The Unbusy Pastor

Considering a treatment plan for the busy pastor

Welcome to the fourteenth post in Greatheart’s Table. I’m glad you’re along for the ride. Feel free to forward these posts to others if you find them helpful.

In this post I continue our conversation about busy-ness suggesting some pathways to lessen the stress. Where we end is always where we need to end: putting aside our desire for acclaim and being content with Jesus.

So let’s consider what it means to be an “Unbusy Pastor.”


As I’ve been writing about pastoral busy-ness, I’ve had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Drawing attention to how busy-ness can be a problem makes the angel happy. “Go, Randy,” he shouts.

But the devil’s not so amused. “Are you going to tell them everything, Randy?” he growls. “Or are you going to let them go on believing that you have it all together?” He says, “Aren’t you the guy who, because of that wedding last weekend and the upcoming class you are prepping, while managing staff changes and plans for the fall, has not had a proper day off since. . . well, tell me: when was that? Huh?”

So, yes - full disclosure is in order. I am afflicted with the disease of busy-ness and have not found the cure.

That does not mean I have not found treatment strategies. With these, I find I can manage my busy-ness even if I cannot completely rid myself of it. I share these strategies with you here with the hope that they might be of some help to others.

#1 - Personality

First, I’ve had to look closely at how I’m wired. My personality thrives on the energy of busy-ness. I seem to produce best under pressure. I may envy the guy sitting at Starbucks with a book and a latte, but if that were all I had to do, I’d come unglued. Having lots to do is what keeps me sane. It’s the way God made me.

Or that’s what I tell myself. Perhaps I just say this in order to justify what is really my sin.

That’s why I need to process these thoughts with others. Good friends and a trusted therapist help me sort out who I really am. As long, of course, as I’m willing to listen to them.

#2 - Purpose

As well, I repeatedly have to be reminded of my purpose, my calling. I am, first of all, a pastor. Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is a book I’ve read several times because he so carefully reminds me of the shape of my calling. A pastor, though doing many things, is called primarily to pray, to preach, and to listen.1 His thoughts on listening particularly have been important to me.

“Too much pastoral visitation is punching the clock, assuring people we’re on the job, being busy, earning our pay. Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”2

Time and again people tell me the pastors with the deepest impact in their lives have been those who took the time to just sit with them and listen. I need to be reminded of these things.

#3 - Plan

Knowing what is important is useless and guilt-inducing without a system I can trust to help me sort the endless stream of expectations. David Allen3 gave me that system.

The stack of magazines that once occupied a corner of my desk was symbolic of my out of focus life. I told myself I would read them some day. I lied a lot to myself like that. I felt mounting dis-ease knowing I could not and would never do it. Then, in 2004, an article in The Atlantic4 directed me to Allen’s Getting Things Done, a practical approach to bringing order to the disordered. Allen helped me develop a system by which I could process my life’s constant flow of changing expectations.

The magazines and other guilt-inducing objects and objectives were tossed and I have been able to be more honest about what I will do while more reliably getting done the things that need doing.

#4 - Priority

Nevertheless, the fundamental problem remains. Allender, Peterson, and others are right: I’m often busy because I’m vain. I live for acclaim, something Gordon MacDonald first suggested to me forty years ago in what he called the “Laws of Unseized Time.”5 All four are worth consideration, but the fourth is relevant here.

Unseized time gets invested in things that gain public acclamation.

This hunger for public acclaim is toxic to the heart of pastoral ministry and we pastors should know that better than most. The only thing that matters, the only acclaim worth having, is the acclaim, the acceptance, the love of our Savior. Perhaps we are too busy preaching that to really hear it. Mary, not Martha, found the one thing necessary. We join her not by our busy-ness, but by our stillness.

In the end there is only one voice to hear, that of the Savior who is always saying, “Well done.” When I slow down and am quiet for a while, I am able to hear him say it.

1

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (United States: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 19-22

2

Peterson, pp. 21, 22.

3

David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Revised Edition (United States: Piatkus Books, 2015)

4

James Fallows, “Organize Your Life”, accessed 8/2/21

5

Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (United States: Thomas Nelson Publishers,1984), pp.81ff.
The other three “laws” are:
* Unseized time flows toward my weaknesses.
* Unseized time comes under the influence of dominant people in my world.
* Unseized time surrenders to the demands of all emergencies.

Forty years later, I could easily add a fifth.
* Unseized time defaults to our electronic devices and streaming services.