There is no shortage of activity in the pastor’s office these days. Everyone is busier than ever, pastors included.
But being active does not mean you are impacting the lives of your people. Entire mornings slip away as you process email, dabble in your sermon text, and have a couple conversations with church coworkers. All of a sudden it’s lunchtime and you haven’t gotten anything important done.
Why does that happen? What will keep us focused on the ministry work that matters?
The difference between activity and action
We need to recognize the difference between activity and action. By mere activity I mean the kind of piddling around and paper pushing that gives you the immediate gratification of being organized, but leaves you just as far from achieving your vision and goals.
It feels productive to empty your email inbox and sign your credit card receipts. But if you haven’t started planning this week’s service and have yet to work on that new ministry your church is rolling out soon, can you claim to have accomplished anything important?
Action, on the other hand, involves taking decisive steps toward what impacts the people under your pastoral care. Action requires us to be intentional and thoughtful. It is the place where the big picture and the nitty gritty details meet.
Why do we opt for activity over action? There are many reasons, but ultimately it is because activity is easy, but action is hard. It makes us feel secure and productive while we avoid the difficult but important tasks, which also happen to reveal our vulnerabilities. Things like following up with the member who makes us feel awkward, or getting to work on a sermon text that is filled with exegetical landmines.
A bias toward action
Since the distractions of busywork compete with our attentiveness to what really matters in ministry, we need to cultivate a bias toward action. This simply means that you are most often drawn to the work that is most important, even though it is probably your hardest work.
In their managerial classic In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman noted that the most important characteristic that separated average companies from the best companies was that the best companies had a bias toward action. More recently, Scott Belsky has resurrected the phrase in his productivity book Making Ideas Happen. Instead of batting ideas around ad nauseum, move quickly toward the first steps it takes to get those things going, even if you don’t know every step of the way. This mindset will help you get the important things done in ministry.
Am I saying that pastors should act just like managers? No, not exactly. Pastors need to be theologians, heralds, and shepherds. But the fact of the matter is there are many aspects to ministry that are vital, yet we avoid them. The idea of bias toward action will help you be more faithful and fruitful in ministry. It will drive you toward the most important priorities of your ministry, like sermon prep, prayer, and visitation.
How you can obtain a bias toward action
Before you think this is a “try harder to get the more things done” article, let me tell you were a bias toward action comes from. The only way we will be able to lean into the difficult, yet important, parts of our ministry is by God’s grace. This article – for all of its focus on the things we need to do in ministry – is really about relying on God’s grace.
Notice how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me.” Paul had a bias toward action, but the source of it was not a “do better” attitude, it was God’s grace.
Has God’s grace been effective in saving you? Then let it also be effective in you to work hard in ministry. When you feel distracted, rely on his grace. When you want to avoid the work that is most vital to your calling, pray for God’s grace. Let us labor for this, striving with his strength that works powerfully in us (Col. 1:29).