Too much to do and not enough time?

For the last two years I have had the privilege of walking with InterVarsity staff as they carry out the calling God has placed on their lives–to serve as missionaries to faculty and students at premiere universities. Over the course of my eight years on staff with InterVarsity, I have come to the conclusion that being a campus staff is a job that requires brutal focus, significant discipline, and persistence in discerning prayer.


There are an almost unlimited number of opportunities to ‘spend’ time and energy in something that is related to an element of your job description. Sometimes the thing that seems like the most inefficient use of time will be thing that God is inviting you to do–like, leaving a couple of hours free to prayerfully wander the campus and engage in conversation with staff, students, visitors, anyone who comes into your path. At other times, doing that may not be a wise and faithful use of your time.

One of the persistent realities that I have encountered, as have other staff, is that it seems almost impossible to plan a realistic amount of time to tackle an important project. Stress ensues as well as a sense of guilt at the thought of the missing the deadline. Not a fun way to live.

It turns out that this is an almost universal problem–it even has a name, Hofstadter’s law. The law simply states: “any task that you are planning to complete will take longer than you plan, even when factoring in Hofstadter’s law.” Read a piece in the Guardian on Hofstadter’s law.

So what’s the solution? It seems that there’s something about our brains that almost necessitate that we miscalculate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. There seems to be no way around it. The best way to account for this is to avoid trying to plan using estimates of time. Instead, try to keep a casual record of how long it took you to do a project like in the past. When you come around to a similar project, don’t plan it out step-by-step as a way to budget time. Simply appeal to past projects that you have actually successfully completed.

An example from my own ministry…

Ministry newsletter.

Initially I insisted that I could write, edit, and send a ministry newsletter in one day. After all, there’s not too much copy in a newsletter. In reality, the limitations of space and the desire to communicate effectively in a small number of words means that I need to budget two days. I figured that out after several years of always being annoyed at how long it took to get my newsletters out. If the letter is one of the two hard copy versions I send out then I add an extra day. Note: on newsletter days I am still accessible phone and may have meetings scheduled–the main project I’m working on, however, is the newsletter.

In your work, how do you get around Hofstadter’s law?

Reformed spirituality is missional spirituality

In yesterday’s post I said that Reformed spirituality can make a unique contribution to missional discipleship. Missional discipleship is a way of being apprenticed to Jesus that manifests a healthy rhythm of contemplation and action–inward and outward engagement–in service of the mission of God in the world. After all, as I mentioned yesterday, John Calvin didn’t so much denounce the spirituality of the monastics as he sought to democratize it by bringing it to all Christians.


Reformed spirituality can make some unique contributions to missional discipleship in several ways:

-It’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Each believer is, through the mediating work of Jesus, able to approach God. Each believer is gifted with the Holy Spirit in order to both convict of sin and empower for ministry. As a result each believer is a minister, a missionary sent to do the work of the kingdom in all of life. By this I mean that all Christians are able to participate in the mission of God in the world–the advancing of the kingdom of God and the restoration of fallen created order. We minister in different ways, but we all minister–we are all agents of reconciliation bearing witness to the Gospel of the Kingdom.

-It’s emphasis on the Pastor-Teacher as practical theologian. Reformed churches value the role of the pastor as a theological guide who both shapes the mind and connects that which is learned to the heart through practices–lived theology. The Reformed pastors is not simply a therapist who practices unconditional positive regard, he is a coach who points parishioners to the Gospel repeatedly but uses different words and different approaches at different time. She is not simply a lecturer in theology, but a shepherd who helps Christians to follow Christ faithfully in every season of life as guided by the Scriptures.

-It’s emphasis on exodus as a theological theme that undergirds the church’s identity.
For Calvinists, the church is an elect community who is abroad in the world for the purpose of following God and bearing witness to the reality that God’s grace and God’s love is more powerful than our sin we than our will. If missional is about being present in the culture rather than withdrawing from culture, the Reformed churches have a sense of being called into (and subsequently out of) a strange land that worships foreign Gods.

How to handle public criticism

If you’re a leader you will receive criticism. The only people who are immune from criticism are people who fail to take action, express an opinion, make an argument, or create something. In many ways, receiving criticism is a sign that you’re making a contribution to your organization, your church, or to society. Criticism is not necessarily the mark of a dysfunction organizational culture, although it can be. In many ways, the absence of criticism (disagreement) can be more symptomatic of organizational dysfunction.

The ability to effectively deal with criticism is a critical competency for leaders, especially for leaders of public organizations (like churches) that include people from a variety of backgrounds and fundamental beliefs. Not handling criticism well often leads to very public flameouts.


I’ve had my fair share of criticism over the years from more than one source and in more than one context. Dealing with criticism can be very difficult, especially it is about something that matters deeply to you. It can be tempting to throw in the towel. However, the places where we are most vulnerable to criticism, the places we care about most deeply, are also the places where we are most needed to invest ourselves.

In light of that I offer five ways to handle public criticism:

1. Do your due diligence. Think about what criticism may arise around your decision. Are they merited? Is the cost of the criticism greater than the value of the decision? Think about this before you place yourself out there so it will be settled in your mind.

2. Get the advice of trusted counselors. There is wisdom in a multitude of counsellors so make sure that you run your idea by several friends who can help you think through your decision.

3. Filter the voices. You need to think, in advance, about who are the voices you will listen to. If you have settled 1 and 2 it will be easier to deal with number 3. Don’t listen to any old Tom, Dick, and Harry as the English say. There will be online chatter. Some of it will be criticism that is helpful and constructive and offered in a generous spirit. Some will simply be snarky. You cannot defend your decision against all voices–choose well the voices you will engage.

4. Take action or make changes when appropriate. Sometimes you will have to change your decision based on the reality in the organization in which you lead. Don’t rush to do this and do not make your default a willingness to change as soon as there is push back. Do, however, have an idea of what or who will influence you to rethink a decision. When necessary, be willing to make a course alteration.

5. Own your decision. Nothing is more counterproductive than failing to own a decision. Often this comes in the form of blaming others for a change of course (#4) that you feel coerced into. If you change your mind, backtrack, or otherwise alter your course, admit that. If you’re not wrong, don’t back down. If you do back down, don’t play the victim. Simply state that given reality on the ground, you’ve decided to pursue a different direction.

Hearts and minds on fire

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

Lauren Winner is interviewed at Comment, a journal of Cardus (a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture). It’s an interview that’s worth reading. I’ll pull out some highlights below. Thanks to Andy Byers (@Byers_Andy) for the link.

Two Qualities of a minister…

 I teach future pastors at a divinity school because I believe that thinking well matters—I want my students’ future congregations to be guided by pastors who know how to think clearly, think well about (among other things) theology, politics, and history.

-Lauren F. Winner

Two qualities ought to be present and mutually-reinforcing in a minister: vital piety and a well-formed mind.

Parts of the church have elevated piety and made it to stand alone. A heart of fire is enough for these people, and they do not trust the mind. Others have emphasized the life of the mind and have come to distrust the heart.

In reality the two must go together–a heart burning with love to God and others as well as a keen mind with which one worships God and seeks to know God through His self-disclosure in Scripture. 

Five books you should read…

Reading is indispensable for those in leadership, especially for those whose leadership is in the church. Guiding a community of people is a complicated task at the best of times, especially when that group of people are “strangers and aliens” in the midst of a culture that no longer (if it ever really did) understands its story in the story of God.

The minister has an essential task of being rooted in the redemptive history of God and, at the same time, interpret and apply that story to a people who are also located in the world (which has a competing story). It’s impossible to do either of these things without reading. The Biblical world requires both knowledge and understanding. The contemporary world also requires hermeneutical skill and tools. The minister is, as John Stott’s book puts it, between two worlds.

In what ways do you think it important for ministers to be trained?

Embracing our post-Christendom future

by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

We are living in a post-Christendom era–a time in which the influence of the Christian church has become significantly diminished. Post-Christendom is not post-Christian. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is as powerful as it ever was, but it’s transformative work will take place despite resistance rather than with the support of society.

Opinions differ on where we are in the process of decline, but most agree that the age of a “Christian America” has come and gone. To the extent that America is Christian that Christian faith is increasingly more akin to moral therapeutic deism described by sociologist Christian Smith.

I recently read two articles that are worthy of your time:

  • On The Telegraph blog Tim Stanley argues: “…It’s perfectly possible to be a Christian within a society that regulates or proscribes religious practices. The Christians in classical Rome or the Catholics in communist Poland proved that.” However, removing the influence of Christianity from a culture creates an undesirable alternative: “A society that has no moral point of reference beyond the reason of the individual (and who, in their right mind, would trust that?), or the ever shifting law of the land, is bound towards selfishness and tyranny.”
  • Timothy Tennent of Asbury Theological Seminary notes that we have a huge opportunity afforded by this post-Christendom period. That is the chance to recover a robust Christianity “finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom.” We’re not there yet. Tennent describes our depressing current reality: “We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn.  The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.”

It’s an exciting and alarming time to be a Christian, especially a Christian in ministry leadership. While I do not know what the future holds, I know the God who holds the future.

Alone in the church

Diane Paddington has an interesting post at The Well, online journal of Women in the Academy and Professions (an initiative of InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries). You can read it here.

Paddington names the reality for many professional women in the evangelical world: their gifts are often highly recognized in the workplace, but not in the church. A fin

Take a read and let me know what you think.

[Repost] How to follow well

I am on vacation this week so I am offering some older posts that remain relevant. I’ll be back online Monday.

Brad Lomenick of Catalyst posted this excellent list of characteristics of good followers. Every leader is a follower so take some time to scan the list and ask yourself: how good am I at following?

So here are a few thoughts on following:

1. Good followers are great finishers. They get the job done. Take projects across the finish line.

2. Good followers anticipate. They understand what needs to be done next before others, and are always looking for ways to make the process better.

3. Good followers criticize in private, and praise in public. Enough said on that.

4. Good followers are trustworthy. When given an assignment, a leader can be assured that it will get done. This is incredibly important.

5. Good followers are vision copycats. They take on, embody and live out the vision and mission of their leader, and of the organization.

6. Good followers make their leader better. They push their leader, and know how to lead up appropriately and intentionally.

Why business models don’t work in the church

Skye Jethani interviews business author Jim Gilmore over at Out of Ur. Turns out Jim’s book The Experience Economy has become a favorite for church growth consultants. According to Wikipedia:

Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product – the “experience”. More advanced experience businesses can begin charging for the value of the “transformation” that an experience offers.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this thesis could easily be applied to churches in North America. The purpose of the worship service becomes delivering an experience that will be memorable for the congregant–religious theater that “adds value” to the life of the religious (or marginally religious) person.

In a sense, a worship service is theatre. The problem with the application of Gilmore’s thesis as I have it above is that it posits the congregation as the audience. Instead, Christian worship is an audience with God–we perform, to the extent that we can use that word, for the pleasure of and to proclaim the worth of God. 

Interestingly, Gilmore himself is aghast that church growth consultants and pastors are flocking to his book. Why?

Because business is the most corrupting influence on the visible church today.

Gilmore contends that in emulating the business world, the church has lost its foundation in the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the administration of discipline:

The talk of “multi-sensory worship,” the installation of video screens, the use of PowerPoint, having cup-holders in sanctuaries — and I’m not talking about for the placement of communion cups — and even more ridiculous applications really took me back. I even read of a pastor who performed a high-wire act, literally–above his congregation. All of this effort to enhance the so-called “worship experience” arose at the same time that I detected a decline in the number of preachers actually faithfully preaching the gospel through sound exposition of the scriptural text.

Gilmore has been influenced heavily by the work of Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. The church acting like a business is misguided because the two occupy different spheres of culture and creation and work toward different purposes or ends.

The church exists for the purpose of rightly worshipping God and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the redemption of humanity. Businesses exist for the purpose of contributing to the common good by creating/facilitating the exchange of goods and services for what is called in contract law “consideration” (i.e., money or other value). The church doesn’t have a product to exchange for money or some other thing of value.

In fact, Gilmore goes so far as to say:

The church does not exist to help guide transformations, and this goes for two types of transformations. The church has no role in guiding personal transformations in individuals, which only contributes to turning Christianity into what Christian Smith has described as therapeutic moralistic deism. Neither should the church see itself as guiding collective transformations–ushering in some new worldwide ethos-system, the kind of “parousia” nonsense that Brian McLaren fantasizes about.

These are strond words and while I understand (I think) why he would say them, I am not sure that I entirely agree. After all, discipleship is one of the purpose of the church and discipleship is marked by growth in Godliness or holiness, which is a personal transformation that happens in the context of community. This is not, of course, the primary purpose of the church. But it is a purpose of the church.

So while I applaud Gilmore’s reticence to apply his work to the church context, I think he may be just a little carried away by defining the church along the narrow lines of Word, sacrament, and discipline. What do you think?

Can you create community?

“Community will start again when people begin to do necessary things for each other again.” – Wendell Berry (Morris Allen Grubbs, ed. Conversations with Wendell Berry, 75).

I’ve been reflecting on what seems like an innocuous little quote. Institutions like churches and universities spend a great deal of money in the name of “creating community.” Initiatives and programs are started and funded with the purpose of bringing into being that utopian idea of “community.” Berry’s simply (and profound) observation undermines what is often an overly consumerist approach to creating community.

Some reflections:

    1. Community is not a thing to be created; it is shared activity. Community occurs when we give our shared attention and effort to something outside of ourselves.

    2. Community arises most deeply in shared “necessary things.” Healthy community implies that we rely upon our neighbors. It’s almost impossible to really rely on someone in the context of leisure or luxury. This isn’t to say that leisure or luxury are always bad only that they are limited and, of course, to some extent (especially luxury) they are optional.

    3. Community impllies reciprocity or mutuality. We need and are needed. Community cannot be uni-directional.

These values bring to mind my recent trip to Quarryville, PA. At the 2000 census the population of Quarrville was 1,994 (it occupies 1.3 sq miles of land). That means that the borough of Quarryville is about the same size as InterVarsity as a national movement and less than half the size of the university where I do collegiate ministry.

If you spend much time around the town, you’ll notice that agriculture is the primary means of sustaining a family. There are lots of farm-owners and other farmworkers around. There seem to be some dairy herds as well as land that’s producing crops.

You get the sense that there is a great degree of community in that place. It’s not the sentimental sort of community that I often fall prey to. Rather, it’s a robust form of community that for a suburban person might even feel at times gossipy, exclusive, or even provincial. However, it is real community marked principally by what Berry notes above: doing necessary things for one another.

We long to find community, but our modern consumer values mitigate against it. Consumerism makes community difficult because we come to believe that we ought to be able to buy our way out of needing other people (by purchasing a tool, hiring a handman, etc). It makes community feel burdensome. It also belittles necessary things. Who wants to spend their lives doing chores? I certainly do not, but it is entirely possible that our aversion to things mundane is detrmental to the development of our souls in a Godward direction. After all–spiritual formation is, as Eugene Peterson has written, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Mile 26 of a marathon might be a high, but most of the preceding 25 are fairly gruelling (or so I imagine).

We desire nothing so much as “to be named and placed” (Craig Goodwin, Year of Plenty, 80). And there’s no better way to experience this than to get down and dirty and do some necessary things, together.