by Eddie Pipkin

Cleaning: Image by svklimkin from Pixabay

It’s pretty common for publications to run an article or two about spring cleaning as the weather warms up.  And just as individual homeowners can benefit from some decluttering and reorganization, institutions like local churches can profit from these good habits as well.  Of course, for neighborhood churches, spring is not a great time to undertake reorganization projects; there’s a lot going on in the spring: important things like Easter and the closing weeks of the school year. Summer, on the other hand, makes for a great season for taking stock and taking action . . . even as we’re practicing a more relaxed summertime pace.

With the exception of children and youth ministries, which do much of their most intense work during the summer months, it is the habit of many local churches for staff and key leadership to think of the summer season as a time to slow waaaay down and recharge.  This is a healthy impulse, honoring the need to nurture our mental and physical health by taking advantage of a quieter schedule to step off the relentless treadmill of day-to-day demands, but this healthy impulse can, like most things, be taken too far.  If we find ourselves lying low and coasting for a full three months, we are missing an opportunity – and such missed opportunities are likely to haunt us in the frenetic months that follow our lazy days.

Summertime being a naturally slower pace for the families we serve – many are taking time to get away themselves – it doesn’t make much sense to do intense or complicated programming from June through August, but the freedom provided by a less demanding daily schedule means we have the breathing space we have longed for to tackle some long-delayed “purging” and “re-imagining” and “re-organizing.”  Literally, we have time to go through those cluttered closets that have been driving us crazy.  Or that insanely unorganized collection of files on our laptop.

We can block some time, let’s say a solid month, to be generous to ourselves, in which we are unplugging and recharging, some constructive goofing off in the healthiest way possible.  But that leaves us with two months when we are back on task, but back on task at a pace that is different from the rest of our busy year.  We can take on these ‘deep cleaning’ and ‘deep thinking’ projects, but do so in a non-frenetic way, a summer pace in which meaningful work gets done but in a manner in which we also have time for extra rest and unhurried socialization, making frequent stops to smell the oft-cited roses.

Such projects can take two very different directions.  There can be the physical catch-up and clean house projects that align with traditional spring cleaning (in our case, summer cleaning) concepts.  For these reorganization, deep cleaning, and decluttering projects, it’s great to get some friends involved.  In fact, since summertime is peak time for children and youth to be around and involved, every church should be sure that some of their campus projects put these groups to work, giving them partnership in caring for some of the spaces that regularly serve their needs.  It’s called ‘sweat equity.’  Other helpers are willing to pitch in, too.  The key is to make it a party, and if you can make it a party for the people who are vested in some way in particular ministries that use those spaces, the buy-in is natural, and an additional reward is the way in which they may think differently about the spaces they inhabit.

Beyond the realm of physical decluttering and deep cleaning, however, the slower-paced months of summer are a great time for the mental equivalent: deep planning, administrative reorganization, vision realignment, and heavy weeding for our files and documents.  These can be individual goals that allow us to give ourselves fresh direction as fall kicks things back into high gear.  We can do much needed advance planning that keeps us on track and oriented towards success.  We can clear the decks and get rid of all that electronic clutter that we’ve been wading through to get meaningful daily tasks done.  These projects can also be accomplished in partnership with others, setting weekly or monthly goals that we then work on individually (preferably from poolside or a backyard hammock), then meet back together to compare notes and plot next stages.  We can use one another as cheerleaders and accountability partners.  We can schedule time for a sunset cookout or a daylong river float to recap our progress, talk about our aspirations, and dream of the future.  Summer allows time for meandering conversations that carry on right through to the s’mores around the fire ring

I am providing you with links to two recent articles on this topic, not so much from a ministry perspective as from a personal home organizing perspective, but the principles are universal, and the things that keep us from getting (and staying) organized at home are the same things that keep us from getting it together in our ministry spaces, whether it’s our desks, storage closets, shared workrooms, or classrooms.

Dana G. Smith, writing in the NY Times, has an article with great insights, called “‘Depressing Rooms’ and ‘Doom Piles’: Why Clearing the Clutter Can Feel Impossible.”  She writes about the recent higher visibility of the term “depression room” on social media like TikTok and the idea that clutter and catastrophic disorganization can be directly linked to struggles to mental health struggles:

The clutter that can accumulate when people are experiencing a mental health crisis is neither a form of hoarding, nor the result of laziness. The culprit is extreme fatigue, said N. Brad Schmidt, a distinguished research professor of psychology at Florida State University.

People are “oftentimes just so mentally and physically exhausted that they don’t feel like they have the energy to take care of themselves or their surroundings,” Dr. Schmidt said. “They just don’t have the capacity to engage with housecleaning and upkeep that they probably once did.”

A messy home can also contribute to feelings of overwhelm, stress and shame, making you feel worse than you already do. And while decluttering will not cure your depression, it can give you a mood boost. If you are struggling and it feels impossible to keep your surroundings tidy, here are a few tips on how to clean strategically to optimize your energy and your space.

Her most important advice is to “focus on form over function.”  Instead of thinking about the perfection of a perfectly cleaned and organized space, think about the way the clutter and disorganization impact your quality of life and your ability to get done the things you want to get done.  This is a good criteria for ministry!  Some mess in our spaces is a sign of life and activity, but too much makes it harder to do well the things we love.

Andee Tagle, writing at NPR’s delightful “Life Kit” website, suggests clear-cut strategies for moving past the stumbling blocks that keep us from addressing our chaos, “The decluttering philosophy that can help you keep your home organized.”  She focuses on developing patterns and disciplines that are tailored for your unique context:

She believes that keeping your home neat and tidy is a continual process. “Organizing is not a one-and-done task to complete,” she says. You have to take the time to “create systems that work for you.”

To that end Tagle denotes these tips (the numbered strategies are directly from her; the explanations are my summaries of her thinking – check out the link to her article for the whole thing):

  1. Understand Your Clutter.  Everyone’s clutter and chaos are a little different.  They have a personality that is linked to your personality, management style, phobias, and obsessions.  The more you are self-aware about why your clutter and chaos are uniquely your own, the easier to develop a successful management strategy.
  2. Start Small.  As in all projects, the totality of a decluttering project can be overwhelming.  Pick out a piece of it and tackle that.  You know how to eat an elephant!
  3. Take the Emotion Out of It.  Tagle suggests playing the role of neutral observer as you go through stuff.  How would you advise a friend who was looking at your clutter?
  4. Ditch the Fancy Storage Boxes.  Don’t get caught up in a whole ‘organizing the organization’ loop.  Creatively use what you have on hand to bring order and efficiency.  (This is good stewardship!)
  5. Make It Easy to Stay Organized.  Tagle writes, “The key to staying organized is to create practices that can be easily maintained.  Make a system that works for you.”  In my own experience, a key practice, when I feel like I’m done and ready to collapse into the hammock and read a few chapters of a mindless novel, is to do one last little thing I don’t really feel like doing – just knock that one extra quick chore out – the payoffs are big.  It’s a gift to my future self, and this habit builds chore resilience.

Thinking ahead to the upcoming summer months, how are you planning to leverage the naturally slower pace to change your work habits in meaningful ways?  How will you balance recharging your body, mind, and soul with doing some more leisurely paced deep work that advances your personal and institutional vision?  How will you change the ways you interact with others so that there’s room for expanded conversations and fun but valuable group projects that set you up for future success?  Slip into your flip-flops and share your comments below.