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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

“B” is for Busy

Written by: on October 21, 2020

Some of us wear “busy” like a badge.

Swim hard upstream.
Fight the current.
Arrive exhausted, but proud.
Look how busy I am.
Important.

A young pastor in his first lead assignment was having coffee with an older colleague in his community. The young pastor arrived late- hurried, frazzled, distracted. His older colleague was already seated, sipping on a warm cup of coffee, a book of poetry on the table. They exchanged pleasantries. The usual, how are things going? How’s the church? How’s the family?

The younger pastor the proceeded to launch into the litany of activities, appointments, calls, and demands on his schedule. He lamented at how exhausting it all was- the task of ministry, the expectations, the pressures, the demands. He was just a few months into what he intended to be a lifelong career, yet he was already worn out and ready to call it quits. The older pastor listened patiently. He nodded with understanding at several points.

Finally, the younger pastor paused long enough to take a sip of his now lukewarm coffee. The older pastor took a breath. He placed his coffee cup on the table and looked intently into the eyes of his younger colleague. “Philip?” the older pastor started. “No one likes a tired preacher.”

Drop the mic. Pick up the coffee mug for another sip.

Some of us wear busy like a badge.

Busy implies purpose.
Worth.
It’s an identity.
You’re nothing if you’re not busy.
Busy people get things done.

Some of the “historic questions” asked of every pastor ordained in the United Methodist Church go like this: “Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?” and “Will you…be diligent, never be unemployed, never be triflingly employed, never trifle away time…?”[1]

By every historic account, John Wesley was a workaholic. The early Methodist movement in the United States was built on the backs of circuit riding pastors, many of whom traveled tens of thousands of miles on horseback to establish and serve churches on the American frontier. Like Wesley, these pastors were glorified for their tireless commitment to their work. Busy-ness is in the DNA of Methodism.

Many preachers who preach on the Mary and Martha story from Luke are quick to thank and praise Martha for her service, even while acknowledging the point of the story that Mary chose the better way by sitting at the feet of Jesus.[2] Good for Mary. But really, thank God for Martha. Marthas get stuff done.

But at what cost?

Some of us wear busy like a badge.

Busy gives us the illusion of control.
But that’s all it is.
An illusion.

Busy doesn’t always mean productive. Busy doesn’t always mean faithful. Consider the lilies, how they grow. Consider the river, how it flows. There are ways to get things done in this world that actually give life, rather than suck every last ounce of energy. The natural world shows us the way.[3] Are we just too busy to notice and learn?

[1] The “Historic Questions” are part of the ordination process for Elders and Deacons in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church as instituted by John Wesley during his initial examination of those being called into ministry.

[2] Luke 10:38-42.

[3] Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, “Not Doing: The Art of Effortless Action,” (New York: LID Publishing, 2018,) 37.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

12 responses to ““B” is for Busy”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Busyness for busy’s sake is the mantra of so many workplace cultures. Part of the work culture in Hong Kong (at least among the locals) is that you never want to be the first person to leave because it shows you weren’t “busy” enough. This leads to people camping out in the office til 7:30/8:00 at night as they pretend to be doing work or they actually find something else to do. Busyness can often boil down to appearances.

    This extends to the church culture as well. What frustrates me at times is that we’re called to take Sabbath and make it a day of rest. And the day we choose by default is Sunday, but then we fill it with meetings and this and that and other things that we miss out on that rest.

    How do you navigate all of the busyness?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I’m better now than I was when I was younger. Early in my career, I truly believed that busy meant important, that my worth was totally dependent on my level of activity. I’m much more protective now of Sabbath (not Sunday) each week and all of my allotted vacation days, and more permissive to give myself moments in the day for breaks and personal time. When the pandemic hit, I saw several colleagues race to fill the void of not being able to be as physically present with people by starting these vlogs on facebook and such. I did a few videos, but never committed to anything regular or “permanent,” because I feared that it would become tiresome. Watching some of my friends who have tried to maintain their usual pace has been exhausting! I also have to confess my privilege here in that I’m in a position where I have almost absolute freedom to set and manage my own schedule. As long as I’m not abusing that freedom, I’ve got a long leash. I recognize that not everyone has the same luxury.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    While I agree John Wesley was likely a workaholic, what role does the Protestant ethic play in busyness? How do the doctrines of predestination and election impact our efforts, if even subliminally? And that holiness movement…? Always striving for perfection, righteousness, holiness, what role does that play? I feel like the “B” is for Busy has some wicked roots that run deep. How have you broken free from them, and what do you say to younger pastors to help them not fall into the messy theological trappings of busyness?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      There are certainly easy justifications for busyness in church life- as long as there are lost souls out in need of saving, the devil never takes a day off, etc. But I’ve come to learn that the forces of evil are relentless and maintain an impossible pace. Keeping up isn’t an option, so being well-rested is crucial. I’ve had to learn this along the way and am now in a place where I have almost absolute freedom to manage my own pace, provided I don’t abuse that freedom. I confess privilege here and recognize that not everyone gets this luxury. Even so, what I say to younger pastors or colleagues who are on a tighter leash (either from superiors or congregations) is everyone will end up taking their vacation days one way or another- either intentionally and proactively or because of illness or break down. It’s just a matter of time. Pastors must learn to claim their space and protect their schedules, otherwise, the time gets filled with all sorts of activity, but nothing that really advances the agenda. I interpret “employ all your time in the work of the Lord” in two ways- one, to be strategic, rather than reactionary, as much as possible, and two, to live authentically so that my life (not just my vocation) is a means of serving God.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Every leader struggles with tyranny of the urgent. Looking at “A Failure if Nerve” how much of a leaders busyness stems from insecurity and a lack of trust in those under His care? How many leaders are self aware enough to do only those things that they are called to do and delegate the rest? Every need does not constitute a ministry. Can busyness be reduced by truly equipping the saints to do works of ministry? I am amazed at how many people in church think that church and Christianity is a spectator sport.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      You said a mouthful there! And as much as I’d like to think this is a modern problem for the Church, it’s really not. And there have been times when the Church really seems to have set itself up this way- elevating clergy over laity for the sake of some twisted power. At its best, it’s a symbiotic relationship. (I think I remember someone once using the metaphor of a body?) When it’s all functioning like it’s meant to, the work is shared.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    I commend the book “Resilient Ministry: What Pastors told us about Surviving and Thriving.” It logs 10,000+ hours of research and interviews with pastors about longevity. One of the finds is that pastors work something like 20% more than people realize. It describes a vicious cycle between not being perceived as working hard and overworking as a response.

    https://www.google.com/search?gs_ssp=eJzj4tFP1zc0SirKKLQoyDBg9JIpSi3OzMlMzStRyM3MyywuKapUSMpPUkgqLcorBgBLsQ-e&q=resilient+ministry+bob+burns&oq=resilient+minsitry&aqs=chrome.3.69i57j0i13l2j46i13j0i13i30.4862j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. And your comment certainly resonates with my experience- some see what pastors do and (often unintentionally) feed the beast by praising them for their “tirelessness,” while others make assumptions about pastors’ schedules and (often quite intentionally) take them to task for not working hard enough. Either way, many pastors bow at the altar of trying to please all the people all the time and it never works. I’m also curious about how this plays beyond ministry. My assumption is that this challenge is not unique to pastors, but true across all walks of life. Dylan’s response seems to align with that idea. What’s been your experience?

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    John,

    Thanks for this post.

    I was in a conversation with a leadership team from a midwestern Evangelical church yesterday in which they identified the value of “over-production” that they were trying to root out of their system. They spoke of the rewards that they had received in the form of accolades, attention, and tangible gifts for “over-producing.” They also spoke to the congregational result of this value, identifying the increase in critical consumerism.

    They concluded that the value of over-production produces critical consumers that “pay their staff to produce their Christianity.”

    When I asked them to identify what fueled the original emergence of the value of “over-production” they pointed to an understanding of the gospel as “saving souls.” The unspoken idea was that if this mission didn’t cost you your health, then you weren’t truly committed to the mission.

    It made me wonder how our misunderstanding of faithfulness and mission reinforce the value of “over-production” and cause us to wear “busyness” as a badge.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      That’s it exactly. We justify our busyness and exhaustion because souls are at stake. But what is the message we send to the ones we’re trying to reach? Come wear yourselves out with us! If we believe that Jesus is the one who saves, then it seems like we’d have just as much success (maybe more) by operating from a healthy and sustainable pace. This seems to be the example of nature and it seems to work pretty well.

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        “Come wear yourself out with us.” Wow. Sounds like a mission that I want to give exactly zero of my life to. It also seems like such a misunderstanding of a Jesus who modeled a non-anxious, uncrushed, centered and sustainable way of being. Yes, he lived with urgency. AND…Yes, he lived rooted to God, self, and others in ways that meant left him grounded and centered, even while dying for the mission and way of life that we embodied.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Consider the lilies. How do you slow down? I wonder about Socrates sometimes and a defining feature of his was the ability to stop. Absolutely still, standing, even for an entire day in the same spot.

    Consider the lilies. It has been awhile. Wha a beautiful consideration. Brings wishful tears to my eyes for simpler times. That consideration could be given to the still, God-given and beautiful rather than, the bombardment of noise and such negativity.

    Maranatha.

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