CATCHING UP

As I was writing the last post about the never ending nature of ministry, I realized that there is another aspect of ministry that is probably even more of a problem than the fact that nothing is ever done. And that is the fact that in the end, I am always behind. There is always something sitting there that should have been done yesterday or last week or even last month. On some levels, ministry sometimes feels like mad dash to try and get last week’s work done before the end of this week.

I have a meeting report that should have been presented to the church about three weeks ago. I have an unfinished annual report that would be better if I actually got it done before heading out for the annual meeting. I have been promising certain people that I am going to drop in for a visit for long enough that it is embarrassing to see them now. Some stuff, of course, I can’t get behind on—the sermon always has to be ready for Sunday, a reality that often means the work on the sermon pushes something else into the background.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I am a part-time pastor who believes in being part time. I try to be careful with my work hours and try as much as possible to keep within viewing distance of the agreed upon hours. And so, within the context of my work agreement, two things happen:

• Stuff keeps getting put off to as later date, when there will be more time to get it done.
• I work more hours than I should, knowing that when things slow down, I will take some time off.

Basically, I keep telling myself that someday, I will get caught up because things will slow down and there will be time to get everything done and take some time off. It is a good message to give to myself, even though I know that it really isn’t true. It is one of those messages we give ourselves so that we can cope with the uncopable. There will never be enough time to get everything done; I am not actually ever going to catch up; a delayed task that I finish is probably going to be at the expense of some other task or my time.

Ministry has a way of filling up time and space. Some people deal with this reality by running as hard as they can, hoping that they will get it all done on time and perfectly. And while that might sound commendable, it is a process that actually has another name—it is better called burnout.

I decided a long time ago, probably around my first bout of near burnout that a much better approach was learning how to set and keep priorities. In a world when I am always going to be behind, I decided to learn what could slip, how long it could slip and how to measure the consequences of the slip.

So, a sermon has very limited slip time—and not having the sermon done has serious consequences. A pastoral visit, though important, often has more slip time and occasionally, there are no real long term consequences if I don’t get to it this month. A funeral—no slippage and serious consequences if I skip it. Writing a report about the meeting last month, well, so far the slippage hasn’t been noticed by anyone but me and there are limited consequences if I let it slip some more.

In the end, I know that I am never going to get caught up. Even when I tie up some of the delayed stuff, more gets added to the list. I am probably never going to work off all the extra hours of work time. Someday is actually like tomorrow—I keep looking for it but it never comes. But within that context, I set priorities, I get stuff done, I let things slip, I even manage to take some time off. It is never enough, I will never get caught up but then again being caught up isn’t the goal of what I do anyway.

I do what I do because I have been called by God to do it and in the end, I depend on his leading to help me see what needs to be done now, what can be done later and what just might never need to be done.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

SOMETHING IS FINALLY DONE

There is an empty space in the corner of the basement that I use for a workshop. The cabinet and shelf unit that I have been working on for several months is finally done. It took several weeks longer that I had planned but it did come in under budget, thanks in part to sales and discount scratch off coupons. This was a winter project designed to fill in some of the “free” time I was anticipating during the three months one of the pastorates I serve was shutdown.

As I have posted here before, the time wasn’t as free as I had anticipated and when it was, the weather wasn’t always cooperative, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I have to do major cutting and sanding outside. But eventually, the job got done and I moved the cabinet and shelf into the dining room where it is now filling up with all the stuff that needed a place so that we could get at other stuff.

Each time I walk through the dining room, I look at the finished project and have a sense of accomplishment. I do notice the imperfections and “not quite right” stuff that are incorporated in the piece because of my less than perfect woodworking skills. But even seeing all those doesn’t take away from the fact that the job is done, the project is finished and it is now doing what it was built for and the next time I have to do anything with it will be the day I take it apart so that we can move, a day which isn’t happening anytime soon.

That might seem like a small thing but for me, it is significant. I have spend most of my life involved in ministry: pastor, chaplain, teacher, missionary, counsellor and one of the most clear and unchanging realities about ministry is that completed projects are few and far between. I can spend a week on a sermon, researching and planning and writing and rewriting to get it just right. I stand in the pulpit and preach the sermon, doing an almost perfect job of presenting the message. (Or I could waste time, skimp on the research, present poorly—it happens.) But the job isn’t done—because I have to do the same thing all over again—and again and again.

Or suppose I am teaching a class. I research the topic, read extensively, write out the syllabus and the individual lectures. I plan the assignments. The class begins, I teach and discuss and mark and do all the work. And then, we finish—but it isn’t over because likely as not, I will need to do the same course again for another group or prepare a different course for a different group. So, I work hard and then I start all over again with the same thing.

Ministry keeps going and the stuff I do in ministry just keeps going as well. Even when I finish one chapter in ministry, another opens up. When I realize that I have finished the particular work God has called me to do on one place, I discover that God’s call and leading are taking me to another place where there is work to be done—it might not be exactly the same kind of work but there are enough similarities that the same processes work.

And that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I like woodworking. No matter how long it takes, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how much delay, there will come a point where the work is actually done and I don’t need to do anything more. The project is done—it sits in place, doing the work it was designed to do and I only need to appreciate the enjoyment I got out of doing the work and that I get out of it doing what it was designed to do.

I am comfortable with the reality that ministry doesn’t have clear and easy to notice completions. In many ways, I appreciate the process nature of ministry. I work well in the context of always being in process. But it is also good to have a part of my life where I can point to clear completions, to things that I have finished and which don’t need my input anymore.

May the peace of God be with you.