The Sly Saboteur: How to arrest ministry’s nemesis, Procrastination
BY: JOHN MAXWELL
Why start Sunday’s sermon now when Newsweek arrived in today’s mail? Why make those last few phone calls before going home when you can make them during halftime of the Monday Night Football game?
It’s no easily exorcised habit, this demon of procrastinating, putting off until later what should be done this very moment. A pastor who cherishes every moment, John Maxwell has felt the squeeze procrastinating puts on his life and ministry.
This article is excerpted from The Time Crunch: What to Do When You Can’t Do It All, co-authored by John Maxwell, Greg Asimakoupoulos, and Steve McKinley. It is the latest volume in the book series Mastering Ministry’s Pressure Points, co-published by Multnomah Press
We pastors are tempted to put off tough but necessary tasks. We need to confront a member about gossiping, but that could get ugly, so we visit someone in the hospital.
We need to propose some cuts to balance the budget, but the tradeoffs will be painful, so we read a book.
We need to clarify the church’s ministry philosophy, but the more specific we get, the greater the risks appear, so we return phone calls and visit with staff members.
We’re working, but we’re letting important, difficult priorities slide. That’s procrastination, and the cost is high. Procrastination is easy to rationalize, and tough to overcome.
Why We Put Things Off
Reasons to procrastinate abound, some obvious, others subconscious. The more we uncover and understand them, the better we can develop a game plan to defeat the delay habit. Here are four of the more common causes.
Poor self-confidence. When we know we can do a good job, we can’t wait to do it; when we feel inadequate, we procrastinate.
We’re poor, say, in administration, so we avoid it every way possible, neglecting even fundamental planning. Or a past failure paralyzes us. Mark Twain said that once a cat sits on a hot stove, it won’t sit on a hot stove again. Of course, he said, it won’t sit on a cold stove either.
Our failures are the hot stove. You squared off with a stubborn board member at your last church and lost your temper. You forgave him superficially, but bitterness settled in, poisoning your ministry there. Now you’re gun-shy of confronting strong personalities. The stakes are too high, the emotions too volatile.
After too many failures, a person won’t attempt anything, like the little leaguer who has struck out again and again. Now he just keeps the bat on his shoulder and hopes for a walk.
The kid who has belted some home runs can’t wait to get to the plate and take his cuts. When the game is on the line, he wants to be the hitter. Success breeds confidence and aggressiveness.
New situations can also intimidate us – a new church, a building project, a novel program, a counselee with a problem never encountered before. When I face things not routine, not habitual, I have to fight consciously the tendency to hold back.
Lack of problem-solving skills. Many pastors who
don’t normally procrastinate do so in the face of problems. They don’t know how to work through problems systematically: how to ask key questions, accumulate pertinent information, create and explore and weigh options, move forward even when the options aren’t perfect, and make midcourse corrections.
Building limitations, for example, is one of the most common and intractable problems we face. So naturally, we’re inclined to drag our feet rather than begin dealing with the countless details that a building project entails. Since the problem usually doesn’t become a crisis, people drift away because of overcrowding or substandard conditions – or they never come back once they’ve visited.
Problem-solving skills, though, can be learned, and such skills are one of the surest ways to liberate a pastor from procrastination.
• Distaste for certain tasks. The big three sour balls are confrontation, money, and vision. Often our distaste causes us to delay important action.
No one enjoys confronting others, yet from time to time the church’s health depends on it. When I speak at pastors’ conferences, pastors regularly say, “I’ve got a troublemaker in the church. What should I do?”
My first response is “Have you sat with this person one-to-one and talked through the issues?”
Ninety-five percent of the time the answer is no. By avoiding the problem we aggravate it, allowing bitterness to fester, misunderstandings to occur, and falsehoods to spread.
Subject to emotions. We’re tempted to follow feelings rather than priorities. If I wake up asking myself, “Okay, John, how ya’ doing, buddy? You ready for the day? What do you think you can handle?” I’ll put off many essential tasks, because many days I don’t feel like getting much done.
Strong leaders are priority based rather than feeling based.
Unresolved emotions like anger and guilt also weaken us to the point where we drag our feet. Soon after arriving at my first church, I had a run-in with Joe, a church leader.
Joe’s mother painted a picture that hung in the foyer for years. The first time I laid eyes on it, I decided it had to go. I took it down and put it in a closet. Joe didn’t say a word. He just retrieved it from the closet and rehung it.
When I noticed it the following Sunday, I asked various people, “Who put the picture back up?” Joe admitted, unapologetically, he’d done it.
I stewed for two months about what to do. I knew I had to confront him, but because I was new, I felt insecure in the church. My feelings not only inhibited my dealings with Joe, they had me so tied in knots I put off other important tasks. Eventually I went to Joe’s work and confronted him about it. I didn’t convince him of my views, but from then on I was free from anger.
Thief of More Than Time
Someone has called procrastination the thief of time. That’s certainly true, but procrastination also steals things far more dear to a pastor.
Putting off ministry tasks is like neglecting maintenance on a new car. If you don’t change your oil every 3,000 miles, your car will still start and run. The doors will still open, and the brakes will work. You’re getting away with it!
But after 8,000 or 10,000 miles, the engine oil has been saturated with dirt. Those particles are now grinding like liquid sandpaper at the lining of the cylinders, pistons, and rings. Eventually the metal wears away to the point that the car burns oil, the engine knocks. Left unattended, an engine designed to run over 130,000 miles is ready for the junkyard at 80,000 miles.
The cumulative effects of procrastination in ministry are similar. For quite a while, you don’t see what’s happening. But eventually a blue cloud starts billowing behind you.
Here are a few of the costs of doing first things last.
We lose productive people. One pastor I know is an effective preacher but a weak administrator. He has pastored small churches that can’t afford secretaries. Although he prepares his sermons well, he usually doesn’t get around to organizing announcements or planning worship services until Sunday morning.
His pulpit ministry attracts some sharp people. But when they start working in the church, many grow frustrated with the disorganization and eventually leave.
If we procrastinate, we immediately lose respect from our leaders and activists. Such people are not leaders by accident. They succeed in work and life because they have seized opportunities; they see openings and run for daylight; they size up situations quickly.
When leaders try to work with laissez-faire pastors, they go nuts. They’re thinking, We could have done this. We should have done that. Eventually they decide the pastor is not going anywhere, so they go elsewhere. The people a procrastinating pastor first loses are the ones he needs most.
We squander opportunities. Opportunities abound for those who do the right thing at the right time. Alfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, first espoused the 80120 principle of effectiveness. Eighty percent of your productivity, he said, comes from doing well the top 20 percent of your priorities, while only 20 percent of productivity comes from doing the bottom 80 percent of priorities.
Based on this principle, Pareto said to work smarter, not harder. Those who work the bottom 80 percent of their priorities but neglect the top 20 percent can work four times harder but only be one fourth as productive as those who work the top 20 percent.
It follows, then, that if we procrastinate on our top 20 percent, we
squander our biggest opportunities. It’s not only that we procrastinate, but what we procrastinate. Some pastors pay a much higher price for dallying because of what they dally.
Preparing the Sunday bulletin, for instance, is busy work with little return for a pastor. I have never met anyone who attends a church because of the bulletin, yet every week pastors spend important hours doing something that could be delegated.
We lose momentum. Momentum is one of a pastor’s best friends, easily worth five staff members. With it, you’re bigger than life. You walk up to the pulpit and say, “Good morning,” and everyone says, “He’s deep.”
Without momentum, or when you experience downward momentum, you’re swimming against the current. You say, “Good morning” and people say, “He’s shallow.”
Procrastination murders momentum. If we drag our feet, we slow the wagon. People excited about starting a new program quickly lose interest if we procrastinate getting them a budget. They may decide never again to take initiative. If we don’t get around to calling (or getting someone else to call) the couple that visited last Sunday, they’ll likely go elsewhere next Sunday, taking their network of unchurched friends, spiritual gifts, tithe, and winsome personalities with them.
Much of that and the wagon stops, and it’s a lot harder to start again.
Decisiveness and prompt action are like the solid fuel boosters that propel the space shuttle into orbit. Doing first things first energizes a church. People sense the can-do faith, the let’s-roll-up-our-sleevesand-go enthusiasm.
We lose self-respect. Pastors can only lose so many productive people, so many opportunities, and so much momentum before they lose their sense of worth.
On the other hand, even if results don’t flower immediately, self-regard takes strong root when we do what’s difficult, face daunting challenges, smooth rocky relationships, begin solving thorny problems, organize work, and plan a significant future.
How to Stop Keeping Up with Yesterday
Procrastination is a habit, but we can break it. Here’s how to change the attitudes and practices that foster the frustrating art of keeping up with yesterday.
List your priorities. This keeps us from procrastinating where it costs most. Prioritize based on the three R’s.
The first R is requirements. Ask, What is required of me? What must I do whether I like it or not? What tasks, if neglected, will cost me leadership, credibility, even my job?
A pastor decides, Visiting members in the hospital isn’t bearing much fruit. So instead of visiting members every other day, as he has customarily done and as the previous pastor did, he visits them only once a week, without ensuring that someone else in the church visits them at other times. Before long, people complain, “Pastor Robinson doesn’t care about us. He’s too busy trying to build himself a big church to take time with the hurting.”
So I encourage leaders to sit down with their leaders and ask, “What must I do that no one else in church can do? When is it critical that you see my face and touch my hand?”
When the search committee of Skyline Wesleyan Church interviewed me for the senior pastor position, I asked them what I had to do as senior pastor of Skyline that they would not be willing to have anyone else do.
After much discussion we concluded that only I could (1) cast the vision, (2) be the primary preaching pastor, (3) take responsibility for the progress of the church, (4) live a life of integrity as senior pastor, and (5) teach leadership to the pastoral staff.
The second R is return. What brings the greatest return to the church? What do I do better than anyone else that helps the church?
I’m not talking about just what you do well. You may file better than anyone in church. You may coach basketball better than anyone. But those jobs pay low dividends. What do you do well that significantly benefits the congregation?
My church gets the greatest return when 1 (1) communicate the vision and direction for the church, (2) equip key people for leadership and strategic planning.
If our first and second R’s clash severely, we’ll suffer. For example, if the church requires us to begin and maintain an abundance of programs, but we’re weak in administration, both we and the church will be unhappy. Unless we resolve the tension through give-and-take, negotiation, and education, such a problem will continue to plague us.
The third R is personal reward. We need jobs that we look forward to, that rejuvenate us, that we thank God someone actually pays us to do. Usually these jobs we’re good at.
I get the greatest reward from watching people grow, sensing God’s presence when I communicate, sharing Christ with others, and developing and equipping people to lead.
After listing your three R’s, take all factors into account, weigh the tradeoffs, and prioritize your pastoral tasks.
By the way, procrastination isn’t all bad. It’s healthy to leave lower priorities undone to ensure we’re covering what’s most important. Rather than trying to fix everything at once, overcome procrastination in the top 20 percent of priorities and then move down from there.
Develop accountability. When I pastured in Lancaster, Ohio, I decided one of my highest priorities was to model an evangelistic lifestyle for the church. Given my other pastoral responsibilities, that wouldn’t be easy, so one December I told the congregation, “Next year I’m going to lead 200 people to Christ. I want you to hold me to that.”
A few weeks later on a Saturday night, I went to the church to study and pray for the next morning’s service. In the lobby, I met one of our members. “Pastor, I’ve been praying for you every day,” he said, “that God will help you win people to Christ. And every time I pray I wonder how you’re doing.”
Good night! I thought. I’m done for. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t won anyone yet this week, but there’s still time.”
Instead of going into my study, I turned around and went to the car. I had one prospect card, Larry and Sue, living on Fair Avenue. I drove to their home, introduced myself, sat down in their living room, and before the night was over they prayed to ask Christ into the center of their lives. They attended church the next day and walked the aisle in a public dedication.
Accountability changes behavior. In the case above, of course, God was gracious enough to allow my effort to be fruitful. In any event, if I had a serious problem with procrastination, I would sit with trusted church leaders and admit my struggle. I would show them my list of priorities and ask if they agreed that those priorities were best for the church. Then I would ask them to hold me accountable for my top priorities.
Often these leaders sense that if you are to handle the top priorities, you will need someone to handle lower priorities. They may, in fact, volunteer to help.
Do things that develop confidence. As a boy I wres
tled almost daily with my brother Larry. He always pinned me. He was two years older, strong and husky, and at that time I was literally anemic.
My dad watched Larry pin me over and over, and he saw what it was doing
to my confidence. One night he told Larry, “You can’t wrestle with John this week. I’m going to wrestle him.”
My dad let me win every match. Then he would wrestle Larry and beat him. As I got wins under my belt and saw that Larry was beatable, I gained confidence.
After a week he turned us loose to wrestle again. This time we wrestled to a draw. My brother never pinned me again.
Did I gain strength in one week? No, I gained confidence. And we can gain confidence the same way: by getting small wins under our belts. We can find things (no matter how small) we can succeed at, stay with them long enough for confidence to grow, and then build from there.
Another way to develop confidence is by learning from others. Almost everything I know I learned from somebody.
At my second church, we grew beyond anything I had experienced before. We were seating people in the aisles, and frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I called up Bob Grey, pastor of a large church in Jacksonville, Florida. “My name is John Maxwell,” I said. “You don’t know me. I’m a pastor, and I’m coming to Jacksonville on vacation. I need to talk to you. I’ll give you a hundred dollars for an hour of your time.”
Bob agreed to see me. Several weeks later I walked into his office with a tape recorder, a yellow legal pad, and a list of questions. I punched the recorder and fired away for an hour, asking him about the aspects of ministry that puzzled me most. To correct our overcrowding, the problem I was most concerned about, he suggested two Sunday morning services, a novel idea at that time.
When we were finished, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the check, but he refused it. In fad, he took me out to lunch, and we became good friends.
That went so well, I did the same with other prominent pastors. These sessions developed my confidence. Not only did I take home pages of great insights that boosted my know-how, their faithfilled attitude rubbed off on me.
Develop a problem-solving mindset. Along with developing the problem-solving skills mentioned earlier, we need continually to nurture a creative attitude. The more creative we are, the more we’ll find solutions.
We can learn to be creative. Creativity isn’t anatomically fixed in our brains, solely dependent on whether we’re dominantly left- or right-brained. It’s a way of thinking, an outlook, a habit. We find creative solutions to problems when we (1) think outside of the rigid boxes we’re accustomed to, (2) step out of our security zone, and (3) sometimes move forward before we completely figure everything out.
The piano player in a small church moved out of town, leaving the congregation without a replacement. For a few weeks, the congregation sang a cappella, but people began complaining. “The worship just isn’t the same. One off-key person throws everyone off.”
The pastor thought about hiring a pianist, but the budget was too tight. So they did nothing, and attendance slowly declined.
How did one Chicago church solve that problem? With a boom box and worship cassettes available in any Christian bookstore. No one had heard of a church worshiping along with a tape, but they tried it. The church grew, and eventually another pianist began attending.
We can’t wait till we have all the answers before we start moving. After we take the first creative step – even though we don’t know what the second will be – we often get new insights and answers.
Break large projects into small steps. The toughest part of tackling elephant-sized projects is getting started. Facing the entire task before us, we’re intimidated and overwhelmed. The key is to break the project into small pieces and start with what you can do best. Doing the small job you feel most able to conquer may not be the project’s logical first step, but it’s the emotional first step. Getting that done encourages you to start the next most do-able step. After that, you’ve got momentum, and before long you’re a few steps from the finish.
For example, you may see the need to develop a written statement of your church’s vision and goals. Setting ten-year goals and settling on an overarching theme for your vision can’t be done in a snap. But sitting down and listing needs doesn’t take deep thought. Once that’s out of the way, thinking about your strengths is encouraging. Then the pieces of the vision start to fall in place naturally.
Work in imperfect situations. On a flight with a staff member, I opened my briefcase and starting working. I noticed he read the newspaper the entire flight. I thought, We may have a problem here. I didn’t say anything; I wanted to see if that was an exception.
It wasn’t. On the next flight, he did the same thing. An hour or two into the flight, we began to discuss things to be done, and I asked him to call someone in the church. He wrote it in his calendar to do when he returned home. I asked, “Dick, when are you going to call him?”
“Well, you know, we’ll be back in the office in two days,” he answered.
“I’ll call him then.”
“Dick, why don’t you call him from the airport when we land,” I said.
“We’ve got an hour layover. You can handle it in five minutes.”
Dick got the point quickly. He was used to working in an ideal setting.
As pastors, we wait for uninterrupted time to do our sermon preparation, and it never comes. We intend to work on the church’s vision when we can get away for a few days at a cabin, but those days never become available. Looking for the perfect setting to do a task usually leads to procrastination.
The best time to arrest procrastination is now.