Why, if ministers are busy, they aren't doing it right
I first realised something was wrong when someone apologised for wanting to see me. I'd been a minister for a few years by then in a medium-sized church with the usual run of activities – sermons, Bible studies, home-groups, youth groups etc. I'd also accumulated some denominational and other local responsibilities. I was young and healthy and rather enjoyed having slightly too much to do.
But the nervousness of the lady who spoke to me after church that Sunday told me I needed to do some serious thinking about my priorities. I can still remember what she said. 'I know how busy you are. I don't want to intrude on your time.'
There were several things about her words that brought me up with a jolt. Did I really give the impression of being so busy rushing around doing things that I didn't have time for people? Evidently to one person, at least.
Worse than that: was it actually true? Well, yes, to a degree: my old habit of dropping round for cups of tea with people had lapsed. That sort of armchair ministry is very important: bonding over a digestive biscuit is not to be underestimated.
Even worse: had I started to grade my ministry on the wrong scale altogether? It's easier to measure some kinds of activity – the number of committees you sit on, the titles you accumulate, the distance you travel, even the books you read. Measuring time spent chatting with someone who drops by the church and notices your door is ajar, or on the phone, or even interacting on Facebook, isn't nearly as straightforward, but it can mediate the grace of God far more effectively.
And worse even that that: perhaps I had fallen into the trap of filling my days. Certainly I did always seem to be busy, though perhaps not very effectively. But I'm not sure that's what ministry is about. Ministers who are in it for the long haul learn that there's never an end to calls on their time, never an end to the books they ought to read or the committees they ought to attend – or the people they ought to visit.
What I eventually learned, rather late, was that self-care is important as well as care for the congregation. If you're a minister who fills your diary every day, you'll have no space left for God to surprise you. Yes, be organised, but don't be regimented. Don't feel you have to replicate in your ministry the patterns of a 9-5 working day; others in your congregation have to do that, but you have the privilege of working in a different way. Don't abuse it; use it to grow in ways that make you better able to give back to your people. They'll come to thank you for it.
We all have different personalities. Some of us are activists, some are contemplatives; Marthas and Marys. Either way carries temptations. But busy ministers are too busy ministers. We need to make space for other people, and make space for God.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods