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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: In Search of Structure

ISO asks...
I am just finishing the 5th month of my first call as a solo pastor. How do you structure your days to get the most out of them? I find that I still don't have a rhythm or routine, and it makes it hard to get things done. Granted, every day is different depending on who drops by or is ill, etc., but is there a basic outline that works?

Rev Abi answers:

This is a great question that some of us are still trying to answer 10 or more years down the road. Good for you asking! The problem I have is that is my personality lends itself to responding to whatever needs to be responded to and not setting up any kind of schedule and sticking to it, so I feel your pain. But now that I am in my present church, I am becoming more intentional and yes, seeking structure, as much as I am able to.

Monday morning, I will reflect back on Sunday, pray about it, and let it go. Then, I begin research for bible study, and sermons—that is, if there is no hospital visit or surgery on the calendar. I also spend some time laying out the week ahead: Meetings? Visits? Conference or district paperwork to be done? Staff issues? Staff meeting? Newsletter? Bulletin?
On Tuesday, I have a fresh mind and start on the detail work from Monday's planning.
Wednesday, I finalize preparation for Bible study.
Thursday, I write the rough draft of my sermon if possible—and I try to minimize interruptions during that time. Friday is my day off.
Saturday, I finalize sermon, spend time with my family.
Sunday—well, you know the drill.

Note that each of these is my morning roadmap. I'm not an afternoon thinker, so I use afternoons for visits and phone calls.

What's your personality?
Are you familiar with the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator? I'm an ENFP. You might want to find out what yours is, to see what you will need to do to help yourself as far as planning, setting a work pace, being intentional. There are many "models" of the MBTI online that you can use to get a taste of it, although the official test is here. (Gallycat pipes in with, "And if you haven't heard of the Kolbe, it may look pricey but it's actually cheaper than the official MBTI, generally, and very insightful with regard to your work style. Organization is a struggle for me, too, but the better I understand how I work, the more able I am to follow through on details, like getting Ask the Matriarch posted in a timely fashion on Thursdays... sigh!")

It takes time
You're five months into it, and it's your first time, so give yourself a break and don't be hard on yourself. You are definitely not alone. If you have a committee such as the Pastor Parish Relations Committee, they may be able to help you by being clear with their expectations and guidelines. Maybe someone on there is good at scheduling and structure—ask them to help you. Or, find a peer who is good at it, and ask them for help and recommendations. You might be able to "buddy up" with someone to be accountable with you. There are plenty of workshops out there as well that teach those sort of things. Perhaps some of our other revgals and blogpals can make their recommendations in the comments. (Gallycat, here, again piping up with--"If I don't make a list, twice a week, of things I have to do, something won't get done. And I always run that list by whomever is the most detail-oriented person in the place to make sure I haven't forgotten something.")

Some people also follow a lot of what Stephen Covey (author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People") says about knowing your vision, your purpose, and your mission—then plan your work and day from that.

Abi's Reading Room
* Getting Things Done by David Allen
* Ministry is a High Calling (Aim Low): Reflections of a Parish Novice by Kurt R. Schuermann * Surviving Your First Year as Pastor (What Seminary Couldn't Teach You) by Angie Best-Boss
* Organize Your Work Day in No Time by K.J. McCorry
* Minister's Little Instruction Book by Stan Toler
* First Things First by Stephen Covey

* Taking Care of Busyness by John Ortberg at Leadership Journal of Christianity Today.
* Time Management for Pastors: Key Points for Living a Balanced, Productive Life and Avoiding Burnout by John R. Throop
* Time on Your Side: Ten Ways to Take Control of the Clock by Carolyn Campbell

Hope this helps!

(A note to everyone: If you have submitted a question to the queue, don't worry, it will be published here! We've had great questions so far and we look forward to the next round. If you have a great time-management tip you'd like to share, please post it in the comments, and as always, if you have a question, please send it to


  1. Thanks, Gallycat, and huge thanks to RevAbi for sharing from her wealth of experience!!!

  2. What a great topic. A year and a half in, I still struggle with how to manage my time and keep some basic routine. It's complicated even more by the fact that my church doesn't have an office, so I work out of the parsonage. Some weeks, I can barely squeeze in time to eat and sleep. Other weeks, I find myself sitting on my couch and thinking, "Surely I should be doing something right now..." For me, it helps if I look at how my schedule is going to be at the beginning of each week, and if it's looking less busy than usual, I pencil in some time for focused reflection and long-term planning. That makes the chaotic weeks less so, and helps me to keep things from sneaking up on me.

  3. thanks for all this! This is my favorite feature, and this is particularly timely since the senior pastor and i (the new associate!) were just discussing this.

    On a totally different topic, I've posted the sermon for my candidate weekend (Saturday/Sunday) and am in desperate need of feedback before Saturday around 4ish. Please!!! Thanks!

  4. Thank you, Rev Abi!
    I think one thing I really struggled with right out of seminary was being ok with not doing something all the time. I was single with no children and I felt like if I was not at church 9-5 that I wasn't doing my job well or faithfully.
    It is still a struggle to balance care of others with care of self, but now I have a baby and husband who will demand, if kindly, that I care for myself, too. Back then it seemed hard to allow myself Sabbath. I remember feeling very burned out at the end of that first year...
    So my sage and long-winded advice would be to be sure that if we are scheduling, we are not over-scheduling ourselves. Allowing some breathing room and some respite, is very necessary.

  5. Once again the ball has been hit out of the park - well done! Rev Abi I especially appreciated what you said about your morning schedule vs. afternoon schedule.

    Once I figured out - and it took me way too long - that I was getting things done far more efficiently in the am, I started planning accordingly.

    Awesome book list too. Thank you!

  6. Duh on me! Gallycat thanks for your hard work and great insight on this too!

  7. I think one of the hardest things for me was figuring out what "getting the most" was. Sometimes getting the most out of the day was sitting in the waiting room with the wife while the husband had open heart surgery. It didn't feel like "the most" at first because I didn't have anything to point to and say "I did that today."

    Another thing I started early in my ministry was picking hymns, prayers, scripture etc for several weeks (preferably months) in advance rather than weekly. If there's a reason to change when that Sunday arrives, fine. But sitting down and "chunking" worship stuff helps me be more flexible with handling the interruptions that often are the real ministry without having so much stress for worship planning that needs attention in order not to feel disjointed.

    And somewhere I heard "your inbox will never be empty. get used to it." so sometimes I just quit for the day knowing it will be there tomorrow

    Oh, and I thought of something else. To balance a work day, my college chaplain broke a day into 3 4hour blocks and (as much as possible) only worked 2 blocks a day. Morning and afternoon or afternoon and evening or morning and evening. He used it to be intentional about not working all day everyday. Recognizing that sometimes he would work all three blocks in one day, he also balanced the number of blocks worked in a week to equal 10. And to balance the month to equal 40.

    Well, that was long enough for an entry on my own blog. Hope there was something helpful in it.

  8. Wonderful stuff. Thank you all very much. It's a comfort to know that others struggle with the same issues. I want to affirm what April said about Sabbath keeping. Eugene Peterson has written some wonderful stuff about work and rest in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. His point seems to be that without rest, Sabbath, work is meaningless and without work Sabbath is just fooling around. My issue is not that I can't get a rhythm to my days but that it's very easy in the internet world to never quit. And yes - be kind to yourself, Gallycat. It's a good life, but it can kill ya. :)

  9. I would also like to affirm the importance of keeping a Sabbath - and taking all my vacation time! During my first 2 years as pastor I thought "days off" were a luxury, and that I was supposed to be working 24/7. I was also trying to justify every hour to some members of my congregation who seemed to believe that ministers should punch a time clock. They really didn't understand the creative part - the time spent studying and writing and praying. They wanted to see quantifiable work.

    On my 2 year anniversary I was diagnosed with pneumonia. Spending 3 weeks in bed was bad enough - having to be in bed while someone else did the funeral of a beloved member of the congregation was even worse. Especially as that member was one who kept saying "if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to take care of us." Since then I have become fairly good at taking time for me. Ok, it's only been a little over a year since then, but frankly I was really frightened that I could have worked myself literally to death if my husband hadn't insisted I go to the doctor.

  10. Awww, thanks for the well wishes, Pastornines! But I'm only the editor, and not a pastor myself. Helping connect the questions (in this case, "ISO"'s question) with the answers from our matriarchs is part of my vocation, though, and something I look forward to every week. But my time management goal is getting the column posted before I go to work, instead of after I leave!

    And in the grand scheme of things, that's only a little detail. :D


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