Ever heard “You don’t have to show up to every fight you are invited to”? Most pastors I know understand that not every intra-church battle is worth fighting. But few pastors live by a closely-related maxim: “You don’t have to grant every meeting requested of you.”
Pastors by nature are compassionate people who want to be there for their congregations. I get that. At the same time, you like everyone else only have 168 hours per week. If we are going to lead well, we have to be discriminating when it comes to how we spend our time, and an important part of time management is who we say “yes” to a meeting with.
On the surface, this sounds heartless for a pastor to say. But think about this for a moment: Your responsibility is to serve the WHOLE body of Christ. If you allow your people to set your schedule for you, they are all too happy to do so, but you will get nothing done.
You simply cannot allow your time—possibly the most precious commodity you have to give—to be stolen by people and events that will keep you from doing what you know God has called you to do. It may seem cold, but the fact is that the world is full of time-wasters—people who will suck the life out of you, and the effectiveness out of your ministry. When you allow that to happen, everyone you serve suffers for it. Conversely, when you refuse to give in, it may seem at first like the time-waster is suffering. But in reality, maybe he or she will learn as lesson as well.
In my experience, there are three predominant types of time wasters:
The Clueless: These tend to be the most innocent of the bunch, mostly because they never seem able to nail down a specific purpose for wanting your attention. “I need to have a meeting with you,” is their very simple and typical approach. When you ask them what they want to address, the best they can usually come up with is something general. And the less specific it this, the more likely you will talk about nothing substantive.
The Unmotivated: I’ve had many coaching relationships over the years. Most I look back on with fondness and thankfulness. But a few I simply look back on in frustration, because they did not use MY time wisely.
I remember one young man who would ask to meet with me every couple of weeks. We mapped out a “life plan” for his twenties that included the completion of his wedding plans with his fiancé, eliminating his student loan debt, buying a home, and securing a church family for he and his new bride. A year later, he had accomplished precisely none of this, yet still wanted to meet with me to “talk about the plan.”
Unmotivated people are in many ways like Bob Wiley from the movie “What About Bob?” As portrayed by Bill Murray, Wiley was an agoraphobic and hypochondriac who never left his home–except to see his therapist! For Bob Wiley, the therapist visit WAS the end game! He never intended to improve his own life or get better. As a result, he brought his therapists down with him.
Don’t let the guy from “What About Bob” steal your time. If there is no forward progress, stop taking meetings with them!
The Anthropocentric: The universe is a big place, and the earth now has more than 7 billion people on it. And occasionally, you will meet someone in your ministry who thinks all those people revolve around them–including you! This is the anthropocentric time-waster.
This is the individual who expects you to drop whatever you are doing whenever he or she calls. These people can cause you to forget that if you abandon plans that effectively serve the whole church simply because of the demands of one person, you aren’t being fair to others in your flock.
So how do you deal with time-wasters? Let me suggest four principles:
Principle 1: Written confirmation of meetings and their purpose. Never set a meeting with someone without confirming what it is you hope to accomplish. Agree together on the agenda and goals, and do it in writing!
Principle 2: Expectations as to meeting outcomes. This is simple mutual accountability. At the end of every staff meeting, those who work for me take away assignments, and so does their boss! We all walk away knowing there is an expectation on each of us that those assignments will be completed before our next meeting.
To be a good steward of time, you can’t just know what you want to get done during the meeting. You must also know what actions are expected to be generated as a result of the meeting.
Principle 3: Refusal of subsequent meetings until prior commitments have been met. Don’t let Bob Wiley get away with coming to you over and over again while he accomplishes nothing. If after a limited number of times together, it appears the other party is intentionally spinning their wheels, turn them loose in the ditch! Just because they have no desire to get out of it doesn’t mean you must be stuck there with them.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t leave the door open for them to come back. But it does mean you are putting expectations on them BEFORE they can come back. Simply ask,”Have you accomplished X and Y since we last met?” If the answer is no, then the response is equally simple: “Well, once you get that accomplished, give me a call and I’ll be glad to meet with you about the next steps.”
Principle 4: Don’t let it get to you. Developing a habit to saying “no” to time-wasters so you can say “yes” more often to the organization as a whole will inevitably tick some people off. They will be annoyed with you. Some will get upset with you. In those moments when the nasty emails come accusing you of “not thinking I’m important,” don’t give in to the guilt trip. And a sure-fire way to know if you have given in to guilt is if you allow your emotions to get the better of you.
Don’t be afraid to calmly say “I’m unavailable” or “We can’t meet until you have done x” or “We need to clarify our purpose for getting together.”
Pastors can be the worst at allowing others to hijack the time God has given them. Of course there are emergencies, and when those emergencies happen, you respond to your people with the pastoral care and concern that they need. But you also need to know how to define “emergency.” Many pastors don’t, and as a result, fall prey to the time-wasters, who subsequently restrain them from serving the entire church well. Your church does not revolve around the most demanding congregants. It revolves around Jesus. Make sure you behave accordingly and you will model Christ-centered time management for your people.