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Here’s Some Help to Get Things Done

There is no secret method.

I have to say that at the outset. I’ve followed productivity blogs and read productivity books for 30 years or more and there’s just no perfect system that’s going to be the magic bullet for life and time organization. The key to time/life management is to find a system that works and stick to it.

This is particularly important because a lot of people tinker with their systems and keep trying new things. As a result, important tasks don’t get done because too much attention has been given to the organizing tool.

I’m going to recommend a particular system that I think is workable and easy, but if you spend a little time researching what people say about it, you’ll find that people have spent hours drawing flowers and fairies in their planners to make them look cute. I mean, people are certainly free to do what they want. But spending hours decorating the tool you use to help you get things done seems a bit counterproductive. But, to use a cliche, “I digress.”

One of the decisions you need to make is whether you want your organizational system to be analogue (pen and paper) or digital (computer/phone). Some people use a hybrid system. Shawn Blanc, who writes for The Sweet Setup uses a hybrid system.

If you decide on a paper system, I would investigate the Bullet Journal system. You need a notebook. Nothing special or costly. If you want to read more than you’ll find on the website, author Ryder Carroll has written a book that you can get through Amazon.

The reason that I like the Bullet Journal system is that it makes sense, it is not complicated, and unless you find yourself wanting to draw pictures and fancy up your journal (please don’t!) you won’t spend hours setting it up before you use it.

There are other analogue tools, like the time-tested DayTimer system and the FranklinCovey planner. But I found the Bullet Journal to be workable and less expensive.

Digital tools are there in abundance, and I’ve tried several, but the most helpful and least expensive is Todoist. I’ve used it and recommend it. You can buy into a premium version, but the free version might be just fine.

If you want to go bare bones, you can keep a calendar and then a master list of tasks on paper of a document on your computer. Each night before you leave the office you can review both and write down the “musts” for the next day. Author Stephen Covey has a great illustration about planning the “big rocks” first. Here’s an article that explains it, but adds an important caveat.

You should also read about time/life management. Here’s where some discernment is needed. New books on time/life management are coming out all the time. Having a biblical perspective on time and life is important, and there are two recent books that have been very well-received. First, Tim Challies has written Do More Better and while I haven’t read it, Tim is a fine writer and understands a biblical perspective on life. Another book worth reading is Matt Perman’s What’s Next Best: How the Gospel Transforms The Way You Get Things Done.I’ve given links to Amazon, but you can check out the Westminster Seminary Bookstore as well.

I also want to put in a word for Evernote. If you do a lot of online reading, you probably find that there are articles or quotes that you want to save. Rather than having an eternal list of browser bookmarks, you can install the Evernote Clipper extension and, after you set up an account, copy what you want to save to Evernote. Evernote is available online, as a computer app, and as an app for both IOS and Android. Most of us probably don’t need anything more than the free version.

Have you been using a productivity tool to keep on top of your busy life? I’d be glad to hear what’s working for you. Click on the title of this blog post and leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Are You Working Too Much?

There’s a trio of time- and work-related tensions in pastoral ministry. First, unless you work in some kind of weird regime that makes you punch in and punch out, you set your own schedule. Second, you have a lot to do. And third, you are never finished. You may complete a project, but there are more projects. You’ll finish your sermon, but then there’s the next sermon.

I feel your pain. Juggling these three balls is hard. Despite the tired old joke that pastors only work one day a week, most people in ministry work long hours.

Why do we work as much as we do?

For some, it could be pressure from above. And I don’t mean from God. Maybe the elders have unrealistic expectations, or the Senior Pastor is a workaholic and expects his staff members to be that way too. For others, it could be an overactive desire to please people. And while none of us want to admit it, some pastors equate their worth (both to the church and the Lord) with the number of work hours they accumulate. 

But even if we struggle with one or more of the above, the fact is that effective ministry takes time, and there always seems to be more to do. I’m pretty sure that few pastors have ever come to the end of the work week and said, “Well, I can’t think of anything else that I can work on.”

Think about your typical week. People needs, meetings, programs, and preparation all crowd into our work time. People drop in. There are unanticipated phone calls. Your study time is more difficult than you expected. You have projects that must be finished. As a result, it’s easy to keep working more hours. But if we don’t learn to manage our lives, we’ll pay in the long run.

Some tips:

Plan to take the same day off each week. For some it’s Monday. Sunday is draining and Monday is a chance to recharge. For others, Friday or Saturday works best. Obviously, there will be times when something unexpected comes up. But most weeks you should be able to manage a day away from work. But make it the same day so it is something that you have scheduled.

Find a rhythm for your work week and stick to it. For example, I spent time on Sunday night planning my week. Most of my administrative work was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday and then I focused on my sermon prep Tuesday through Thursday. I would finish my sermon on Thursday, let it marinate on Friday, and then on Saturday I would tweak the sermon and, when possible, catch up with whatever was left over from the week that had to be finished.

A word about evenings: Because our people are generally not available during the day, a good deal of ministry takes place in the evening. But don’t plan something for every night of the week. And don’t bring your work home. Sure, bring a book if you want to read at night, but don’t be working on your sermon outline while you’re eating dinner.

Find a good time management approach and follow it religiously. We have an incredible number of helpful tools available for managing time. On Wednesday I want to look at some of those resources. Whatever system you end up using to manage your responsibilities, consider planning an hour or two each week where you can read for personal growth. Schedule lunch with a fellow pastor regularly. And don’t forget your family! Take your wife out regularly, even if the best you can afford is to go to McDonald’s and split a small fries. If you don’t plan those kinds of activities, they’re not likely to happen.

I know these bits of advice are basic, but they could be life-changing and ministry-saving if adopted early on. How are you doing in the area of work and life management? Are you working too much?

Image by Theodor Moise from Pixabay

Free Stuff!!!

I’m a software junkie and I’ve been fooling around with some different programs for blogging. Yesterday I pressed the wrong button and posted what I had planned to post today. So I thought I’d post about some free stuff that comes my way and might not be familiar to you.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has some excellent resources. You can subscribe to their newsletter (which contains most if not all of these). I found some good articles on preaching, and with Al Mohler at the helm of the school, you can count on some superb analysis of contemporary culture and issues.

Years ago, we did not have access to many Study Bibles. I remember the Scofield Reference Bible, which featured notes from a Dispensational perspective, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible. In our day, we are blessed with many helpful Study Bibles. While I have Logos Bible Software and Accordance on my computers, I have been using Olive Tree Software on my iPad and phone. Some modules cost, though they have periodic sales. But if you want something free, the study notes from the MacArthur Study Bible are available for free for both IOS and Android. You can swap between the King James Version (KJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

I used to live about 10 minutes from Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA. When they had an on-campus bookstore, I visited regularly to see what was new. Today they are a web-only enterprise, but if you log on to their site and sign up for the free newsletter, you’ll get info about new books, special deals, and other sale items. The link to sign up is at the bottom of the page.

If you’re doing some research – or just want to keep up with current theological trends, this site takes you to the home of Themelios, the journal of the Gospel Coalition. You can search hundreds of articles from the beginning of the journal’s publication. The journal contains book reviews as well. I find it helpful.

Another excellent online journal is Credo Magazine. You’ll find up-to-date podcasts and articles and an opportunity to have the latest issue sent to your email. A form to subscribe (for free) is on the above page.

Maybe there’s something new here for you. I’ll post articles like this from time to time. Do you have any favorite free resources?

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 3

On Fridays we’ve been looking at a prayer from the Valley of Vision titled “A Minister’s Preaching.” Today we’ll look at this section:

Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and unction.
Present to my view things pertaining to my subject,
with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a feeling sense of the things I preach,
and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.
Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.

In an earlier post on Expectations, I told about a man who said that he wished he could be a pastor so he could study the Bible all day. Obviously, there is far more to pastoral work, and my response to him was that I had to fight for the time to study. You may feel that way too. But there’s another battle that we fight: the battle to include God in our study.

See, it’s easy to pull the books out, fire up the computer, and work on the passage we’ll preach and crafting the sermon. But the Puritan writer reminds us we need God through the entire process. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded. It’s good to have the opportunity to recalibrate our habits if we’ve gotten used to launching out on our own.

There are several requests in this part of the prayer: First, there is the confession that we need God’s help. It rightly acknowledges our insufficiency to delve into spiritual truth without God’s aid.

Having done that, he next asks God for specific ways in which we need help. He asks for insight, for an understanding of the passage. He asks for guidance in choosing the right way to express what he has learned. He wants to apply the passage to his own life, and he wants God’s help in applying it to the lives of the people. He desires to do more than educate. He wants to stir his listeners, to reach into their hearts.

And finally, he asks that God would protect him from pride. Pride is a killer.

Early in my ministry there were two young men in our church who were preparing for pastoral work. They spoke in our prayer meeting on successive Wednesday nights. The first spoke humbly. The second, well, he did not. Who do you think was most effective?

There’s an old story about a young man who preached for the first time. Perhaps you’ve heard it. He entered the pulpit with an air of self-sufficiency and it went downhill quickly. At the end of the service, the veteran pastor met him and told him “If you had gone up like you came down, you would have come down like you went up.”

Public people are subject to pride and self-sufficiency. Involving God from the time we first open our books to prepare through the time we close our sermon is a help not only in beating back that monster, but in having God speak to our people.

I hope you’ve had a great week of study and that on the Lord’s Day you will experience his help in ministering his word. God bless you!

Get the Gospel Right While You are Young

“With every head bowed, and every eye closed, if you want to receive Jesus as your personal Savior, raise your hand.”

Those words are a part of the church experience of my youth. Most sermons closed with this kind of invitation. Usually it would include a call to come forward, talk to the pastor, and pray a prayer. If you prayed the prayer and meant it, you would become a Christian. It was very similar to the approach that Billy Graham used for his crusades.

The Jesus Movement hit the Christian world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time of Hippies, Woodstock, the drug and sex revolutions. Older people were disenchanted. Younger people were experimenting and looking for purpose. As a result, Jesus was presented as the remedy for unhappiness, bad marriages, and finding satisfaction.

The so-called Seeker movement of the late 20th century and the early years of this century followed in this tradition, presenting Jesus as someone who could fix life’s problems and be a friend in an uncertain world. Many claimed that the Seeker movement avoided the hard parts of the Gospel message so that people were not turned off. If they were, they would stop coming to church.

The Gospel-Centered resurgence (sometimes called the Young Calvinist movement) of the early 2000s sought to restore the clarity of the Gospel message. There was a renewed effort to express the gospel fully and accurately. Doctrinal themes and biblical terms that had been regarded as difficult to understand were now at the forefront of Gospel preaching.  

Here’s my point: I’m realizing that over the last 50 years the way we have expressed the Gospel has changed several times. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.  

Now before I go on, let me say that no one should be a Gospel Curmudgeon. A Gospel Curmudgeon is someone who takes delight in being critical of others who don’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” the way he or she does. Some of these people have websites. Their sites are the children of the “Fighting Fundamentalist” newsletters from the days before the Internet. Man, were they wild! You and I don’t want to be one of “those” people.

Yet I believe that it’s essential that those of us who preach and teach a) understand the gospel, and b) express it in ways consistent with the biblical message. As I became more influenced (and for this I am thankful) by the Reformed Resurgence, words like “imputation” and “justification” were often used and explained often in our church. In fact, I semi-jokingly told our congregation that if I called any of them at 3am and asked them to tell me what it meant to be justified by faith, I hoped they could do it. 

I never tried that. Though I kind of wish I had.

How should we present the Gospel? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve observed that something is lacking in some Gospel preaching that I have heard over the last few years. Too often it seems like I’ve heard the facts of the Gospel presented accurately. But I’m missing a call for people to believe it.

Believing is the way we respond to the Gospel. If people don’t believe the Gospel, they aren’t believers.

Can we say we’ve accurately and adequately presented the biblical Gospel if we haven’t called for a biblical response? The Gospel message always includes responding by faith or believing.

It should be rare that a sermon or lesson does not have a connection to the Gospel. Others have written far more eloquently and persuasively than I can that teaching the Bible without a Gospel or Christ-centered focus leads to moralism. But presenting the facts of the Gospel without appealing to people to believe is not sufficient. We haven’t finished the job.

Most of the people in our congregations may be believers. It’s possible there are some who were warming themselves by the Gospel fires but have never trusted Christ. But in most cases our audiences are predominantly Christian audiences.

Yet we should still call on them to believe when we come to the content of the Gospel. In fact, without being manipulative, we should urge them to belief/faith as the way to respond to the Gospel.

Is that “preaching to the choir?” No!

We don’t know people’s hearts. We don’t want people to assume that they are Christians just because they are hearing the Gospel message. And we shouldn’t want any to answer the question of “How do you know that you are a Christian?” by saying, “Because I prayed a prayer.” or “Because I went forward at an invitation.” or “My life was a mess so I turned it over to Jesus.”

May I encourage you to check your preaching and teaching? The Gospel message includes a call to respond. Be sure that your Gospel presentations and explanations ALWAYS include that appeal to believe the Gospel, to put faith in the finished work of Christ.

You have your whole ministry life ahead of you. No matter how large or small your church or class is, you’ll speak to hundreds of people if not thousands over the years. Let me encourage you to get the Gospel right while you are young.

Companions for the Journey

I was hooked. I was watching previews for upcoming films and a preview of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy flashed on the screen. I would have to wait until the following Christmas, but this was my kind of movie.

I had never read the series, but I determined that I would do so by the time they released the first movie. I devoured the books. And while the films deviated in a few places from what Tolkien had written (thoroughly upsetting some purists), I loved them.

There are innumerable memorable bits of dialogue and some very unforgettable characters in The Lord of the Rings. And there are many great themes in the series. To me, one that stands out in particular is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. And by the way – if you don’t know the story, it’s a great read!

I’m writing this early on a Sunday morning, and this morning’s routine was the same as most other Sundays. I get my cereal and tea, check the Phillies’ score (alas! – last night was painful), and text two of my closest friends. One is preaching for the other who is enjoying the first Sunday of his sabbatical. I pray for both of them throughout the week, but especially on Sunday. And I know they pray for me.

For well over a decade, we have been meeting monthly for lunch. We’ve sometimes rescheduled, but we’ve rarely missed a month. Each of us has gone through both good times and hard times, but we’ve been able to rejoice together and encourage each other. Along with two or three others these men have laughed with me and cried with me, counseled and challenged me. I have friends outside of ministry, and I am grateful for them. But having friends who understand my world has meant much to me.

The two most significant traits among my ministry companions are their confidentiality and their lack of a competitive spirit. I know that I can bare my soul to these men and not fear that it will come back to haunt me. And there was never a sense that our church’s size made any difference, or that one of us had to have the upper hand.

We find ministry friends throughout the Bible. Paul had a bunch of them. Read the closing paragraphs of his letters and you’ll find them being singled out time and time again. And I can’t help but think Jesus’ disciples were more than a group of guys he was shaping into future leaders. We do an injustice to our Lord’s humanity if we imagine that he had no need for human companionship.

No doubt you have friends. But do you have ministry friends? Do you have men in your life who do what you do, who understand the challenges and the joys of pastoral work? If not, let me encourage you to reach out to some other pastors in your area. Have lunch, talk, and ask God to help you discerningly build one or more friendships that will enable you to encourage each other along the way.

Have you benefitted from these kinds of relationships? Or has it been a struggle to develop ministry friendships? I’d enjoy hearing from you.

A Minister’s Preaching – Part 2

“Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth, that an honest testimony might be borne for Thee.”

So reads the next section in the prayer “A Minister’s Preaching” in the book Valley of Vision.

Why do we preach? We preach because people need to hear from God. We, like the writer of the lines above, long that people might be edified with divine truth. We want to see them grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, to see them mature in their faith, to see them live out the truth of Scripture in their lives.

Spiritual growth – in our own lives as well as in the lives of others – takes time. I used to compare what we do when we preach to the way layers of newspaper and paste become a paper mache creation. Change is imperceptible, but as layer upon layer is added, the object takes shape. So it is with preaching.

And by the way – let that encourage you. Watching our people grow is like watching children grow. You don’t see much of anything if you look day after day, but over time, it becomes visible. Often we get discouraged because it seems like nothing is “happening.” But we don’t see the hearts of our people, and we don’t know what God is doing in them.

The goal of preaching is that people grow to be like Christ. That’s what the author of this prayer means when he expresses his desire that his people to be edified. Pray that God will do that in your life and in the lives of your people as you preach and teach this Sunday. May God bless in your work.

P.S. Tim Challies links to a solid book on preaching in his A La Carte today. Preaching by Alec Motyer is on sale for $2.99 (Kindle).