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.

Pecans and Pastors, continued

A reader writes, regarding yesterday’s post:

Congregations need to know that when they expect 60 hours a week out of their pastor, when they routinely call the pastor on their day off, when they burden the duties of all the work of programs and activities on their pastor…all of these things…it creates resentment and bitterness…

And when we’re resentful and bitter, we can’t be pastors, ministers, teachers, shepherds, or effective preachers of the gospel.

It’s frustrating because of the cultural expectations surrounding pastors. If we refuse to do this stuff, or try to create a culture where the congregation does it and we support, resource and cheer lead, then we are seen as lazy and not wanting to do our jobs. I actually saw something in the regional church newsletter that referred to the expectation that full-time = at least 50 hours per week, and a statement was attached that “our younger pastors squawk about it, but they just don’t have the work ethic we’re used to seeing in our older pastors.”

We’ve created a cultural dependence on our presence in the churches. We’re so afraid that the church will run just fine without us that we’ve made ourselves indispensable, creating a culture where we get burnt out and frustrated and bitter.

And that’s not good…for us as ministers or for the congregations that we serve.

To a certain extent, that absolutely matches my experience.

We agree about pecans, but not about pastors

I learned a couple of very important things over the weekend.

First, most of my Facebook friends agree that the correct pronunciation of the word “pecan” is “puh-CAHN”. There is some slight disagreement as to why it is pronounced that way, but (other than a few outliers) that seems to be the consensus, whether talking about the nut itself or the nut in a pie.

The second thing I learned is that there is little to no consensus on what constitutes “Full Time” when talking about the work of pastoral ministry. In the conversation on my profile, I rediscovered a wide chasm between what we think pastors should be doing, the amount of time we think they should be able to do it in, and the reasons why we think so.

In Open Source Church, I quoted a paper I was a part of writing, “Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God.” In that paper we said,

The Bible describes a variety of forms of ministry leadership. Evangelists served a critical role as the early Christian church began to organize. In the Middle Ages, the pastor as mediator of sacramental grace became primary. The sixteenth and seventeenth century priesthood of all believers, among other things, elicited the pastor as preacher and pastor as ethical guide models. Around 1900 and with growing literacy new images and metaphors for pastoral ministry began to emerge, especially after the First World War. In no uniform order or pure forms, pastoral ministry models of professional educator, psychologist/counselor, agent of social change, and manager of the church surfaced as ideals. Recent research shows many congregants expect their pastor to master each of these models; to be an expert in each of these roles.

Clearly, we have a disconnect.

In an age in which I believe bi-vocationality will play a greater and greater role, I was interested in what others thought about the question of being a Full Time Pastor. Is it sustainable? Is it desirable? What could a pastor reasonably expect to get done in the time she was expected to work? What kind of work was she expected to do? I didn’t ask any of these questions (I just started the ball rolling and watched it roll down the hill), but they were all answered in some form or another.

There are many conclusions I want to draw from these answers, particularly about larger question of the nature and function of the congregation, but for now I want to center on one basic point:

Our general expectation of the working life of pastors belies the fact that Christians have either not been taught or have ignored teaching on Sabbath.

A few quick thoughts:

We need to both teach and model Sabbath. I’m not sure when we forgot this, but Sabbath is a commandment; a sign to Israel of The Covenant. When the people came out of Egypt, Sabbath was the first thing they were taught. “You are not slaves anymore,” they were told. “Once a week, nothing happens.” That was God talking, not just a good idea.

So we should regularly preach this First Commandment, and work it into our liturgies. We should teach classes on it, specifically, and make sure it infuses anything we say about the Abundant Life.

As well, take your days off and ALL of your vacation! Are we insane? Sustained activity with no break is detrimental to our health and well being. Plus, we kind of turn into a jerk when we’ve not had any time away. You know I’m dropping truth there, right?

Also, we should limit the time we spend on things that other people can probably do better than we can. Because how can we expect to be any good at the One Thing most people assume we’ve been called to do when our brains are mush? We’re the PREACHERS, for crying out loud. For many people in the pews, this is the One Thing we get to offer them. Do we honestly think those sermons we preach after the 60+ hour weeks we’ve had are any good? I’m here to tell you they’re not. That’s our first job and we’re failing at it.

YOU are the Body of Christ whom your pastors are to be building up and equipping to do the work of ministry. The fact has either been forgotten or ignored, but pastors are not the people who are hired to do the work that God has called The Church to do. Pastors are helpers and teachers (in my denomination, they are actually called “teaching elders”) set apart to help and guide.

I know people are crazy busy, but that may be part of the point (and the problem). I’m sure we pastors have not done a good enough job teaching about Sabbath, let alone modeling it (see above). I know that in most jobs, folks may have a harder time achieving work/personal balance. But I fail to see why expecting pastors to endure the same (if not more) crap as they would in a corporate job for less chance at good pay and advancement is fulfilling the promises that congregations make to care for them. If congregations expect the pastor to (at least) show them a glimpse of the Abundant Life, then why make it harder for them to do so?

This isn’t about a better contract or job description. This is about a change of heart and a desire to care for one another, not pawning off our responsibility to care for each other on the MDiv. A lot of pastors I know are willing to go many extra miles to make sure people are cared for. They’ll sit for hours and drink coffee with the retiree, and eat everyone’s pie at the church potluck. But they do these things because they’re loving souls, not because you require it in your employment notice.

Honestly, I have many opinions on how this can and should change, but, for now, at least we’ve established that whenever the pastor comes to a church potluck, she’ll be consuming “puh-CAHN” pie, right?

I’m not a very good friend, am I?

Short term mission trips are good things, in my opinion. Yes, I know the critique that they do little to address the long term, systemic issues that necessitate the need for the short term mission trip in the first place. But you can’t tell me that the work Short-Termers do isn’t beneficial. I just had a friend return from building a Habitat house outside of the US, and as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Yet, there is one thing about these trips I wish we could change. It’s when the team returns home to give a report to the congregation and that one person says, “It was such an amazing experience. They actually helped me more than we helped them.”

Please, tell me that’s not the case.

One of the greatest gifts that the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz gave to the Church was the reframing of ethics in light of “friendship.” When you think of your relationships with your friends, you will do whatever you need to do within your power to help them out. If your friend says, “I need help with Thus and So,” then you do whatever you can within your power to help with Thus and So. That’s what friends do.

But do you know what friends don’t do? They don’t make it about themselves. They are not thankful that Thus and So existed just so that they could see just how good they have it. They are not grateful for an opportunity for a maturating self-awareness. Good friends sacrifice for their friends. But most of us seem to make “self-sacrifice” just another way for our egos to prop themselves up.

If I use my friends as a way to make myself feel better then I’m not a very good friend, am I?

I know this doesn’t sell well in our consumer driven, North American context. I know that we should be glad when people’s eyes are opened. But, you know what? Just once, I’d love to hear a returning Short-Termer say, “That was terribly inconvenient and not very fun. But I met some good friends, am happy that that we were able to help them, and wish that our help was not even needed.”

Self-sacrifice is not, and cannot be, about us. To do otherwise is to miss the point of the Gospel.

“As long as we reach one person…”

Any church leader who has been in charge of any kind of programming that is consistently showing a lack of success has said it. “As long as we reach one person, everything was worth it.”

Everything? Really?

To be sure, there are times when that is the case. We read the parable of the Good Shepherd going to find the one lost sheep and we feel justified doing what we’ve got to do to make sure that one person knows they are loved by God. But let’s be honest: That’s not usually what we’re talking about.

What we’re usually talking about is someone trying to justify performance in the face of what they consider unreasonable expectations. Jan Edmiston taught me that these can be classified as “how much, how often, and how many.”

Rightfully so, we find these kinds of measurements to be somewhat antithetical to the purposes God has for the Church. If the job of church leaders is to maximize attendance or contributions, certain kinds of choices will be made; choices that, more often than not, make a person feel comfortable and more likely to show up and give.

Yet, rather than try to “change the scorecard” we say that scorecards don’t matter.

But they do matter. They matter quite a bit. The only way that the Good Shepherd knew that the one sheep was lost was because the shepherd counted.

The “Moneyball” phenomenon showed us that there are objective things that coaches can pay attention to that will ensure better and better results for their teams. What are those for the church?

Because – Can we just say? – with the state of the world and it’s need for Christ’s Grace and Peace, reaching just one person isn’t good enough.