution, but weeks have gone by and I have as yet received no response to either.

Now, this true story is almost comical in its scope, and no serious outcome depended upon it, but I have a pretty thick skin from a long time serving in ministry roles, and I also, therefore, have a lot of empathy for the truth of “It’s been crazy!”  It’s frustrating, though, and I can only imagine that a regular person who experiences the same kind of interaction will be utterly disheartened and disaffected.  (In a world in which we regularly wring our hands about too many people being disheartened and disaffected, it seems reasonable to ask whether our habits of interaction are not part of the problem, doesn’t it?)

I have recently had other texts and emails go unanswered until I made multiple attempts to get them answered.  Inevitably, the response is, “Sorry, it’s been really busy!”

That’s a lousy excuse.  Even if it’s true, it makes so many presumptions about other people’s time and the relative value of their ideas and concerns.  Here’s the damage we do:

  • We communicate clearly to people that their concerns are not a priority (and, therefore, they as individuals are not valued).
  • We give a clear signal that we are not dependable and cannot be counted on.
  • We empower a culture in which everybody in our circle gets a free pass to make such excuses. (Well, if you’re really busy, you don’t have to be accountable to these things – and people – which are less important.)
  • We devalue other people’s time, communicating that ours is clearly more important than theirs.
  • We scramble from emergency response to emergency response (or at least create the impression that we do), reacting to the loudest siren sounding in the moment, and in so doing, we become strategically ineffective.

Frankly, I think the biggest problem in this epidemic of late showings and slow responses is the hubris inherent in ministry.  Pastors especially – but all ministry professionals by proximity – are caught up in the thinking that the work we do is so important and holy that it is more important than the work, time, schedule, and priorities of others.  We walk into rooms routinely expecting others to be patiently waiting on us, understanding how busy we are and how important whatever the thing we were doing that made us late truly is.

Even as we make regular mistakes of poor schedule planning, poor preparation that makes meetings inefficient, and a casual attitude towards focus in general, we falsely attribute those failings to noble attributes of listening, service, and love.  It’s important to be honest, however, about what is deep listening in a crisis moment and what is just slackness described conveniently as righteousness.

Here’s an article from a young person, “7 Reasons It’s Important to Be on Time.”  These are not nuggets of wisdom from an old hand with decades of experience.  They are cogent insights from a person early-on in their career who is looking to be as efficient and purposeful as possible.  In addition to some of the things I already listed above, it included these ‘selfish’ insights:

  • By showing up on time (and also responding to others in a timely fashion), you’ll respect your own schedule.
  • By showing up on time (and also responding to others in a timely fashion), you’ll prioritize and better and organize more strategically. This means saying ‘no’ to things strategically so that you are setting priorities and honoring them – not just trying to game the system and squeeze everything and the kitchen sink in.

In researching this blog, I came across lots of articles about Jesus and time management (not so many about the imperative of pastors and other ministry professionals needing to show up places on time – apparently that is not a hot topic among ministry professionals and the constellation of “how to do ministry better” websites).  There was all sorts of advice, some of which I have already shared, but one line stood out to me – and, apologies, but I can’t even remember from which source it came:

“Jesus was not caught up in other people’s expectations.”

I think that is a powerful time management tool.  Obviously, as I have been arguing, we need to be respectful and attentive to the needs of others.  However, while that means that we are fully present as we listen and respond to their concerns, and we are timely in our response, it does not mean that their agenda has to become our agenda.

You can easily pick up on several themes in Jesus’s relationship to time:

  • Jesus had clear priorities.
  • Jesus took time out for people.
  • Jesus was disciplined about setting aside time for his own personal spiritual health.
  • Jesus took time to rest.
  • Jesus equipped leaders for the kingdom work and delegated important work to them.

Jesus did not let his deep connection to people or his focused sense of purpose derail these time management principles – in fact, the way he managed his time furthered his ministry goals.  Of course, the way that time and work were experienced in the Gospels is dramatically different from the way time and work are experienced in the 21st century.  What was considered a productive day then and what is considered a productive day now are dramatically different in terms of pace and the metrics by which we measure success.  In this sense, the church (and thinking about ministry management) has been completely co-opted by the culture.  Show us your reports!  Show us your receipts!

Jesus moves through his days with more of a natural rhythm.  He’s not checking his schedule on his smart watch.  He’s watching the world around him smartly.  He’s adjusting to the natural flow of human interaction.  Imagine if we bult our days around more of a natural flow, part of which allowed a space for the meetings we can’t seem to function without.  But the meetings would be a limited aspect of the organic flow, not the cornerstone around which our day / ministry are built.  If those last couple of sentences sound squishy as a management philosophy, here’s a practical version of the principle: I’ll do meetings – they have their place, after all, in the fabric of meaningful work – but I’ll only do them during these times, and here are other ‘blocked’ times when I definitely will not do them (with rare and worthy exceptions).

In the end, showing up on time and responding in a timely manner when people reach out to us are core disciplines.  Everybody struggles with them from time to time.  We can only be effective in addressing them if we have a clear personal management policy, and we are disicplined about observing it.

We are reluctant to resond to people when we think it’s going to be a difficult conversation.

We are reluctant to end one thing so that we can be on time to the next.

These are real problems, and we must address them honestly by having good, reflective questions when we encounter those moments.  We acknowledge what is happening, and we have a strategy for dealing with it.

We can respond to someone briefly, acknowledging them and pledging a lengthier response later.  That’s okay.  It recognizes their worth and the value of their issue, while giving you space.

We can say we need to leave a converation for now, so we can move on to the next obligation, while also pledging to return to it later.  That, too, is okay.  It’s downright healthy!

What category do you fit into it when it comes to showing up on time and prepared?  Are you calmly in place waiting for ‘the thing’ to start?  Or are you swooping in out of breath habitually five to ten minutes lates, so that everyone is always waiting on you?  Do you respond to communications from folks in a reasonable time frame so that they feel like that communication mattered?  If you have discipline in these areas, do you have any great hacks to share about how you keep all those balls in the air?  Or is the ultimate secret focusing on fewer balls?  Share your thoughts and alternate perspectives!