When I recently encountered Gillian (not her real name), she was in a hurry as usual. I asked how she was doing, and in response she enumerated all the things she was doing at church and her young children’s many extracurricular activities. I grew tired just listening. Although she initiated our coffee break, I felt like I was a nuisance as she looked at her watch and checked her phone whenever it buzzed. After we parted company, I recalled that every time we meet, Gillian is on the run, never fully present, and always looking toward the next appointment. I noted that whenever we get together, I begin to feel rushed as well!
Gillian’s story mirrors the realities of ministerial life. She is a high-functioning, effective minister. Her church is growing. She is active in her denomination’s regional body and well-respected. Yet, she lives her life on the run, always harried and weary, and never giving full attention to her family or spiritual life. She is smart and well-educated, but her sermons often suffer from lack of reflection. Like another externally successful pastor I know, Dean, she routinely becomes sick following Christmas and Easter as a result of her frenetic schedule. Dean confesses that he needs to slow down and simplify his life, but he admits that he’s on a treadmill and believes that slowing the pace will harm his church. Both Dean and Gillian need to pause a moment to take time for ministry.
Time is a profoundly theological issue, reflecting our understanding of our relationship with God and our sense of vocation. While we can’t manage time, we can intentionally slow down time, aligning our experience of time with God’s everlasting and abundant life. We don’t have to live as the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who races about without clear direction, repeating the mantra, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” We can have the time of our life, recognizing that life is filled with unexpected occurrences, by living our lives more gently and intentionally, and claiming small Sabbaths every day.
I believe that a leisurely attitude toward time is essential to healthy and life-changing ministry regardless of the tasks and appointments on our calendar. A leisurely attitude toward time helps us savor the moments of ministry and relationships and creates a spacious environment for those who seek our pastoral care. Too often when people encounter their pastors, the pastor gives the impression that he or she is being interrupted and wants to conclude the encounter as quickly as possible to get onto something more important. Such busyness, however, sends a negative message to congregants and visitors – you really aren’t that important to me, your problems really aren’t that serious, and I the pastor must focus on what really matters!
I believe pastors can make friends with time and transform their encounters with congregants and visitors. Nearly everyday someone knocks on my study door and begins their conversation with, “I know you’re busy.” My response is typically “No, I’m not busy. I have all the time in the world right now. Come in!” I have learned to cultivate a spirit of leisure which creates an atmosphere of calm hospitality. This isn’t an accident but the result of certain spiritual practices that transform time from scarcity to abundance. While there are many other positive practices, suited to a pastor’s age, family situation, congregational context, and personality type, many pastors have gained a new experience of time from the following practices:
First is the practice of contemplative prayer. In silence, we experience everlasting life. In focusing on God, we gain perspective on life and let go of the need to control our calendar.
Second, we can take time to pray the moments of ministry. I use a simple breath prayer whenever I go from one task to another. I breathe deeply and pray, “I breathe God’s spirit deeply in.” I say this prayer throughout each day: logging onto the computer, checking e-mail, as I begin to study and write, when I pick up the phone to call, answer the phone or check my messages, as I hear a knock on the study door, or greet our administrative assistant. This simple prayer weaves together the many tasks of the day into a tapestry of grace.
Third, the Benedictine counsel to “see everyone as Christ” changes the quality of our encounters from rushed to spacious. I pause whenever someone comes into my study or as I enter a hospital room to experience the holiness of the other. You can’t hurry holiness; you must let it emerge in the spaciousness of the moment.
Fourth, monitoring our emotions and energy throughout the day helps us see if we are succumbing to fatigue, hurry, stress, and impatience. If I experience a negative mood emerging, and am able to adjust my schedule, I change course by taking a short walk, walking to the country store or library, or reading a few pages of a recreational book.
Finally, it is important to attend to the dynamic balance of ministry, study, family, and spirituality. A healthy life involves taking time to be present in all the important areas of life. If I am neglecting one area, I try to focus on it later in the day or week.
We all fail in our attempts to be intentional about making time our friend. As a monk once confessed, we are always falling and getting back up again, over and over. Our commitment to making time for ministry through prayer and simplicity, and seeking dynamic balance, will create a spacious environment for our congregants, greater for well-being for us, healthy intimacy in our relationships, and depth and creativity in our preaching, teaching, and problem-solving.