Recently a youth pastor confessed to me in the midst of a “to-do” list break-down, “I wish I had an administrative assistant like our pastor did; then maybe I could finish all the things I need to get done.”
Youth workers enter the youth ministry field with a heart to serve God and others, a love for students, and a passion to spread the good news. But one sad reality of youth ministry is that while many have been given the job to care for and pastor students, few are given the training needed to persevere for the long run. A job in youth ministry usually comes with a list of “to-do’s” including, but not limited to: running both Junior High and High School programs, preaching, leading small groups, organizing monthly events, planning summer and winter weekend retreats, recruiting and developing volunteer leadership teams, meeting with parents, spending time with students, coordinating parent meetings, writing newsletters, advertising events, plus all of the interruptions that inevitably arise.
While I admit I have dreamed of having my own personal ministry/life assistant, a personal assistant is not necessarily the answer to our to-do list problems. Instead, one answer is found in how we spend our time. Max De Pree, a well-respected business leader and author, states that leadership is an art and done right can “liberate people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.” [[Max De Pree, Leadership Is An Art (New York: Doubleday, 1987), xxii.]] In the same way that leadership is an art, good time management is an art that can liberate us as leaders from the stress of to-do lists and help us be more effective at what we do.
Becoming Aware of Our Time
There are many youth workers who walk through life unaware of how they use their time or how they should use their time. In contrast, Charles N. Neder, a youth worker of over 40 years and CEO of Youth Conference Ministries, believes that as Christians, we should see time as a precious gift from God that we are called to use wisely. Neder writes, “[Christ] determined his schedule; his schedule did not determine him.” [[Charles N. Neder, “Acting Wisely: Programs, Routines, and Disciplines,” in Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry, edited by Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, & Dave Rahn (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2001), 346.]]
Two widely-read leadership theorists, John C. Maxwell and Stephen R. Covey, have been helping leaders determine their own schedule for the last few decades. While many of us in youth ministry might be familiar with their writings, I encounter few youth workers who are actually implementing any of their suggestions in their own lives and ministries.
Both Maxwell and Covey encourage leaders to organize their time by two factors: urgency and importance. Building upon these two factors, Covey separates daily tasks into four main “Quadrants” based upon the degree of urgency and importance. Below is an example of his “Time Management Matrix” [[Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 2004, orig 1989), 151.]]
Covey believes that most of us act based on what appears to be urgent instead of what is actually important. After all, urgent issues are usually more visible. Urgent issues press us and insist that we take action right away. One example of an urgent issue in youth ministry is responding to a student who has been sexually abused. Most all of us realize that this is something that has to be dealt with right away and other tasks quickly take a backseat.
Yet not all urgent tasks are as important as this one. What seems like an urgent task is not always the most important. Covey believes that a majority of people are “reactors” who spend more time reacting to urgent issues in Quadrants I and III instead of the less urgent but still important matters of Quadrant II. Youth workers who are “reactors” find themselves jumping from one “problem” to the next, letting their to-do lists run them instead of them running their to-do lists. Covey believes that reactors use up to 90% of their time on crises, pressing problems, or deadline-driven projects, which in turn creates stress and burnout. Covey argues that instead of operating as a reactor, leaders should organize their time so that they primarily live in Quadrant II, only drifting into Quadrant I and III if necessary, but never into IV.
So how do we determine what is important? Well…what is important should be determined by our ministry vision and goals. [[Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits, 151.]] When referring to tasks, Covey asserts, “Without a principled center [vision]...they [your tasks] don’t have the necessary foundation to sustain their effects.” [[Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits, 158.]] Everything we do should have a purpose. This means the importance of a task is directly related to how well it helps us accomplish our vision and goals.
A related theory called the “Pareto Principle” is helpful in determining a task’s importance relative to our vision. [[See a related blog post about this principle at /2008/09/8020/.]] This principle states that “20 percent of your priorities will give you 80 percent of your production.” [[John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 20-21.]] Applying this principle to time management in youth ministry means that 20% of our tasks produce 80% of the progress toward our vision.
That leads to an important follow-up question: how do you know what falls within that all-powerful 20%? An easy way to determine what comprises your 20% is to make a list of all the ways you spend your time. Then look through your list and evaluate what the impact would be on your vision and goals for your youth ministry if you eliminated that task. If the impact is substantial, it is most likely a 20% task.
Putting Time on the Line
So let’s apply both Covey’s Quadrants and the Pareto Principle to real life youth ministry. Imagine that a student calls and wants to meet with you right then and there because he has just been dumped by his girlfriend, yet you are finishing up your volunteer leadership manual that you will be using the next night at your volunteer training meeting. If you were a reactor, you would run out the door and meet with the student, forsaking the finishing touches on your volunteer leadership manual. Yet if you wanted to avoid being a reactor, you might try taking a step back from the situation to realize that finishing up your volunteer leadership manual will help train five new leaders, which will in turn have a greater effect on more students in the long run than running out to meet with this one student. Therefore instead of rushing to the student, you instead have a short 5 minute conversation with him, scheduling a time in the next few days to meet with him, thereby giving you enough time to finish up your volunteer leadership manual.
Even before that phone call, a wise Quadrant II youth worker will determine goals for their week and then roughly organize the key tasks of each day to reflect those goals. As the week moves forward, you’ll inevitably need to adapt, but at least you’ll have a plan in place that helps you focus on what is important. [[Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits, 165-166.]] At the start of each day, spend a few minutes planning out your schedule, prioritizing your tasks for that day. Both Covey and Maxwell suggest that every person leave extra time on their daily schedule to respond to the urgent interruptions that inevitably pop up. For youth workers, most of us should probably leave at least 30 minutes a day open to make room for the urgent, since we never know when something might happen that requires (and actually deserves) our immediate attention. Lastly, make sure that you schedule time for yourself to take some much needed Sabbath rest. [[See Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City, a new toolkit for urban youth workers to find rest and renewal in the midst of their work.]] Even Jesus got away from the crowds and his disciples for some down time. As youth workers, time away from work where we can be still, pray, and recover from our daily routine is essential.
Whether you have a whole fleet of assistants or just dream about having a little extra help some day, chances are good that we can all stand to take time for refocusing the ways we spend our time in ministry (and the rest of life, for that matter). And the more we learn to say yes to the most important things and no to the least important things, the more our ministry to students and their families will deepen as a result. While we can never create “more time”, we can work to open up our time as we keep our focus clear.
- Looking back at your last week, make a list of the tasks that fall into Quadrants I, II, III, and IV. How do you feel about the way you are spending your time?
- In addition to or instead of #1 above, make a list of the ways you spend your time. One at a time, determine what would happen to your ministry if you didn’t do that task. As you look at your list, what 20% of your tasks seem the most crucial to your ministry’s vision?
- Some might read this article and think it robs youth workers of the chance to be spontaneous and respond to students’ needs. How would you respond to that concern?
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