Other people’s needs are unlimited. Our capacity to meet them is limited. That’s the painful tension that we all face, especially those of us in pastoral, counseling, and care-giving callings.
If we plan according to other people’s needs, we will never satisfy everyone, we will never feel satisfied ourselves, and will eventually burn out. No matter how many people we visit, counsel, phone, email, evangelize there’s always more need and there’s always more we could do. No matter the size of the congregation, big or small, there really is no end to the work that could, and even should, be done.
We can work 12 hours days six or seven days a week, and still feel guilty when we go to the gym, go fishing, watch some sport, or just play with our kids.
There is a way out of this though and it involves a mind-shift away from the focus on unlimited human need to our limited human capacity. Let’s take the pastor as an example (although the principles apply to every calling)
If a pastor works according to others’ unlimited needs, he will work a hundred hours a week, never meet all the need, and eventually crash and burn. Or he will work a more reasonable 40-50 hours a week, never meet all the need, and never feel at peace, never have any sense of “I’ve done a good week’s work.” Both lifestyles are miserable experiences.
If he works according to his capacity though, there’s the very real and hopeful prospect that he will meet the biggest needs, work without burning out, and have the great blessing of inner peace over how much he has accomplished each week. Here’s how.
Every pastor should discuss his personal capacity with his elders. For example, the pastor might look at his congregation and say to his elders: “I have eighty families or eighty homes represented in my congregation. I believe I have the capacity to visit one evening a week and each evening of visitation, if well-planned, can cover two families. That means in the course of each year, I will visit every family or home in our congregation once.”
Sick and Senior Visitation
Then they might discuss the housebound seniors and the sick. If there are, say, about ten seniors or sick people in the congregation at any one time, then perhaps the pastor might propose that he visits them one afternoon a week; and each afternoon he will visit one or two housebound seniors and one or two sick people. These visits will be briefer because more regular and because some of them will be hospital visits. But it will mean that he will visit the sick every week or so and the housebound seniors every month or two.
Depending on the nature of the church situation – church plant or established church – the pastor should set some evangelism targets. Maybe start at even just one or two evangelistic conversations a week. It doesn’t matter where it takes place – over the fence, at the game, in the coffee shop, etc. Even if this is all that is accomplished, that’s fifty or so witnessing opportunities a year.
Pastors are under constant pressure to join committees and attend various meetings in the evenings, most of them very good and worthy causes. I know some pastors who are out every evening of the week for weeks on end without a break. That is unsustainable. I would suggest that the commitment amount to no more than two weekday evenings a month, especially if there is already a midweek meeting in the church for Bible Study.
Lunches and Breakfasts
Perhaps a pastor might talk to his elders and deacons about providing expenses for him to meet members for lunch or breakfast. Again, I could fill every morning and lunchtime if I accepted every invitation or request. Instead, I aim for 2-3 breakfasts or lunch meetings a month. That means over the course of the year I can meet with perhaps 24-30 different people.
How many people could you and your wife have over for a meal every month. One, or maybe two? Maybe one midweek supper and one Sunday dinner? Again, over the course of the year you would be providing hospitality for about 24 singles, couples, or families.
Agree an appropriate number of hours a week on counseling problems and discipleship – Maybe 2-3 hours, or one or two people a week.
Agree a reasonable number of average hours to work on each sermon. Sometimes it will be less or more, but if they average out at the agreed amount, you can leave your desk with a good conscience.
How many people in your congregation can you reasonably pray for each day? Three or four families/homes? That works out at twenty or more a week. Perhaps use the Prayermate App to track this.
I set myself a time limit on my admin each day. It doesn’t matter how much more I have to do, how many emails are still screaming for an answer, I reach my time limit and say, “Done!”
The Benefits of Working to Personal Capacity
I could go on, but I hope you see the difference it might make, setting yourself various objective targets in these different areas. The benefits are:
1. You work within your limited capacity rather than according to unlimited needs.
2. You have objective measurable targets. For example, 80 homes visited a year, 160 senior/sick visits a year, 36 lunches/breakfasts a year, 24 hospitality events a year, 100 counseling sessions a year, prayed for each individual in the congregation ten times a year, and so on.
3. You can feel a sense of accomplishment as you look back on your week, your month, and your year, and say, “I aimed for x, y, and z, and by God’s grace, I accomplished that.” That should shush your conscience and increase job satisfaction.
4. You have accountability with your elders. You agree your capacity and what that looks like practically and then report to them on how it actually worked out. Some adjustment up or down may be needed.
5. If you have requests for visits or a lunch, a committee meeting, or a counseling session, you can look at your schedule and (unless it’s an emergency) say, “I’m sorry, I’ve reached my capacity for this week, but I can fit you in next week or the week after.” The vast majority of cases are not emergencies that need to be added to the week, but routine that can be added to the routine wherever there is a gap.
Everyone’s situation is different, and space must be left for exceptions and emergencies, but working according to our limited capacity rather than according to other’s unlimited needs is the pathway to good working habits, efficient prioritizing, God-glorifying productivity, the quieting of an oversensitive conscience, the enjoyment of downtime, and the modeling of a good example of self-management to others.