I hate the word ‘busy’. I hate it with growing fervor. I hate that it is the sacred, unassailable and unquestioned excuse our culture uses to avoid events and people. I hate how it is used to flatter, to express sympathy and to keep relationships on a superficial level.
I also hate how everyone is ‘so busy’ yet little of consequence ever seems to get done. What is really getting accomplished in our frenetic hustle? Have we eliminated poverty or found a cure for cancer? Or have we simply succeeded in maintaining the economic engine of our society – mindless consumption?
I hate the cultural norms that excuse employees for checking Facebook or ESPN at work and then sympathizes with their “heavy workload” that keeps them from riding bikes or playing in the dirt with their kids. I hate that over half of the meals in America are eaten in cars or in front of a TV screen.
I am on a crusade against busyness. I realize that I run the risk of offending a lot of people because I am attacking one of our most cherished idols, the one we sacrifice our lives and families to, but I believe the risk is worth it. There is a better way of living that is more satisfying, more productive and more enjoyable.
Burned out Pastors
The first year I pastored was tumultuous. I had no previous experience pastoring or leading an organization and it was everything I could do to keep from drowning. A whole lot of things went undone that first year because I didn’t yet have the capacity to manage it all. My days were hectic and scattered. I never felt that I accomplished anything or that I was on top of my workload. In the worst moments I fantasized about quitting and sympathized with the estimated 1,700 pastors who quit the ministry every month. (By the way, that statistic isn’t true – it is urban legend. However, that first year of pastoring made it all too believable.)
On top of it all, that same year, two Pastors whom I highly respect went through terrible health issues and burn out. Each Pastor was a veteran saint who had spent decades building his congregation. Each was lauded by their respective city and denomination as a model Pastor and church, the kind wet-behind-the-ears-whipper-snappers like me were supposed to emulate. However, I had a very privileged view into the lives of these men and their congregations and I saw what pushing for growth cost them personally and professionally.
No Thank You
Because I got to see the terrible effects of burn out first hand, I had absolutely no desire to pursue the kind of ministry they had mastered during my lifetime. If building a “successful” church meant that I had to be a driven, Type A workaholic who demanded much from myself and more from others and resulted in a mental/physical/spiritual/social breakdown then I didn’t want it. I’d rather be happy and healthy instead. Thus, the name of this blog, “The Happy Pastor” was born. My intent at the beginning of this blog was to scour the internet and accumulated wisdom of the ages to see if their was a better model of pastoring. My focus has shifted since then, but that was the genesis of this site.
In one of my darkest times, when my fantasy of quitting was about to become a reality, my friend Marty made me aware of a book by Eugene Peterson called The Contemplative Pastor. I was familiar with Peterson’s name from The Message, but I hadn’t read any of his work. Based on Marty’s recommendation I picked it up.
To say The Contemplative Pastor was life changing wouldn’t be much of an overstatement. It came at a critical time in my life and career and has formed me in more ways than I know. I have yet to put it into practice in all the ways I would like, but I return to it again and again as a model for the kind of Pastor I want to be.
Peterson’s manifesto includes three adjectives he uses to describe pastoring and he develops each in turn. The three adjectives Peterson applies to Pastors are: unbusy (hence the name of this post), subversive and apocalyptic. I’ll only deal with the first here, but the others are worth exploring at another time.
THE UNBUSY PASTOR
There are so many good quotes it is hard to choose, but perhaps the most salient is the following:
“THE ONE piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket basket is the letter addressed to the “busy pastor.”
Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me. I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.
“The poor man,” we say. “He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”
Eugene H. Peterson. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Kindle Locations 149-154). Kindle Edition.
Peterson continues to rail against our “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him,” but much of the above section can readily apply to all of us, not just pastors.
REASONS FOR BUSYNESS
Peterson also identifies several reasons for busyness. I have drilled down a little deeper and offer you my own take on why it is so easy, even rewarding, to be busy.
American culture idolizes busyness. Busyness is a status symbol, a way of showing our importance. A full calendar tells us, and all who will take notice, that we are important, vital, highly sought after. Our understanding of economics supports this. A commodity with little supply and huge demand is far more costly than one with a large supply and little demand – therefore, limited time because of endless demands means I am valuable.
We use busyness as a badge of honor, a way of reminding ourselves that we are essential lynchpins in the mechanism of society. I’ve known people who refuse to take vacations because they are so certain they are the only ones who can do their jobs and that the company would fall apart without them. Their job security rests on them being the only one capable of doing certain things. Then they get sick and (horror of horrors!) life goes on without them.
None of us are irreplaceable. That doesn’t mean we are just widgets or cogs in the wheel a la Henry Ford. Rather, it means that the world will adapt to our absence with little to no side effects. We aren’t nearly so important as we think. I find this intensely liberating because it means emails, text messages and voicemails can wait – people really can solve their own problems.
I also find myself being busy when I can’t say no. Especially in Christian circles we confuse powerlessness with holiness. The inability to say no, the constant devaluing of our own needs for the sake of others, the lifestyle of being constantly on the go yet never getting anything done – this is not what God intended and it is not a sign of maturity.
One of the most liberating books I have read in the past year is Keep Your Love On by Danny Silk (seriously, go get it) because Silk does an outstanding job of explaining what it means to be a powerful person. It isn’t holy to live without boundaries, it isn’t healthy or God-honoring to never say ‘no’ or to give people unlimited access to your heart, home and time. This was a serious battle for me. I’m a bleeding heart and want to help, but without boundaries I will bleed out.
Jesus said to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like I need to love myself before I can love my neighbor. If I don’t love myself, care for myself, value myself, nourish myself, shepherd myself, or protect myself then I am simply unable to do that for others. But the Religious Spirit in America says “No! You must give and give. To say ‘no’ to others is selfish. You are a servant, you are supposed to give, you are supposed to be last.” I don’t even try to argue with this anymore, I just douse them with holy water and say “Be gone in Jesus’ Name!” Not really, but I want to. I’ve never found myself able to convince someone to value themselves when this is their mindset. They either have to burn out and learn it the hard way or Holy Spirit has to make it real to them – I can only step aside and pray after I’ve spoken to them.
Finally, some of us are busy because we are absolutely terrified of being alone. If we ever have a moment of unoccupied time it seems like all of the monsters start crawling out of the closet and from under the bed. In a desperate attempt to keep from thinking or processing at a deeper level, we pursue busyness with a vengeance, even taking our smart phones with us to the bathroom so we can read or play a game. Boredom is the enemy we are determined to conquer.
This has always been the case for humanity. In times past it was movies, newspapers, books or work. We have always been afraid to be with ourselves and run the risk of recognizing how shallow and insignificant our lives really are. Perhaps that is why Christians have so long recommended the Disciplines of Solitude and Silence and means to spiritual growth. Confronting our demons, our insignificance and our impotence is, surprisingly, the only way to actually influence the world and accomplish anything of worth. Solitude and Silence is hard work and strong medicine, but it has helped to make sinners into saints for centuries.
Now, before I go on, I’d like to clarify one thing. I am not advocating that you quit your job, cancel all your appointments and activities and go be a monk. I’m also not saying that you can’t have fun, enroll your kids in enrichment activities or have a full schedule.
What I am saying is that busyness is a quality of the soul. Busyness is when our minds are distracted, our energy dispersed and we are unable to be present to the world around us. Busyness is when we cannot listen to another human being because our lunch hour is up or we’re preoccupied with the seven other things on our To Do List. Busyness is being self-consumed, totally cut off from communion with God and fellowship with others. What I am advocating for in my crusade against busyness is primarily a change in mindset that will overflow into a change in our schedules.
THE GOALS OF BECOMING UNBUSY
I get having a full schedule, I have my day planned from 5am to 10pm every day of the week. But because I have a plan and have dedicated myself to the hard work of being a powerful person, I am not busy. I certainly have things to do, but I’m not busy. My schedule allows me to be fully present wherever I am and whatever I’m doing because I know everything has a time and a place. I find it difficult to describe how liberating it is to enjoy a nap guilt free because you know your work is going to get done.
Even more valuable, as I go about my day and work I find myself better able to talk with God because my mind isn’t cluttered with multitudes of projects and ideas. When I go shopping I carry a list which frees me from trying to remember things and also frees me to pay more attention to the people around me. I find myself praying more and asking God better questions. It is really quite fascinating to see how taking care of myself allows me to take better care of others.
Living on Mission
And that brings me to the main point of this post. Busyness distracts us from our proper work as citizens of God’s Kingdom. We are called to be salt, light and leaven to the world around us. We are called to give to others the unhindered flow life which flows in to us from God. We are called to make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the character and nature of God and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded us. We can’t do that when we are busy.
Seeing people and having compassion on them requires a presence of soul that is rarely found in the world today. The ability to listen is in short supply and those able to speak words of life even more so. Getting unbusy is the first step in making ourselves available to God so that he can use us to advance his Kingdom.
Once again, I’m not saying you need to quit your job or the activities you love. Instead, I’m suggesting that if we are going to truly live into our calling to make disciples then we will need to learn how to be powerful people who take control of our schedules and who fight against the cultural norms imposed upon us. We need to reject the notion that our worth comes from our busyness and we need to learn to be alone with ourselves. In doing so, we open ourselves to the possibility of God speaking to us and moving through us.
So, by all means, take your daughter to dance class or football practice, but while you’re there, please stay off of your phone. Sit by yourself and pray or start asking God to speak to you about the other parents present. Strike up a conversation – invite them to your home group – who knows what will happen?