Here’s part of the lecture I gave to the students in my Leadership class on managing time in pastoral ministry.

I’ve given you a theology of time and a devil-ology of time. In the light of that, let me now give you 10 practical ways to manage time.

1. Peace
The most important time of the day is first thing in the morning. Get up early enough to have a quiet time for reading the Bible and prayer. Those first moments of peaceful orientation of the mind and soul are the foundation of a successful day of ministry. And the key to getting up early enough is getting to bed early enough the night before. If you are finding it impossible to get up early enough for an undistracted time of Bible reading and prayer, you are going to bed too late.

2. Plan
After your quiet time, use paper, a whiteboard, or electronic means to list all the things you have to do in the day. Or, ideally, pick up the list you prepared the day before. Someone once said that for every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned! Slight exaggeration but a lot of time is saved if we pause to get organized rather than just plunge into the first thing that comes to mind. And make sure you have only one to-do list!

I keep that list with me all the time and keep adding to it. Some items are for that day and other items will be for the future. But everything that needs to be done goes on that list. I try not to carry anything about with me in my head.

3. Prioritize
You are not going to get everything done, so you have to let the less important things wait. Organize the list of to-do’s into the following categories:

There may be phone calls, visits, or emails that simply have to be done that day.

Big: Make sure you do something substantial in the study each day. It may be a few hours on a sermon, or a few hours writing an article, or a few hours of focused study, etc. It is very easy in the ministry to let the little things squeeze out the big. The little things are less demanding on the mind and soul and give a sense of “I’m getting things done!” But time must be set apart for the longer-term, substantial things. It is usually best to do this first thing in the morning, after personal/family devotions.

Daily: There are some routine things that happen every day, or should do. They are not urgent and the world won’t fall apart if you don’t do them; but if you let them build up, then you will eventually become overwhelmed. Some examples may be answering emails, making phone calls, organizing your diary and coordinating it with your wife’s, balancing bank accounts, and backing up data (or use Dropbox). 

Visits & Meetings: Are there any pastoral visits or meetings planned for the day? Work out the most efficient way of combining these to minimize travel time. What other errands can I do on these trips?

Long-term: Eventually you will be asked to write articles, review books, contribute to reports, deliver lectures, etc. Try to find one slot in the week that you dedicate to these more long-term projects. It is usually best to schedule these projects for completion every 2-3 weeks rather than let them build up on you, so that you have five to do in two days time! If you don’t schedule it, it won’t get done.

Andrew Carnegie once asked a consultant, “What can you do for me about time control?” The consultant said, “I’ll make one suggestion, and you send me a check for what you think it’s worth. Write down what you have to do on a piece of paper in order of priority, and complete the first item before you go on to the second.” It’s reported that Carnegie tried it for a few weeks and sent him a check for ten thousand dollars.

4. Pick
Pick the right time for the right tasks. If you don’t set aside time for tasks, they are unlikely to be done. Make sure you choose the right time slot for each task and allocate enough time for it.

Devote large blocks of time to important tasks. Squeeze less important tasks into smaller blocks and consolidate smaller tasks into one block to release larger blocks for important tasks.

And don’t multi-task. Glen Stansberry says: “Every time you switch your attention, there’s a cognitive ramp up time. It can range from a few seconds to a few minutes. So, if you constantly cycle between checking email, IM, twitter, texts, voicemail, calendars, blackberries, apps, scores, stock quotes, news, current projects and more, then respond to each, the time you lose to incessant ramp-up becomes substantial. Instead, minimize time lost to non-stop cognitive ramping by batching your time and focusing on individual categories of tasks with intense, yet discrete bursts of attention.”

5. Perform
I’ve written on procrastination before (here, here, and here)

6. Pace
Some pastors live life at Wall Street trader pace. Others go for the “let it all hang out” pace. Neither helps the pastor or his people. Somewhere between these two poles is where we should find ourselves; and pace will vary from person to person.  Find a pace that allows you to get a good amount of substantial work done, that will allow you to have time for people, and that will not discourage people from seeking your time.

Set yourself time limits on work like sermons. You can spend an endless amount of time perfecting a sermon. If you are to have time for other duties, you have to draw a line somewhere.  You also have to be able to distinguish between tasks that require a much higher quality of work than others. For example, a sermon for a nursing home on a Sunday afternoon does not require as much preparation as the main preaching sermon of the week.

Pace your to-do list as well. If you have ten extra things to do this week, do two a day rather than try to do ten on day one. That breaks up the mountain into small manageable steps. One way to speed up the pace at which you do mundane tasks (if not all tasks) like email, is to use a stopwatch or timer.

“Pace” is the best place I can find to also mention exercise. Glen Stansburry said: “It sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to spend time exercising. Research has shown that exercise boosts cognitive function, creativity, problem solving and productivity. In fact a NASA study showed employees who exercised daily worked at 100% efficiency after 7 hours, while those who didn’t saw a 50% drop, meaning it took them twice as long to accomplish the same thing. So, exercise, in effect, creates time.”

Build in buffer time so that you have space to accommodate if something interrupts or goes wrong. If you don’t and something does set you off-schedule, then it will be impossible to get back on track and you will lose momentum.

And get enough sleep. It helps boost your memory!

7. Purge
One of the benefits of the class time-management exercise is that you will hopefully have identified a number of time-wasters in your life. Probably just the exercise of recording your time was revealing to you and had its own corrective effects. There’s no question that the biggest drain on pastors’ time now is the Internet.  You will have to find a way of controlling this either through self-discipline or with the help of time clocks and filters/blockers.

8. Protect
According to Julie Morgenstern, the average information worker is interrupted by another person or by technology every 11 mins and it takes 25 mins to fully refocus.  So, if you are ever going to get quality study time and sermon preparation time, you will have to protect the time you set aside to do this. Mark out “study appointments” in your schedule as if you were visiting with someone, and make it non-negotiable. I found the mornings were the best for this. I usually protected 8am to 1pm, Tuesday to Saturday. I protected the time by informing my elders of my study time (which also percolated into the congregation), putting the phone on the answering machine, shutting down email, etc. I made a point of returning all phone calls at lunchtime. You have to balance accessibility with productivity.

You will want to have a notebook nearby to jot down “to-do” and other thoughts that occur while you are preparing sermons, so that you don’t think, “I better do that before I forget.”

9. Pause
You need a Sabbath like everyone else, a time to take a break from work and take time out for yourself and your family. When we home-schooled, I took off every Monday. My wife was strict about this. Only twice did I persuade her that I really needed the extra day to work. In both cases, I accomplished no more by the end of the week than if I had taken the time off and rested.

10. Pray
Pray for help to value time and to use it wisely for the eternal welfare of your own soul, and that of many others too.

  • Rami A.

    Hello David! I don’t know you, it’s the first time I am here, but I thank you so much! Your article is right in time and you saved me about ten thousand dollars… :-)

  • David Murray

    Sounds good, Rami. Wish I was on commission ;)

  • Matt

    Managing something is not easy, especially managing a business project needs quality management plan. As mentioned in the post, time management is one of the most important parts in managing things.