Another “Not-To-Do” List: For Pastors and Theologians

Tim Ferriss is obsessed with efficiency. On his podcast, Ferriss often invites the most successful people in the world, from athletes to scientists, to share their workflow. Today he posted a blog with a “Not-To-Do” list that is, for the most part, helpful. Pastoral ministry is not and should not be equated with running a business. Since Tim is writing primarily for businesspeople, some of the list doesn’t translate into a life of pastoral care. So, I thought I’d offer a slightly revised version for those of us who are pulled every which way as servants in the Church.

1. Do not answer unexpected calls.

“Feel free to surprise others, but don’t be surprised,” Tim writes. This is worthwhile advice. When you’re busy at work doing sermon preparation or cracking away at grading in between meetings, let an unexpected phone call go to voicemail. Answering a phone call, even if it is automated, takes away focus and mental energy. I often find that, if I get distracted by a phone call, I end up also checking my e-mail or Facebook. So, a small distraction turns into a larger one. Set aside fifteen minutes in the afternoon to respond to missed calls and text messages.

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

“The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day,” Tim explains, “and the latter just gives you insomnia. E-mail can wait until 10am, after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items…” This makes sense to me. If it is truly urgent, the person can get ahold of you in the morning. 10am is an arbitrary time, of course, so choose a time that makes sense in light of your routine.

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.

In most cases, this should not apply for meetings with parishioners or students. Oftentimes, it seems, a parishioner wants to meet with the pastor because they’re not sure what they need. Conversation can draw that out. But church board meetings or departmental meetings need to have a clear, focused agenda and end time. That way, if the conversation strays off topic, it does not come off as impatience to get it back on track. Likewise, if the agreed upon end time arrives, people can feel free to leave without being considered uncommitted. Pastor’s should, whenever possible, protect their time and the time of their volunteers.

4. Do not let people ramble.

Tim writes: “A big part of GTD (getting things done) is GTP — Getting To the Point.” That is mostly right. Again, sometimes people need to ramble. I’ve benefited a great deal from patient mentors and professors listening to me ramble on about all sorts of things. In many cases, however, you can improve on keeping your interactions on-point.  This does not mean snubbing your administrative assistant. It means communicating efficiently, and learning to guide conversations in a way that helps others communicate efficiently.

5. Do not check e-mail constantly — “batch” and check at set times only

“Focus on execution of your top to-do’s,” Tim says, “instead of responding to manufactured emergencies.” I can’t tell you how important — and how difficult — this is. People are addicted to checking their e-mail, text messages, and social medias. Huffington Post reported that the average American worker spends 6.3 hours a day checking e-mail (what!?). We simply don’t have time for that. Like phone calls, set aside a specified chunk of time in the morning and/or afternoon to check and reply to e-mails. But do not spend more than your allotted time, and do not read e-mails in between. Turn off phone and computer notifications. This will let you have longer periods of uninterrupted thought or prayer — something quite important for preachers and teachers. (An added benefit, you’re less likely to forget to respond to an e-mail or text if you open them all at the same time and respond to them at the same time!)

6. Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance churchgoers, students.

This is the one that really doesn’t translate. We cannot simply “do an 80/20 analysis” of our congregation. We are called to love and care for the lowest profit people and the highest maintenance people. There is, however, an important point that is related to this advice. Certain churchgoers have needs that exceed the pastor’s training and calling. Pastors need to know when to refer a parishioner to a professional (for example, in matters of mental health or economic need). The pastor does not abandon the parishioner, but admits that even pastors have limits. We are not heroes. We are pastors. Another important option is to create ministry teams to accomplish certain tasks that take up a lot of time. The church in Acts did it, so why shouldn’t we?

7. Do not work more to fix overwhelm — prioritize

“If you don’t prioritize, everything seems urgent and important.” When was the last time that you sat down and listed out your weekly “priorities”? For a pastor, this is essential Once you know the necessities, you have a daily focus around which you can create your schedule. And remember, sleep is essential to getting good work done.

8. Do not carry a cellphone 24/7

“Take at least one day off of digital leashes per week.” I have a feeling that the invention of the cell phone was once a pastor’s worst nightmare. We actively live in that nightmare. We already feel compelled to work tirelessly. Now we have “no excuse” for not answering our phone. Well, fortunately, the Scriptures tell us “not to conform to the patterns of the world.” So turn it off for a day. Sabbath rest is essential to nurturing a healthy and sustainable ministry. Tim also suggests leaving the phone at home if you go out to dinner. Spouses, children, or friends will appreciate this. And you will too.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should

Related to #8: “Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting.” We are not called to work day and night, risking our mental and physical health. We are called to work hard and work faithfully. That will include protecting your relationships with friends and family; protecting your health (in its fulness, not just physical or emotional) through various activities; and defending your relationship with God through prayer and meditation.

10. Do not forget grace is the center of Christian life.

(I am revising it for church servants, so why not have 10 Commandments?) We are imperfect and we work with imperfect people. We are not machines. Do not forget that you will often need to extend grace to others and, probably more often, to yourself. No level of efficiency will produce genuine Christian community if it is graceless.


I have by no means put all of these into practice (seeing as I read the list an hour ago, because I checked my e-mail when I should have been writing!). But I think they are worth considering. What would you add to the not-to-do list? Did any of these strike you as especially helpful or especially impossible?


3 thoughts on “Another “Not-To-Do” List: For Pastors and Theologians

  1. Pingback: Weekender: July 1, 2017 – Theology Forum

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