After 20 years, there are many things that come to mind regarding failures in ministry. However, I’ll limit myself to the theme of time. In Christian work (paid or unpaid, full time, part time, voluntary) the hardest question that any of us face is “What should I be doing now?”

What do I do now that will see the ministry grow in one week, one year, five years? Who should I be spending time with? What books should I be reading? If I’m married and have a family, should I be spending time with them? How many hours a week do I work, etc? The “What should I be doing now?” question is harder to answer than the question regarding any individual task.

The four failures that I list below are at a personal level. The good news about ministry is that we are only ever responsible for our own personal actions. We are not and indeed cannot be responsible for the actions of others – that is the good news. However, it is also the bad news. That is, we are responsible for what we do and God will hold us accountable for the use that we have made of our gifts and opportunities (1 Peter 4:17 “…time for judgement to begin with the household of God.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 “…we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 “…the value of what we have built will be shown whether it be gold and silver or hay and stubble.”)

Failure number 1 – Squandering your most limited resource: time
In full-time Christian ministry we need to be self disciplined because we have a lot of time that we can waste. Apart from a few hours on a Sunday morning or Sunday night, no one really knows where we are or what we are doing with our time. We need to be disciplined in our allocation of priorities. There is a proverb that says, “Plough your fields first, then build your rectory or manse,” … well… something like that. The problem with 164 hours of unstructured ministry time is that it is very easy for work to expand according to the time available. That is, what should take one hour can take all day. In 15 years of Christian work, I must confess to not having used time as well as I could have.

Classic time wasters include:

  • Over preparation – We need to work hard on preparing our talks but if we prepare beyond the point of diminishing returns, we are achieving very little. We may spend an extra 10 to 15 hours on a talk that will only improve it by a few percentage points. I am not endorsing under preparation, I am against over preparation.
  • Sitting at the desk and shuffling paper – It’s possible to sit at a desk, shuffle paper, make insignificant phone calls and be consumed with trivia and achieve nothing in a morning.
  • Long phone calls to your mates – Three or four 45-minute phone calls to mates and the morning is wasted. I’ve heard it suggested that you should stand up while you are on the phone. This is very effective in limiting the time of phone calls. I’ve also heard that meetings should be held without chairs.
  • Television (especially late at night) – How much television do we watch during the week? If we are in ministry we need to ask “Am I wasting time?”, especially late at night, watching TV when we should be asleep so that we can make an early start in the morning. No one ever said on his or her deathbed, “I wish I watched more TV.” Late night TV is also no good for the purity of our thought life.
  • The Computer and the Internet – The net is a fantastic resource and a powerful tool, and also a classic time-waster (I’m aware of the irony that you’re reading this article on a website). It’s also easy to justify playing around and wasting time and convince yourself your gospelling the world. It’s easier to be “evangelising the world”, rather than actually going to see that one individual who needs to be spoken to. If we’re being paid to grow a particular church, or reach a particular area, get out and do it. Online communication is great, and powerful, but often the most important piece of hardware you own for your computer is the off button – use it and then get out and see people face to face.

Failure number 2 – Not spending time with the first members of your congregation
For failure number 2, let me speak to the men. “Your wife and children are not an interruption to your ministry, they are your ministry.” This advice was less than gently delivered by a good friend of mine, now gone to be with the Lord. Those of us who are married and have families need to spend time with our wives and children. I said to my wife the other day as we were out, celebrating our wedding anniversary, that it was harder and harder now to see our teenager children. They are busy, etc. Why didn’t they have time for me as much? In her own, gentle way, she said, “When the kids are little they are always available but you guys are out trying to change the world and busy, busy. Then as they grow up, you haven’t been around and they don’t have as much time for you.” The husband then says, “Well, why didn’t anyone tell me?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Make sure you tell the young guys when you have the chance.” So if you’re reading this, you’ve been told.

Each pastor in full time ministry should be made to listen to the song “Cat’s in the cradle” at least once a week.

At the same time, I’m not saying we should be picking kids up from school every afternoon or having long and romantic lunches with our wives every day. We need to work hard and to some extent our families will carry the cost of ministry with a busy and tired husband and father. However, this is not an excuse for neglecting your wife and your children, they are the first members of your congregation.

Failure number 3 – Failing to allocate your time to what is of first importance
In ministry, administration, paper work and meetings are ubiquitous. They are the air we breathe. If we are not proactive and put into our diaries the truly important, then the urgent and the ubiquitous will take over.

A lot of pastors end up like the guy in my suburb who owns the fishing shop. He was very keen on fishing so he actually opened a fishing shop but now he sits in his fishing shop from early in the morning until late at night, and guess what he doesn’t get to do anymore? He is too busy running the shop to actually throw in a line. A lot of pastors are like this with evangelism. Because we are gifted evangelists, etc, we consider full-time Christian work. Once in “the ministry” we are so busy running administration meetings, committee meetings, etc, chasing up a hundred details, that we never get time to evangelise. Evangelism should be the first thing to go into our diaries.

In every church I’ve been associated with there are a series of men around the fringe of the congregation, sympathetic husbands of wives who belong to the church, men whose children are in the youth group and just blokes that I’ve got to know. The pastor of a church should, as a matter of priority, be spending time with these men and sharing the gospel with them. But if time isn’t allocated up front, it won’t be available.

This early allocation of time should be done for evangelism, talk preparation, our own prayer times and discipling of the future leaders of our congregations. I must confess to regular failure in this area, where I’ve been too busy running infrastructure to actually go fishing (for people, not salmon), which is part of the reason I went into ministry in the first place.

Failure number 4 – The triumph of busyness
As a young man in theological college I was told, “Ministry is much more about who you are than what you do.” It’s not until the last year or two that I have understood this. Godliness may or may not be next to cleanliness, but it certainly is not next to busyness. Our activism, our obsession with planning and strategic action, our outright 'workaholism' show a lack of understanding of and faith in the sovereignty of God. We need to believe in God’s sovereignty, God’s election, that as we sit and watch the Simpson’s with our kids, the gospel marches on.

A couple of years ago on holidays I went to two church meetings one Sunday. They couldn’t have been more different. One was a very strict, reformed, free Presbyterian meeting: King James Bible, no instrumental music and a one-hour sermon. The other was a meeting on the headland at the beach, run by the local Baptist church, with a dozen people and some ‘open and sharing time’. Music was a tape played in a car with the doors open. However, at both church meetings the same verse of the Bible was read, hitting me between the eyes each time: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It was a very interesting verse for a workaholic trying unsuccessfully to relax on holidays, to hear and consider.

I had lunch with a Presbyterian pastor some time ago, who is about ten years further down the track than I am. When I asked him about his ministry priorities he said, “My first priority as a pastor must be to know God myself.”

This is the not the same as busyness and activism.

Conclusion
So the great question is, how do we keep these together?

  1. Self discipline – redeem the time, don’t waste it, work hard with the time we have
  2. Don’t neglect our families –if we have them, spend time with our wives (spouse) and children, especially when they are young.
  3. Allocate our time to what is truly important – evangelism, prayer, Bible preparation and discipling.
  4. Beware of busyness and activism – Be still and know that God is God.

How do we keep all these together and put them into practice? Hey, I said at the beginning that this was about my failures in ministry. I’m actually saying I couldn’t do all these things but I’m still working at it day by day.