The 80/20 Rule, or “How to be a Pastor in 8-10 hours a week”

If you want to know what it’s like to have a 4th kid. Just imagine you are drowning and someone hands you a 4th kid. @JimGaffigan

Four and a half years ago, Lady was about to give birth to Quatro. As you can imagine, I was a little nervous. As the solo pastor of a bigger than average Presbyterian congregation, I knew that I had better get my rear in gear and figure out some form of time management or I would be sunk. Four kids, full time pastor. This could be a problem.

I routinely spent about 20 hours of my week preparing my sermon, and I have always been a stickler about Sabbath and rest (Yay for introverts!). Sundays were always good for about 5 hours, leaving me between 3.5-4 hours during each of my other four working days to get everything else done.

Everything else.

No wonder people have started saying that 50 hours a week is normative.

How is one supposed to prep and lead Bible Study, attend committee meetings, prep and lead Session/Vestry/Council/Board meetings, visit homebound members, make hospital calls, administrate the logistics of mission projects, participate in ecumenical gatherings, serve the broader church, and on and on and on…. in about 16 hours?

You can’t.

I knew I couldn’t do everything I was doing, and I needed to make a change. I needed to get a handle on my workload or I and my family were going to implode.

The 4-Hour Workweek

The year before all this, a book was published that changed my life. It was The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. To be sure, the title is cheeky (it was meant to be so), but I was drawn to its theme of having control over your life; of living a life that is satisfying and rewarding. As Ferriss states in the book, not everyone can do their entire job in four hours. The point is not the number, but that everyone can have more time to do the things that matter to them. He wants to help his reader gain more control over their lives and have more time available to them to do things that matter.

I was about to have another (!) baby. I need more time to do something that mattered.

Ferriss is a bit of a human science experiment. In approaching anything, he first begins by breaking down a task/skill/etc into is constituent parts, figures out which ones are vital and which are not, and then reconstructs a plan of action. In order to do this he applies two well known ideas to his life.

  • The Pareto Principle. You most likely know it as The 80/20 Rule. The principle states that 80% of all output is achieved through only 20% of input. 20% of the people do 80% of the work. 20% of the clients contribute to 80% of the sales. 20% of what goes in produces 80% of what comes out.
  • Parkinson’s Law. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you have 10 hours to do a job, the job will take 10 hours. But if you have 20 hours… the job will take 20. This is why students cram at the end of the semester to complete that paper they’ve had weeks to be working on; why sales associates scramble to close deals at the end of the quarter.

For me, getting a handle on my workload was due to the realization that these ideas absolutely applied to my situation. I realized that 40-50 hours a week was not what was actually at stake. Accomplishing the tasks of ministry were. If I could find a way to make sure no balls were dropped and still have time to be with my family and attend to personally fulfilling things* (like writing) then I would have won.

How I won (so to speak)

The first step I took was to follow Ferriss’ lead and break down my workload so I could accurately assess what particular inputs were contributing to the output. Specifically, I asked “What were the 20% of my activities that resulted in 80% of my accomplishments?” I found that, of everything that was officially and unofficially expected of me, the following things contributed to roughly 80% of my “end product”:

  • Worship (preparation and execution)
  • Governance (resourcing the board and its committees, facilitating meetings)
  • Christian Education (preparation and execution)
  • Pastoral Care (as needed hospital visits, 2-3 home visits per week)

Of everything that took up my time during a week, these were the four things that represented my “20%.” If I just did these four things, I was 80% of the way home. But these four things could also take up a ton of time if I let them. So I applied Parkinson’s Law.

For instance:

Someone told us in seminary that we should take an hour of study for each minute of our sermon. 15 minute sermon; 15 hours of study. 25 minute sermon; 25 hours of study. Really? Why did we buy that? Do any of us really take that long? Is this that hard? I’m not sure it is.

I started by reminding myself that I am not a biblical scholar, a christian historian, or a researcher in any of the fields of behavioral science. My job was to help the text “make sense” to a community as they were living their specific lives. After I had spent just an hour or so with the text and a few interpretations, I had a pretty good idea what the Good News for my congregation could be. Did I actually need 22 more hours to write? No.

I limited myself to just 5-6 hours, and you know what happened? I got a lot of time back, and I actually became (I think) a better preacher. I forced myself to not try to say everything, but to say one good thing that would offer Hope into the community I was to serve.

I applied this same logic and analysis to Governance, Christian Education, and Pastoral Care (it didn’t work as well on this one😉 ). I learned how to delegate, and I learned how to say “No.” I also got off the damned internet and didn’t lie to myself that I was working as I trolled Facebook and Twitter. I know I’m not alone there, am I?

* * * * *

Some of this may not apply to your situation, and that’s fine. But the ultimate lesson I learned was that I was not focused at all. I was lying to myself about how long it took me to do most of the ministry tasks I needed to accomplish. After the initial learning curve, if we aren’t becoming more efficient in our work then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

I encourage you to take a hard look at what you’re doing. Determine your 20% and assess whether you really need that long to complete it. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.

*This is a topic for a another post, but there seems to be an overriding sense that our congregational leaders have one – and only one – interest in life: performing acts on behalf of the church. If interest is expressed in anything other than wanting to “help the church succeed” then loyalty is questioned and the pastor then has to spend her time in damage control.

7 thoughts on “The 80/20 Rule, or “How to be a Pastor in 8-10 hours a week””

  1. Leaving time for you is also leaving time for the Spirit. The hour/minute rule doesn’t leave much for that now, does it?

      1. I think we work so very hard, and dig and delve so deeply, to try to share a sound and intelligent message, that we don’t leave room for the Spirit to work. I suspect that all our focus on what my husband laughingly called “the Intelligentsia,” actually closes us off from the Spirit. For Presbyterians in particular, our desire to ground ourselves in the Truth has resulted in our erecting barriers to hearing God’s Word truly. We are so afraid of letting ourselves go (and with some good reason–a false Word has resulted in much suffering) that we tie ourselves up so completely we cannot get the real message. We want to be so True that we cannot be Truly Prophetic. And with no Real message, we reach no one except those we have already reached (maybe).

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