The Pastoral Aim of Productivity

I am a pastor serving full-time at a church. Every January, as so many are contemplating new years resolutions, I take a step back and re-analyze my productivity. After the holiday season, things tend to slow down for a time, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to reset and re-focus on how I get my work done. I ask myself big-picture questions like…

What apps do I need to delete, add, or learn?
What pieces of hardware might help me be more efficient in my work?
What are the ways I have been wasteful of my time? How can I fix this?

Part of this process each year is reading a productivity book or two. In this post, I’d like to share with you three productivity books that have transformed the way I do my work as a pastor. Of course, these principles are applicable to anyone in a knowledge-work type of job where you have the flexibility to set your own schedule.

My number one recommendation to anyone looking to get more productive and more efficient would be Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity by Tim Challies (Cruciform Press, 2016). Tim Challies is an accomplished Christian author and blogger, who was one of the major, early pioneers in developing an online ministry. His level of output speaks for itself. In this book, Challies reminds us that productivity is all about “stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God” (pg. 16).

In Do More Better, he takes the reader through a system for capturing tasks, events, or notes, and then putting them into the proper tools/apps. Then he provides a super-helpful method for reviewing them each day and week so that nothing falls through the cracks. The way he explained his system revolutionized the way I do my work each week.

The next book I would recommend is Getting Things Done: The Art of Stree-Free Productivity by David Allen (Penguin Books, 2015). Just as Tim Challies’s system revolutionized the way I do my work, David Allen’s GTD system revolutionized the way I think about my to-do list. The main idea in GTD is that you need to get everything out of your head, and into a trusted system that will bring it back to your mind at the appropriate time. Most people have a number of tasks and due-dates floating around in their brain and this causes a significant amount of subconscious stress, even though you may not realize it.

GTD provides you with an excellent way to get all of this stuff out of your brain, and into a tool that will manage it for you. Less stuff in your head means less stress and also greater reliability. At night, when my wife asks me what I have to do the next day, I honestly tell her, “I have no idea!” That’s because I know the right things are on my to-do list and I will see them when I get to work. Until then, I don’t want to think about them. It’s wonderful.

Lastly, I would recommend Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (Grand Central Publishing, 2016). This book, as well, has revolutionized the way I work, but in a much different way than the other two. Newport’s main idea is that we have become experts at filling up our days with shallow work which ultimately does not contribute to the goals that are most important to us. We need to eliminate as much shallow work as we can so that we can spend long stretches of time focusing intensely on what really matters. If you can train your brain to focus intensely for long stretches like this, you will out-produce almost everyone in the workforce today because phones, social media, and the internet have zapped our collective attention spans. Almost no one knows how to do deep work anymore. Therefore, if you can become skilled in this area, you will stand out among the crowd, and produce higher quality work, at a greater rate, in less time than your peers.

For the Glory of God and the Good of Others

Two out of the three books above are not written from a Christian perspective, so why would I spend time recommending them to pastors and other believers? Well, it has everything to do with what Tim Challies said in his book above. The goal of productivity is that we might steward the time and energy and other resources we have been given to maximize the glory we give to God and the good we do for others. Because of this, I am anxious to steal just about any productivity tip or hack or system from the secular world if it means I can improve in glorifying God and serving others.

One of the challenges of being a pastor is that most of us do not have a direct supervisor setting our schedule and giving us our tasks. We must set those things ourselves. When I started out in full-time ministry, I was not very good at this. To make matters worse, our church members will likely never know if we are wasting valuable time on shallow things like social media, email, or news websites. We need to discipline ourselves to do right by our church, and by God himself, by being efficient and productive with our time. I pray the these books would help you toward that end, and that they would benefit you as much as they have me.

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