Written by Matt Waldock
Matt is a trustee of the Tim Peters Training Fund, and pastor at City Church Manchester.
In secular leadership circles the holy grail of self-development is the attainment of “a highly productive life”. Productivity in this world is typically measured in terms of how many plates one can keep spinning without the whole circus of one’s personal and professional responsibilities crashing around them. The “work hard play hard” mantra focuses the mind on the goal of this great quest to be both successful and happy. Of course in Christian leadership we have our own version of the quest for productivity, but here this concept is couched in more spiritual language of: ‘stewarding our resources responsibly’, ‘labouring for the gospel requires sacrifice’ and the ‘urgency of caring for the flock or reaching the lost demands a furious efficiency’.
Now, the plight of the spiritually unenlightened or the ceaseless crises that engulf those who are to be shepherded correctly should move those with spiritual oversight and responsibility to be motivated and careful with the scarcity of resources the Church has. The overwhelmingly high and broad expectations of leaders, particularly pastors, to be: great communicators, academic-grade expositors, multi-disciplinary counselors, entrepreneurs, innovators, world conquering strategists, social workers and (if one’s budget doesn’t have much capacity) plate spinning administrators, accountants, odd job specialists and a general white van man. With these extraordinary expectations that need meeting for a modern church to run, the scarcity of finance means that the average pastor has to rely upon spending heavily the one resource that comes cheap – time!
The problem is that it doesn’t take too long before your average pastor is overwhelmed like a first aid post on a battlefield, although perhaps a better analogy would be novice gambler in a Las Vegas casino. A leader invests their time cautiously at first and is excited by the fruitful return, so invests more time, energy and brain power. Sometimes they lose, but the belief has already set deep within them, that if you feed the game enough “time” the breakthrough is just around the corner. Soon, the pastor driven by the conviction of the gospel’s urgency, finds their pot of time critically empty, so they place onto the table chips of time that officially belong to their family, their marriages, their children, their health – with the promise to themselves that when they get the big win they’ll get it all back – even more! Of course that’s where productivity tips become like a coke-line to an addict, they give you a mini efficiency hit that allows you to spend a little more time, and then a little bit more after that. The problem is that the gospel fruit is so good, that even those who find themselves in abject time poverty find it almost impossible to draw a line and stop. Too often have I seen incredibly gifted leaders in Christian ministry have a glorious ten years, sometimes more, before burning out spectacularly to the surprise of those around them, who can but say: “But they achieved so much for the kingdom!” as if fruitfulness was a valid alternative to not attending to one’s family and personal responsibilities in godly fashion.
The problem is that the gospel fruit is so good, that even those who find themselves in abject time poverty find it almost impossible to draw a line and stop.
Although, I don’t diminish the necessity of good stewardship of one’s time and energy, it strikes me that the life and work rhythms that God established for his people from the beginning of the Bible are hard work coupled with a deliberately embedded inefficiency. For example, the Sabbath day itself marks the people of God as distinct from surrounding nations because they economically bootstrap themselves. Furthermore, there are a large number festivals woven into the Israelite calendar, that have both time and financial implications (Leviticus 23), imagine a festival on the scale of Christmas seven times a year. There is the Law’s stipulation that farmers are not to glean to the edge of their fields so that poor might benefit from their deliberate inefficiency (Leviticus 19). And, of course, no political manifesto has included an economic policy that echoes the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), because restoration rarely ever coincides with getting more stuff done or more money made.
Moreover the Kingdom of God described in the New Testament continues this trend of delightful inefficiency. In Luke 15, the Shepherd leaves 99% of his stock in the open country to find the missing 1%, this would be like leaving the corner shop unattended whilst you searched for a missing crate of tinned soup. Grace is wonderful, precisely because it does not equate earthly value with divine effort, but it is thankfully for us not black and white efficient, particularly when the Shepherd spends the equivalent of the financial cost of the sheep to throw a party, the woman spends the value of the coin to celebrate with her neighbours and Father spends a proportion of his greatly diminished estate to welcome the return of his son. The kingdom of God prizes enjoyment of God above busyness or accumulation for God, Martha learnt that the hard way.
it strikes me that the life and work rhythms that God established for his people from the beginning of the Bible are hard work coupled with a deliberately embedded inefficiency
So how might this apply to Christian leaders invited to spend all their time on the fruit machines of fruitful ministry? A start is to remember that God’s sovereignty over his church and his unfolding plan of growing his kingdom should free us from the tyranny of an all-consuming efficient busyness. For pastors it is not the poor in the community who should first benefit from the fields of our work not being harvested to the edges, but it is our families who should enjoy the regular gift of us going into work later than normal or returning home earlier than usual. I have come to think that some of the healthiest leaders I know are not embarrassed to take significant chunks of work time, even at the cost of disappointing church members, in order to celebrate birthdays, school plays, family extracurricular victories, starts of new seasons of life or marking the end of old ones. Being rich in thanksgiving will often make you feel productively impoverished which is why we tend to limit it, but we should not.
I had the privilege of working with Tim over a number of years in a variety of different ministry contexts, and I always felt that he understood the distinction between general productivity and personal fruitfulness. His experience of being trained in the armed services gave him an excellent schooling in undistracted efficiency that enabled him to be highly competent in planning and execution of tactics and strategies. Yet he knew the value, not only of rest, but also celebration of achievements of himself and others big or small, he understood that value of investing significant time and energy into playing football which he loved, and the planning and preparation for marathon running. These activities were not directly efficient to ministry yet they were, for him, essential to serving the Lord well with joy and sustainability. More than that, Tim’s ability to disconnect a sense of personal gospel shaped fruitfulness from a worldly sense of productivity was evidenced in his evangelism with a retired gentleman called Bob.
Tim invested hours with Bob in his front room watching daytime TV and enjoying the gentle relationship building that happens over a steady flow of hot beverages. By any business standard this strategy was grossly inefficient, and think of the legions of tasks that could have been crossed off in that same timeframe. However the gospel allows for us to plunder the Harvard Business Model, but not be defined by it; we are fundamentally a different language, and although our vocabulary sounds similar, it is different. Which is why Tim’s investment of time with Bob makes perfect sense when compared with Jesus’ affirmation of the Shepherd who leaves the ninety nine for the one.
Tim invested hours with Bob in his front room watching daytime TV and enjoying the gentle relationship building that happens over a steady flow of hot beverages.
It is encouraging that Bob eventually became a Christian, but even if he had not, the freedom to employ a blessed inefficiency would still stand, for its key measure is heart intention over quantitative results. Our confidence in God’s sovereignty and our conviction that he is the creator of all time, means that we can retain an urgency for gospel work, but with the distinct flavour of blessed inefficiency which leads to a freedom to pray, give thanks, build relationships with the longshots and the high risks; and sustainably enjoy the time that God has graciously allotted to us.