The truth about time management

An endless amount has been written about time management. I’ve read a lot of it myself, and written a certain amount, too. I’ve been interested in this topic from the beginning of my ministry.

The thing is:

There’s a hoax being perpetuated that time management is essentially about technique.

Sometimes this hoax is presented this way: All you need are the right tools: paper planner, online calendar, tools to block addictive websites.

Sometimes this hoax lies behind needing the “right system,” from Getting Things Done (a complicated system I used to use to great effect) to Steven Covey to InboxZero. All these systems have value when used consistently.

However, none of these are enough. Most of them ignore the emotional and spiritual side of time management. Getting the right systems in place can really help with this, but they are not enough.

So here’s the truth. And you know this deep down.

Managing time is really managing yourself, especially your emotions.

Everyone has persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the moment that keep us from getting important things done. For example:

  • “I can’t say no to this person because they will be upset with me.” So I say yes to something I don’t want to do that isn’t in line with my goals.
  • “I’ll never get it all done.” So I feel so overwhelmed I do nothing, or spend hours online.
  • “I’m afraid about the budget for next year-what does it mean for our ministry, not to mention my salary.” So I procrastinate preparing for the finance meeting or calling the treasurer for an update.

We’re not always this conscious of these feelings, but they keep us from engaging with the challenging work we have to do.

So, what can we do about this? First, we can pray about it. Trust me, the practice of meditative prayer can help with emotion awareness and management. Everyone has lots of thoughts and distractions in meditative prayer, and meditation gives us the opportunity to practice noticing them.

I’ve been spending just a few short minutes in meditation every morning, and it’s astonishing how many thoughts I can have. I come back to a breath prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” and then I’m off thinking about–often, what I have to do that day, or what I did yesterday. Or, more likely, what I didn’t do yesterday and should have, and what are the ramifications of that and…and…and…. Then, once again I have to bring myself back to the present moment.

Over time, as we practice bringing our attention back, we learn habits that can help us with those challenging thoughts and emotions that throw us off track. The value of meditation is not simply to help with productivity, of course, but this is a in important benefit of regular practice. St. Teresa of Avila talked about being Martha and Mary at the same time: to be busy, yet meditatively aware of God’s presence as we work.

The task is to bring our attention back.

This task, right in front of me.

This person I’m talking to.

This email I have to write, not the one that just came in.

So I am a big fan of detailed planning for the day and the week ahead. I love tools and techniques. But ultimately, they won’t do enough to get you where you want to go. As spiritual leaders, let’s go deeper.

How do you bring a spiritual awareness to your work day by day? Comment below and let me know.



Take a stand at church (and keep your job)

take a stand Leadership means you have to say things that not everyone wants to hear. You know this. I know this. Even your board may know this. But a lot of people still resist it.

So how is leadership looking in your life right now?

Do you have a bold new leadership direction you want to call people toward?

Are you facing  people who want to control everything in the church?

Do you feel called to speak out about public issues of today?

In any of these cases, you take a risk when you speak out.

Now, you can never eliminate risk. But here are some ways to reduce it and stand in your leadership.

1.   Get your thinking clear. What do you think about the issue at hand? What are the principles and values that inform you? Write it down. Get feedback from a thoughtful colleague, coach or mentor. Feedback is no substitute for doing your own thinking; however, it can help step back and  see things you might have missed, reflect on your own anxiety, and consider the implications.

2.   Prepare the ground. If you are making a bold move, you can’t do it alone. You need allies. Lovett Weems suggests in the case of a new initiative that you ask the question, “Who are the people without whom this will not happen?” (I heard him say this at the recent Ecumenical Stewardship Center conference, and I’ll never forget it.) Have a conversation with those people, and get their input. Genuinely listen. You may want to adapt your plan based on the feedback. Likewise, if you are dealing with challenging individuals who are making church life a misery, you can’t manage it alone. You need others who will stand with you. And if you are going to take a controversial stand on a public issue, run it by the most mature individual in your congregation, regardless of their perspective on the issue. I wish I had done this when I was a pastor. I would have saved myself and others a lot of grief and frustration.

3.   Take your stand. Take a deep breath, and preach the sermon, or have the difficult conversation, or make your statement. Do your best to be in your own skin, as authentic and honest as you can be about your position. Speak from your heart. Don’t tell others what they ought to do, think or believe. Don’t try to talk them into anything. Don’t be judgmental or scolding. Instead, use the word “I.” “I think” “I believe.” You may feel anxious. That’s all right. It’s about regulating your anxiety, not eliminating it.

4.   Observe the reaction. When you take a stand, there will be a reaction. This is not personal. It is part of the automatic reactivity in a church system (and other systems, too). Get curious. You may be surprised. Your relatively neutral response to the reactivity can have an enormous impact. This doesn’t mean you change your point of view on the issue. Rather, it means you are able to manage your emotions when people react, even when they criticize or demonize you.

5.   Stay connected. Don’t avoid the people who disagree, even the ones who are upset. It is tempting to cozy up to the ones who like what you are doing, and even to complain about “those people.” Don’t do it. If some people are behaving badly, you may need thoughtful lay leaders to help you respond, but that’s very different from complaining

6.   Let go of the outcome. You can’t control whether others agree with you or not, come along or not, do what you want or not. They will decide. Continue to be curious about what happens and where people take it. Remember, this is just one conversation out of many in a years-long ministry. Trust that God is with you and with them as you move (inch?) forward together.

When have you bravely taken a stand? What happened? And when is the next time you’ll take another?



Service to your community: a new resource

serviceI started reading Meredith Gould’s Deliberate Acts of Kindness while I was waiting at the hairdresser. When she said, “I’m thinking about looking for a place to volunteer,” I said, “Have I got a book for you!” I knew it could help her find the right place for service.

Meredith Gould covers the bases in this book, an updated version of an earlier book. She begins with the meaning of service in several major religions. She offers a valuable process of discernment of whether and what you are called to do in service. And she gets down to the nitty-gritty of what to do when service is not as idyllic and inspiring as you thought it would be. She talks about how to deal with the stress of service, what to do about problems in organizations where you may be serving, and even what are the telltale signs of spiritual abuse.

Despite the serious topic, Gould’s witty tone draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning. It’s a quick read (102 pages), although the thoughtful writing exercises in every chapter are worth the time to take yourself deeper. One of the early exercises has you ask yourself, “Which acts of generosity and kindness meant the most to me?” And along the way, in the chapter entitled, “The Shadow Side of Service,” Gould has wonderful sentence completion exercises like “I’ve trouble cultivation compassion for….”

Deliberate Acts would be a terrific study book for church people who want to do more or are burned out on doing the wrong thing for too long. In addition, for clergy who may say “yes” too quickly to community service opportunities, the book can help you discern where best to put your energies outside the congregation.

I’ve heard many people in recent months say they want to do more than fret and stew or obsessively check social media and the news. Here is your answer: Read Deliberate Acts of Kindness, do the exercises, and discern where you are called to take action—the right action for you, right now.

I want giving to your ministry to be bigger than ever

giving to ministryDo you want to raise more money in your fall campaign? (I hope your  answer is, “Yes.”) Well, there are no guarantees, but I can promise that you are more likely to help your people be more generous if you do the following four things.

  1. Prayerfully set a goal. It’s hard to make progress if you don’t know where you want to end up. Even if your church has been struggling to meet the budget, make your goal a little bigger than you think you can achieve. If something big has happened, like your biggest giver died or moved away, take that into account. But make the goal a bit of a stretch. You may have already set your goal. Consider increasing it, at least a little. Even if you’ve got your plan in place (I hope you do!), but haven’t set a goal, do it now.

When I say prayerfully, I mean that literally. Do more than have a cursory opening prayer for your meeting. Even if your team is filled with hard-heated business types, push them a little and try one of the following:

  • Take a few moments (or more) in silence as you consider the number.
  • Stop and pray aloud in the middle of the meeting for guidance and wisdom.
  • Ask people to go home and pray about it in between meetings (and do so yourself).

If you take the time to do this, you may come up with a different number than you would have. Even if you don’t, you’ll have a different relationship with the goal as you move forward.

Then, invite the whole board to join you in prayer as you reach for this goal. Ask other people in the congregation to pray about it, too.

  1. Celebrate what is right. Avoid saying, “We are really struggling this year and we need your help to keep the doors open.” I think you need to be honest about challenges, but you can frame it in a positive light. Look for as many things as possible that have happened in the last year that you can honestly celebrate: “We had two kids go to camp this year!” “We fed 100 families a month from our food pantry!” “We created one more position on staff–and here’s the effect that had on our ministry!” Tell the story, using pictures, experiences, and emotions. Resist the urge to use a lot of numbers, and instead focus on the impact.
  2. Ask. Ask. Ask. You know what Jesus said: “You don’t have because you don’t ask.” It’s not just true about prayer: It’s true about giving, too. I recently read a story about Fred Trump, the president’s father, who received a visit as part of his Presbyterian church’s annual campaign. He usually gave $200. The visitor asked him for $10,000. He said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve, and I admire you for it so much, I’m going to write a check for that amount.” (Gwenda Blair, The Trumps, p.510) Even if you are not making personal visits as part of the campaign, explicitly ask your leaders to support it. (And your board members are generous givers, right?) Boldly ask people from the pulpit to prayerfully assess their giving and respond.
  3. Celebrate the response. Publicly report the results in a positive way. If you reach or surpass your goal, make a big deal about it. Mention it in worship, on more than one Sunday, so people who aren’t there every week hear about it. Even if you don’t reach your goal, you can still thank you congregation for supporting the ministry of the church. My best tip: Thank individual givers in writing. It has an even greater impact now that people hardly ever get any regular mail. They notice.

I’ve seen these strategies work for ministers and congregations for years. Start with #1 today!




Healing Spiritual Wounds: a great resource for pastoral ministry

healing spiritual woundsDo you have people in your congregation who have been wounded by the church? Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, author of Healing Spiritual Wounds, knows the territory of church intimately. She knows both the pain and the gift of it. Merritt offers a way toward healing while retaining or recovering a connection with God. Her gentle yet challenging tone can help pastors both review their own story and understand more deeply the experiences of those who have been hurt by the church and people of faith. Merritt’s candor about her own story shows the way, as well as the stories she shares about the experiences of others. Her writing is beautiful and powerful.

I particularly liked the exercises at the end of each chapter and intend to use some of them myself in my own life. She starts in the first chapter with great sentence completion exercises. One that caught my eye was this:

“My religious upbringing taught me that I was…” I could freewrite about that for days. Try it. Just take 10 or 20 minutes and write, by hand, anything that comes to mind.

Another wonderful suggestion that anyone could use: read the Psalms prayerfully and highlight the parts that resonate.

I love Merritt’s notion of moving from victim to survivor. I think is this the essence of a growth-producing response to the challenges of life. As we minister to people who have been wounded by church or in any other way, it’s important to help them find the path of growth. At the same time, we need not to dismiss or be cavalier about what they have suffered.  Her approach to dealing with negative emotions (Chapter 4) is to learn to acknowledge them, listen to ourselves and learn to comfort ourselves. This is a mature relationship with emotions. It can allow us and others to integrate difficult experiences rather than being driven by them

If you experienced a challenging upbringing at church or in a Christian family, read Healing Spiritual Wounds. If you are in ministry and didn’t, it’s even more important for you to read this so you understand what others have experienced. Get it here.

(Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

You vs. your email

emailWriter/director Nora Ephron once wrote that people used to say it was much simpler to return twenty emails than ten telephone calls. She went on, “Executives now return hundreds of e-mails every day, and life is not remotely simpler. They return e-mails day and night. They never go home from their e-mail.” (“I Just Want to Say: The World is Not Flat,”  in I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections.)

Sound familiar?

I’ve felt this myself. I recently wrote that I try to plan my day before I check email. I think this is one way to be in charge of your email. You are making the decision on when to look at email.

I’ve continued to think about this, because I find myself buried in email. Here’s what I’ve been experimenting with:

  1. Turn off notifications. I keep saying this, because I continue to participate in meetings where someone’s phone beeps. It distracts me, and I know it distracts them, because they look down at their phone. I want you to have your full attention on what you are doing right now, whether it’s what you are thinking about or the person you are listening to. You’ll do better work. I promise.
  2. Unsubscribe from things you don’t read. You don’t need clutter in your email. So,  simply pick five subscriptions, and unsubscribe. I just did this myself a few minutes ago.
  3. Use a timer. It’s easy to get lost in email, and before you know it, an hour has gone by. I find if I set my timer for 15 minutes, I process email quicker. And then I know I am done for the time being.
  4. If you have a backlog, sort your email. I keep going back to this post by Mark Forster, “How to Clear an Email Backlog.” It really helps. (I’m not sure his method works in gmail, though.)
  5. Here’s something else I keep saying: Don’t answer emails that upset you right away. I know, I know–the flood of emotion makes you FEEL like you have to reply immediately. But, you do have time to think it through. Write your response, in a document, not an email draft so you don’t send it by mistake. Give it a night, or at least an hour, then read it again. Have someone else outside the system, preferably not your spouse, read it. Edit to calm it down, then send (or, consider not sending).

How do YOU manage the email challenge? I’d love to hear your ideas.



P.S. Learn more about managing email and the many other demands on your attention, and make the best use of your precious, limited time. Increase your influence without increasing your workload by registering for my Leaders Who Last Ministry Growth Series.

Six untruths pastors like to tell themselves about relationships

If you’re a pastor, you probably spend a lot of time connecting with people in your church. That’s good. Relationships are essential to leadership. However, I think pastors sometimes believe things about relating to others that simply aren’t true. You may actually believe them, but they won’t get you very far in your leadership, in your ministry with individuals, or in your personal life.

Which of these do you believe?

  1. I need to give everyone equal attention. Well, in practice this simply isn’t true. And just because everyone is equal before God and equally beloved by God, doesn’t mean you need to spend equal time with them. For one thing, you’re not God. You can’t give attention to unlimited people. You have to make some choices. I’d like to suggest that spending time with people who are motivated to grow is a good use of your limited time for one-on-one connection. And spending time helping leaders grow, or helping mature members grow into leaders, is the best of all.
  2. I need to spend as much time with someone as they want. I’ve heard this directly from pastors. Or when I raise the possibility that they can set limits, they are surprised. Just the opposite is true, in fact. For those who have trouble setting limits, it’s a ministry to set a boundary, including a time boundary.
  3. If I cut this person (staff person or member) some slack, they will appreciate it and shape up. All right, this one can be true sometimes. I do notice that many pastors let people get away with bad behavior repeatedly in the name of Christian charity. I’m all for Christian charity, but as I noted above, it can be a ministry to set limits. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to say, “No, not here.”
  4. If I just spend more time with people sharing my vision, they will come around to my point of view. Now, of course it is important to clarify and share your vision over time. And some of that happens one-on-one or in small groups. Yet, don’t forget the most important part of relationships (including relationships that focus on moving the vision forward): listening. People won’t come along unless they believe you have heard and understood their perspective, even if it is very different from your own.
  5. My family of origin and I are very different, and they have nothing to do with how I relate to people at church. Remember that you learned your first lessons about how the meaning of relationships from your family. Some of those lessons may have been challenging ones. You may have developed a variety of different ways to relate to others over the years. However, remember that under stress, you probably revert to the earliest patterns, and you need to be aware of what they are. In addition, your family may have taught you some useful lessons in relationships that you haven’t appreciated, such as how to be aggressive with a bully, not simply nice. What did you learn from your family about relationships that can help you now?
  6. I’ll spend more time with my spouse/children/myself/God NEXT week. The pressures of ministry can seem all-consuming. And on a week when you’ve got multiple funerals or a big building or staff or pastoral care crisis, it’s okay to say this. However, if you find yourself saying this every week, you’ll be in trouble soon. On the other hand, if you do regularly relate to the people who are most important to you, you’ll find yourself better able to sustain yourself over time. It’s not easy to have a life outside ministry, but I see people all the time who do. They are happier and more satisfied in ministry and in their personal lives

What truths have you learned about ministry relationships? Comment below!


Let’s take charge of your financial life

financial lifeDo you have piles of ministry receipts that you never quite get turned in to church?

Do you always feel like you aren’t sure where you are financially?

Are you worried about your future – because of all the impending costs?

If you answered a begrudging, “Yes, Margaret…” to any of those questions – take a breath. You are not alone in this experience. Now you have an opportunity to shift this situation.

Here are two things I know, both from my own (not-so-glamorous) experience:

First, dealing with personal finance can be a huge challenge, and many of us avoid it. For years I resisted running the numbers on retirement because I was sure the news was going to be bad. Somehow I thought if I never looked at it, it wouldn’t be an issue. But there was always this underlying sense of unease and even fear–would we be OK? I know from many conversations with colleagues, clients and friends that I’m not the only one to avoid facing personal finances.

Second, I also know from my own experience and that of others that when you face the facts, whatever they are, it brings tremendous clarity, power and freedom. You can take action when you don’t know what you need to do. It became much easier for me to consistently save for retirement when I knew what the facts were.

In addition, pastors who are weighed down by financial uncertainty and fear will find it hard to provide important leadership at church in financial matters. You may avoid asking people to give. You may sit back at finance meetings instead of providing needed pastoral leadership.

So, here are four questions to answer. And fifth, I give you something essential to remember. These are not easy questions and some take years to answer–not because the information is hard to get. However, the internal resistance can keep us from spending the few hours it takes to gather the data.

Be kind to yourself. Remember, telling yourself capable/accomplished/smart person you are will keep you motivated you to find the data (rather than the reverse, as so many of us do). Just pick one of these to start, and finish it. Then see where you are.

  1. What do you have? This is known as “net worth.” Some people prefer to call it “net wealth.” Whatever you call it, remember that your worth is not dependent on your wealth. You add up everything you have (cash, property, value of your pension). Then you subtract everything you owe (mortgage, student loans, credit cards).  It might be a negative number. That’s OK.
  2. What do you spend? Track your spending for the last month. If you can track for three months – that’s even better and tracking for a year gets you bonus points. Divide your spending into some simple categories–not 50. Be gracious to yourself. What’s spent is spent. Identify it, don’t ignore it.
  3. What do you need? Figure out the basics that you need to survive–food, shelter, basics to run your car, insurance, loan repayment. Write out those numbers.
  4. What do you want? Figure out how much the “extras” cost you. Then think beyond them. If money were no object, what would you want? To take your whole family on a trip? To get a weekly massage? To fund your grandkids’ college funds? To buy a new TV? It’s OK to want things. I find a lot of clergy tamp down their wants. They feel guilty if they want a better car, or a nice trip. Just dream a little. You don’t have to spend the money if you don’t have it or don’t want to right now–or ever. Have some fun with it.

Bonus tip: Remember that your real value has nothing to do with your “net worth,” how much you overspent last year, your debt, your accumulated wealth, whether it’s a lot or less than nothing. Take a deep breath, and remember how much God loves you.

Now, your task is to choose one of these questions and answer it. A down and dirty estimate is fine. If you have a lot of resistance, just notice it and extend yourself as much grace as God does. Let me know which question you are working on.