“It seems like I live for interruptions,” a seasoned pastor said with a frown after he swallowed a sip of coffee. We were meeting at a local coffee shop to get away from the office. He had invited me to speak at a special event he was planning in his church, and wanted to give me some background. But the conversation had taken a turn toward venting frustrations, and for now, the background information could wait.
As I listened, I heard him express his desire to be available to his people, but lamented how this “availability” became a seemingly endless line of interruptions which often left little time or energy for study and preparation.
I remembered expressing the same frustrations to my wife during our early years in ministry. I was worried that the interruptions caused by members dropping by the church office were negatively affecting my preaching preparation. With the wisdom only a discerning pastor’s wife could utter, she said, “I think you need to worry when people STOP coming by to see you.”
Regular office hours for the pastor are important. They say that you are available to your people.
Most of us in ministry don’t mind interruptions for urgent spiritual or emotional needs, but setting appropriate boundaries can help reduce the stress of our daily people contacts. I have a pastor friend who hangs a sign on his office door that reads, “No way; no how can the Wizard be disturbed.” It’s signed, “OZ” in big red letters. Not the approach I would use, but you really have to know this guy.
Establishing boundaries and managing our time is challenging in any setting. Here are some thoughts:
- Know the difference between shooting the breeze and planning your work. If you plan a meeting for one hour, honor it. It shows respect for others, but it also shows respect for your own needs.
- Standing while communicating with others in the office may be an important non-verbal tool which says, “I’ve got time for you, but only as long as we are both comfortable standing.”
- Getting out of your chair, or standing up from behind your desk after a few minutes can have the same effect.
- Work with your office door slightly ajar. This says, “I can be disturbed, but I’ve got some important things going on.”
- Your work time is important, and if you declare certain hours as being set aside for “prayer and study,” you might be surprised how people honor it when you declare its purpose.
- List your priority activities for the next day before you complete the day. Start with the toughest activities and work down. (Just try not to worry about your list when you go to bed at night!)
Communication in a church is an important task. Phones, tablets and computers keep us in contact with the people we serve. You may want to use these techniques for saving time:
- Before reaching for the phone, ask yourself if email or a text would suffice?
- If a personal touch is needed, or if it would take more time to type out a message, of course, use the phone.
- If it’s general information, or a number of people that need to know, use email or texting.
- Before you call, make a list items that need to be covered.
- Learn to say, without guilt but with diplomacy, “Please forgive me, I have an appointment.” Even if the appointment is another activity, it is still an appointment.
- Call when you are most likely to reach your party.
- If you are in conference, honor the conferee by refusing to accept a call unless it’s an emergency, or from a select number of people – my wife, kids and aging parent are among my “select.”
- If you work through an assistant in accepting calls, give a list of those with whom you must speak when they call. (While serving on church staff a few years ago, I was present when the senior pastor said to his assistant before closing the door to his office. “Unless President Obama calls,” he said, “I cannot be disturbed.” She looked up at me and said, “Is he expecting a call from the President?” I laughed.)
Managing our time and minimizing the interruptions inherent in ministry takes some effort. Applying some of these principles will help reduce your stress and relieve your guilt. Then ultimately, you will be less likely to be “living for interruptions.”