Shepherd’s Care: Time–the Inescapable Fact

My conversations with pastors over the years have revealed that the feeling of not having enough time is a major cause of both frustration and freneticism.  The nagging feeling that there is too much to do and too little time to do it never seems to go away.  It is exacerbated by the increasingly fast-paced world we all live in, along with the increasing expectations of others that we should be omni-available.  

One pastor described the feeling to me as “the unceasing round of feverish activities.”  It is described by some psychologists as ” hurry sickness.”  And more than a functional matter, it is clearly a spiritual problem too.  Thomas Merton viewed it thus, calling activism a form of violence. [1]  It is a violence we inflict on ourselves…and others.  In whatever ways we can, we must become better stewards of our time.

Let me affirm the obvious: learning and practicing time management techniques is helpful.  I would never counsel against anything that provides some relief.  But I have tried some of these things myself (to good effect) long enough to realize that the world continues to turn faster than I can keep up with it.  And besides that, even when I am “managing time” fairly well, that accomplish does not cover all the bases of my dilemma, leaving me to believe that the challenge is more a matter of the heart than the calendar.

The starting point is not practice, it is intention.  It is responding to the question we pose in prayer: “God, how do you want me to live?” asked in combination with a second question–the question of our heart’s desire: “How do I want to live?”  The two questions likely overlap; indeed, they may meld into one.  They are two vantage points for discerning a way of life deeper than techniques, and for making key decisions that will guide our practices.

But for that to happen, we must face the greatest challenge as leaders with respect to our use of time: we must be prepared to disappoint others.  [Read this as many times as you need to for it to sink in]

This recognition moves across our soul with the screeching sound a fingernail makes across the surface of a chalkboard. Our first reaction is to put our hands over our ears and say, “Stop!”  But the recognition does not stop because it is true.  If we decide to live differently with respect to time, we are going to disappoint some people.

Years ago, Richard Foster spoke to this relative to his own struggle with time.  I heard him say, “I had to come to the place where I realized there are more good things to do than I can or should do.”  He rooted his realization in two places.  The first was in a devotional classic by Thomas Kelly entitled ‘A Testament of Devotion.’  Kelly has a blockbuster statement in this book. Thinking about the multitude of good things that need doing, he wrote, “We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.” [2]

But even more than that, Foster found it in the example of Jesus, who would go away and his disciples would have to go looking for him, and upon finding him they would say, “Everyone is searching for you” (Mark 1:37).  Both examples create disappointment in others who want you to die on their cross, disappointment in those who feel we should have been where they expected us to be.

For the next couple of months, we will explore time in relation to ministry. Whatever else we will discover will be against the backdrop of the inescapable fact: to live and minister well with respect to time, we must prepare to be misunderstood.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ (Image Books, 1965), 86.

[2] Keith Beasley-Topliffe, ed. ‘Sanctuary of the Soul: Selected Writings of Thomas Kelly’ (Upper Room Books, 1997), 61.  An excerpt from Kelly’s book, ‘A Testament of Devotion’ (Harper & Row, 1941).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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