Finding a sustainable pace

One of the challenges in ministry is finding a sustainable pace. Ours is a culture prone to excess. (Our church culture often mirrors the broader culture in this respect too). In our work life this manifests itself in excessive labor (in the sense of working too long) and in excessive leisure (we have become addicted to entertainment because we’re so tired from our overwork). This is certainly the case more broadly than in ministry, but since I’m a minister I’ll stick with what I know best.

One of the challenges of working as a campus missionary is that staff are tied to two calendars that often conflict.

On the one hand, there’s the campus calendar (school starts in August and ends in May). There are regular breaks along the way and periods of intense activities too (like the beginning of each semester).

On the other, there’s InterVarsity’s organizational calendar. Since when school’s in session, our missionaries are expected to be giving themselves to their ministry with students and faculty, we often schedule our conferences, meetings, and other required events during school vacations. There are natural periods for reporting on the health of the chapters we work with (at the end of each semester) and for reflecting on personal and ministry goals (at the beginning of the year with period check-ins along the way). There are also periods of more intentional activity around raising support to fund the ministry. Summer is a prime time to engage in this work since there are limited numbers of students on campus. December 31 marks the end of the calendar year and it’s the deadline for making tax-deductible gifts to ministries like InterVarsity. June 30 is the last day of InterVarsity’s fiscal year and staff are required to have balanced their ministry budgets by that date.

Do you see the problem? If you think of a sustainable pace as a series of peaks (intense labor) and troughs (reflection, planning, evaluation) it’s entirely possible, looking at the scenario above, to never have any troughs. 

That’s a recipe for burnout. Unlike all other types of work, the effectiveness of a minister is rooted in his connection with God in Christ. Where the peaks of life and ministry cause the troughs of reflection and devotion to be leveled out, there is a decline in the effectiveness of the minister.

So what’s the solution? Here are some suggestions for avoiding the pitfall of over scheduling. These are things I practice myself and which I have suggested to some of the staff I supervise. They’re pretty obvious, but often the simplest things are the most easily forgotten or overlooked. [Note: much of this stuff isn’t original to me, where I remember the source I’ve attributed it.]

  • Plan on planning. According to MaryKate Morse (Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence, 158 – HT: Anna Gissing) excellent leaders spend 40% of their time in self-leadership functions. This includes professional reading, character development, continuing education, prayer, reflection, etc. It also include planning. It may seem like 40% is a huge chunk of time to spend this, but I guarantee it will make the other 60% of your time more effective.
  • Plan a year ahead. We’re almost to January so now is a good time to pull out the calendar and get down the date for every “big rock” you have in your work and family life. Make notes of congregational meetings, presbytery meetings, session meetings, conferences, travel for work or pleasure, etc. These are the “hard edges” to your calendar. Take a look at Mike Hyatt’s annual time block for one way to do this. I do this over the summer since our ministry year run July to June.
  • Plan on multiple levels. By the day. By the week. By the month. By the quarter. Don’t fall into the habit of planning simply by the year and by the day. You need to get your mind around each of these levels of planning. If there’s going to be a stretch of time that is especially busy (it could be a month, a week, or a year) make sure that you make intentional plans to dial it back a bit when that time is passed. David Allen refers to this as planning on the levels of the runway, 10,000ft, 20,oooft etc.
  • Learn to say “no.” You probably don’t want to say yes to everything or no to everything. Those who do the former burn out, those who do the latter are never asked again. You need healthy criteria for saying yes. Ask yourself: what do I really care about? What enlivens me? What am I good at? Say yes to projects that intersect with those questions in an affirmative way.


What have you learned about finding a sustainable pace for your profession and stage of life?

You might want to check out:

MaryKate Morse. Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence.

Wayne Cordeiro. Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion.

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