We have been born in the age of efficiency. We are the people who “get stuff done.” We have apps that aim at efficiency, blogs on efficiency, best-selling books on efficiency. Just dip into an old folder of mine on efficiency and you’ll find articles on how to organize your desk for efficiency, how to bring your e-mail inbox down to zero every day, how to most efficiently read one hundred books in a year, and how to best manage your time for work, play, and family while still getting things done. Our age of efficiency produces nagging questions: What did you get done today? What goals did you reach this month? What did you accomplish this year? Accomplishment and efficiency reign in our age and have found a deep foothold in church leadership.
I have a natural bent toward this mentality. After all, I’m a pastor, and no one wants a disorganized and inefficient pastor. You’ve likely experienced that pastor who cancels meetings at the last minute because he realized he had a conflict, or because he just plain forgot about the meeting entirely. Or maybe you’ve had the pastor who consistently communicates ambitious goals or makes grand promises, only to never follow through. In any case, we want pastors who can get things done and follow through.
The Fruitful Inefficiency of Pastoring
So much of pastoring depends on the use of inefficient time. Sitting by a hospital bed, listening to medical machines while praying quietly or singing hymns with a fearful family is a fairly inefficient use of time. When I leave the hospital, I don’t open my favorite task app on my phone to cross off “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) on the train ride home. Another example is that young married couple whom I’ve been meeting with for three months now. They are in a bad cycle of selfishness and anger that they can’t seem to break. I’ve just begun to see how our last few meetings together have been very repetitive: the same complaints, the same excuses, the lack of repentance, with me reminding them of the same truths, giving the same exhortations, and praying the same prayers. Maybe the greatest example of inefficient use of time in pastoring is praying and waiting. The requirements of being a pastor include long blocks of time praying, listening, waiting, meditating, and being quiet before the Lord. I remember sitting with an older man in his last years of pastoring and he asked me a very frank question: “Would you characterize your spirituality as one waiting on the Lord?” But waiting is terribly inefficient.
Those are just a few examples of “inefficiency.” The list could be longer.
Many of us pastor within the conflict of time. The age of pathological efficiency is the air we breathe. Something of our learned experiences has taught our hearts to resist the hours at the hospital, to use our time for something different from the repetitive and trying process of sanctification in others, and to hurry along through prayer so that we can empty our e-mail inbox. We fear the judgment of using our time inefficiently. You cannot prove your worth by your quiet prayers in secret.
Maybe that’s getting closer to the point: much of pastoring is made up of “tasks” that don’t provoke praise. At weddings, funerals, counseling sessions and hospital beds, your presence is needed, but your efficiency is not, and praise is rarely forthcoming. At weddings, you lead a couple through vows and remind them of Jesus and get out of the way. The day is not about you. At funerals, you speak of hope, you quietly sit with the mourning, but the day is not about you. When that couple finally breaks through and expresses repentance and patience toward one another, you will rarely be remembered and thanked. But it’s just as well. Craving praise and finding self-worth in efficiency will make you a poor pastor. And many of us should be repenting of our poor pastoring.
Redeeming Isn’t Necessarily Efficient
The Apostle Paul instructs us to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16), not to be efficient with time. We are to redeem the time with the slow work of prayer, the slow work of meditating on and teaching Scripture, and the slow work of listening to others, praying for others, and being present with others. Your neighbors will ask how you got such a good gig of only having to work one day a week, and you will have to smile and bite your tongue.
That doesn’t mean pastors don’t work much. They do. They work long and odd hours. What is difficult is how much of the work is not for easy-to-measure results, but for hard-to-measure fruit. Teaching people to pray, laying hands on the sick, preparing for a sermon, being hospitable, evangelizing, and listening to someone’s repentance and then reminding them of grace—these things don’t show up on a spreadsheet. But they are the very ingredients of spiritual renewal.