How can church leaders improve their time management and maximize ministry? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Nicole Reilley about time management, saying no, and prioritizing rest and sabbath. Learn how digital resources can help you better manage your time.
Jessica Anschutz: As you know from your experience in ministry, there is always more work to do, and to-do lists are ever growing. How can church leaders better prioritize their work during those circumstances?
Nicole Reilley: First, it’s hard. The reality is that we are sent to do tough work in usually challenging circumstances, so we must ask ourselves early on: What really matters to us? What’s important? What does success look like? Where do I want to be sitting at the end of my ministry? What do I want to have given my time to?
A lot of times as clergy, we are people pleasers and we set ourselves up to react to what the needs are instead of taking a couple steps back and using our authority to look at our lives and our schedules to decide: How do I want to do this? How do I want to live?
I felt that ministry, sermons, staffing and leadership development, and raising money were the things that gave me the most bang for my buck. When I gave those my attention, things moved forward. But I imagine it would be different for everyone.
Clergy must also consider what to say no to. There’s a lot of demand on clergy time for things outside of their local church. If you’re a United Methodist, the district and the conference want a piece of your time. I am not a big believer in serving at the district or conference level, especially if you’re trying to grow a church or you’re a mom or a dad who’s got kids at home. There’s just so much time, and you must decide what success looks like for you.
Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s important. It’s also, as you note, contextually specific as far as what’s going on in your life and in the lives of those around you and the expectations not only of the congregation but in judicatories and other community activities. On your podcast, you talked about the importance of identifying the North Star, and I’d love for you to share with our listeners what you mean by this and how you use the North Star to help you prioritize.
Nicole Reilley: The idea of the North Star is really a variation on Stephen Covey’s idea of the “big rocks.” He tells this classic story that’s been told a million times since about how, if you have rocks, big rocks, small rocks, sand, and water, you must put them in the jar in the right order or else you can’t put them in. For me, it’s idea that we have some guiding principles. We have a North Star in ministry. Knowing what our own North Star is, so we can put together our week in a way that turns in that direction, lets us focus our attention. For me, the big rock, or my North Star, were the sermons. The sermon was always an important piece for me. I would say my staff and making sure that they had what they needed to be successful was one of my North Stars. And getting some sleep was a North Star for me and getting some exercise in. Those were things that, if I was going to do anything, these were the guiding things for my week.
I use this idea with my leaders as well because I’d say, “Okay, if you’re going to take on leadership of this team, what is your North Star? What is it you want to accomplish? What is it you want to move toward?” And their knowing that helps them feel more satisfied and successful, and those things lead to wellness. I think a lot of times we get overwhelmed as clergy because we don’t have a sense of where we want to go, so we’re just pushed and pulled in all kinds of directions.
Jessica Anschutz: It’s so important to have something to guide us that isn’t just the latest phone call, email, or person to drop by our office. I think that’s important. I love that you name sleep and exercise as North Stars, because so often those are things that church leaders will put off because there are other things that they need to do. How can we make sure that we have time for those things?
Nicole Reilley: You must just decide they’re not negotiable. We are not machines. If you want to lead a church into the future and you want to be around for 30 years or more, there’s certain things you must do to take care of yourself. Because we care about community and people, we want to move things forward. We don’t prioritize sleep and exercise. But they are so essential because, if we don’t prioritize them on the front end, we’re going to deal with them at some point.
I always remember how I went to worship one Sunday when I was on vacation, and the pastor who was preaching was talking about some of his self-care. He talked about how he was a runner and what he did to take care of himself. As I was sitting there on my vacation, I thought he looks very redeemed. He looks like he’s living the message of what this is about. And I thought I looked discouraged and beat down. If I’m inviting people on the journey and I’m not living the life that God calls me to, I don’t know who wants to go with me. People aren’t going to come to church because they want to give their money and have more stress. So, we need to look like at least we’re on the journey. We’re not there. We haven’t arrived, but we’re on the journey.
Jessica Anschutz: We’re on the journey together and, if you want sleep, you should know that I want sleep, too, or time for rest and renewal. I think it’s so important, especially as we’re coming out of a pandemic season where clergy were forced to pivot and change and adapt. I’m hearing increasingly from folks who are tired. They’re run down and exhausted. And increasingly we see clergy taking renewal leaves and sabbaticals.
Nicole Reilley: It’s important. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. My aunt was a nun, and she was principal of a large Catholic high school. She had a rhythm of life. She wasn’t going 24/7. She had times of retreat. She had times of vacation, and it wasn’t a day here or a day there. It was big chunks of time. And she served. She went into ministry when she was like 17 years old, and she died when she was 91 years old. She lived an active life caring for God’s people, but she had a rhythm of life that made that possible.
Jessica Anschutz: What a powerful and close example that you witnessed through her ministry. I want to go back to something you said earlier about the power of saying no and the importance of saying no as it comes to time management. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Nicole Reilley: Because we want to be helpful and move things forward, we often think that we can just jam one more thing in and keep saying yes. I think we’re also looking to contribute. We have the sense that the church is in this big crisis a lot of times and we could help. There are things you’re going to want to do, things you feel called to do, and things you’re excited about doing. But just saying yes because it feels like that’s the thing to do isn’t going to be the most helpful.
I want to say yes to the things that let me use the gifts God has given me to help the body of Christ. Sometimes people are just trying to fill vacancies. I’ve been on conference committees where I was not the right person. It wasn’t my passion. I wasn’t super interested. Yet it was taking four weekends a year and all kinds of time, and it wasn’t a good use of my time. It’s hard to say no. It lets people down sometimes when we say no. Whenever I say no, I try to be thankful for the opportunity but to be clear that this wasn’t the right time or the right project for me.
Jessica Anschutz: That can help alleviate any guilt or stress that we feel. But sometimes when I say no then I am asked, “Well, if you won’t do that, then how about this?” I still don’t have time.
Nicole Reilley: As United Methodist clergy we are charged to “take thou authority.” You must be in charge of your own life. As pastors a lot of times we have emergencies, we have people that we have to switch things around for. It happens all the time. But that doesn’t mean we live on that adrenaline rush. We must have some systems and ways of putting things together, so that we are saying yes to things. There was that line about how the good is the enemy of the best, and I think that’s often true in ministry. We must look at what is the best for us.
Jessica Anschutz: What is the best will always rise to the surface in any given point in time on the journey. You’ve alluded to the challenges that the church is facing today, and I would argue that the church is always facing challenges. They just change over time.
Nicole Reilley: They do.
Jessica Anschutz: Increasingly we see a rising number of bivocational clergy. Time management is even harder for those who are trying to manage family and the potential of multiple jobs or vocations. What words of wisdom do you have for those who find themselves in bivocational positions?
Nicole Reilley: I was bivocational for a while. I was doing house church planting, which was not funded, and I was pastoring a church. What was helpful to me and what I think is helpful in general is the communication right at the beginning, setting things up so it’s clear. What does it mean that I’m here 50 percent time or 75 percent time? What does that mean as far as the days you’ll see me or sermons I’ll preach or funerals I can do?
A lot of times there are too many of us who say 50 percent salary but we’re still working 80 or 100 percent — or even more time. So, really being very clear with either your DS or your HR or however it is in your system what that means, to negotiate that and to think about it. If I’m three-quarter time, does that mean I’m preaching three weeks and one week I’m off completely or does that mean I’m working 30 hours a week all weeks? That kind of clarity is important.
Also, churches are too dependent on clergy, and that is bad for the church as well as bad for the clergy. If clergy are the center of everything, that is not helpful. It’s not helpful in the short term, and it’s not helpful in the long term.
When caller ID became a thing that was the best technology for me as a pastor because I could be at home on a Saturday morning and see that the same person called me every single Saturday morning. I’d see her name and let it go to voicemail. She’d never leave a voicemail, but she was lonely on Saturday mornings. She was a widow and would start calling down her list. Know what your parameters are for ministry, how much time you’re giving, and then get control of some of the tasks, whether that’s pastoral care — how that’s done, how that can be done in a setting. I wish we called it congregational care, because if I’m giving all the care, we’re in trouble here because I’m not wired in that way. I’m wired differently, and so I’m not going to be holding your hand and all of that all the time. I’m going to raise up other people who will do that ministry because I think that that’s an important ministry.
In bivocational ministry, if you are going to be the main preacher, get a hold of that. You must decide how much time you’re going to give and consider some ways you can cut down on the amount of time it takes. Working with other pastors is key here. Who are the other pastors who you can partner with for a sermon series? We’re going to do a four-week sermon series on hope. I have three other pastor friends. Who’s writing the sermon for each of those weeks and how can we then customize them? Someone sends us the exegetical work or some illustrations or whatever. I think it’s how we work together so we’re not re-creating the wheel all the time.
In pastor work in general but especially in bivocational work, really look at leaving some squishy time or some open time for those emergencies, so you’re not just packed leading a Bible study, preaching every week, marrying, and burying. What are the two to three hours that are squishy for whatever comes up so you’re not feeling so stressed out?
Jessica Anschutz: I like that phrase, “squishy time,” and we all need it.
Nicole Reilley: A lot of times, we pack our schedule with all the things instead of saying here’s a couple of hours here, here’s a couple of hours there. These are times where, if I need to deal with something, I can do it and I’m not feeling angry or put out that now I must work late. I have some time built in for that.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s a very practical and useful tip. As I think about our current digital age, we learned a lot about remote work during the pandemic and doing ministry remotely or even in the hybrid context. How can we utilize those digital resources to better manage our time?
Nicole Reilley: Everyone needs a system. One of the resources that I use is OmniFocus, which is a program that I use organize all my tasks. That’s just been super helpful.
Also using something like the Pomodoro Technique, which is a technique where you work for, standardly, 25 minutes and then you have five minutes off. Pomofocus.io has a timer you can use and set up for different sounds. I use a ticking sound that goes like a clock, which helps keep me focused. I usually do 50 minutes of focus and then 10 minutes off, but you can do 25 minutes of focus and five minutes off — whatever works better for you. That kind of a tool really helps.
I know it might be a little controversial, but I think ChatGPT is also a tool for ministry at this point. I use it to help me write posts for social media. I’ve also used it to do a sermon outline when I felt particularly uninspired. It’s Transfiguration Sunday again. What do I do with that? So, I can go to this AI function and say, “Give me a sermon outline on Transfiguration Sunday and how it relates to us today.” And it was a game changer because I thought “Oh, this is very interesting. This is very helpful.” It can spark things and get us going. Whatever the technological tools that you use, they’re not to take the place of the human touch, but they help us get going and light the fire as we move forward.
I work at home now full-time as a clergy coach, but having a schedule is important: when you start the day and when the day is over and even having a little end of the day ritual because you can just take your laptop wherever you are and it’s like “we need to close this now.” Sometimes I will do 20 minutes of yoga at the end of my day, or I’ll go for a five-minute walk outside — something to signal to myself that work is over and now I can do other things.
One of the things I always do in my scheduling of my week is I schedule rest first. Every day I have a period of rest at some point in my day. At this point in my ministry, I’m able to take 45 minutes to put my feet up, read a book, sit out in the garden, or do something. And that’s part of the rhythm of my day. There’s that rest piece and then there might be more work after that or there might be other responsibilities after that. But I calendar rest each day.
Jessica Anschutz: For folks who aren’t calendaring rest, how would you encourage them to start?
Nicole Reilley: First, be aware of what your calendar looks like. I use combination of electronic and paper, so I put everything on electronically and then I move things around, so it makes sense for my week, and then I put that on my paper calendar with the tasks for the week. I consider the following things: What have I been doing? How much have I been working? Where have I been wasting time? A lot of times we may not have a rest session or a break for lunch or food on our calendar, but we’re scrolling social media. Our body’s going to do what it’s going to do.
If we can become more conscious of how much time we spend on social media or how much time we waste looking at things on Amazon instead of doing our work, what if we built in a break? Would we waste less time and have more time that does renew us? Sometimes we scroll on social media, or we shop online to care for ourselves because we feel like we’re getting away with something. I just don’t think that’s true. We’re not machines. We are human beings, and we need a better rhythm of life.
What is a rhythm of life that’s sustainable? Clergy are dealing with terrible burnout and terrible exhaustion because of the fact that we have terrible rhythms of life. We have ten commandments that God has set up so that we live in a rhythm of life that is better. That we have a Sabbath day is related to the fact that we’re not slaves. If you’re a slave, you don’t have Sabbath. If you’re a slave, you don’t take time off. We are not slaves. We are free in Christ, and that is really an important piece of our identity as people of faith that our lives are enjoyable, wonderful, lovely, and we serve and give and do all the pieces. It’s not either-or.
Jessica Anschutz: Thank you for highlighting the importance of Sabbath. In anticipation of talking with you today, I talked with some of our seminarians (I’m at Wesley Theological Seminary) about what questions they had related to time management. One of the first things that came up was: How do you find time for Sabbath amid all the demands of ministry?
Nicole Reilley: It’s the big rock. You put it in first. It’s nonnegotiable. It’s so nonnegotiable to God, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. Why is it we think that, somehow, we’re so busy or so central that we can’t do it? For me, a one day off or two days off has always been nonnegotiable. I may need to spend an hour here or an hour there, but in general I always took Friday and Saturday off, unless there was a wedding or funeral on Saturday. I always took all my vacation, all my education time. If you want to thrive in a 30-year career, you must do those pieces. Other professions do those pieces. They require these things.
If you’re not sure how to start building in some of them in your church life, things like telling your church every month, “I take a Wednesday and it’s a day of prayer.” Then, spending the morning collecting people on Facebook will tell you how to pray for them. You do all those pieces. You pray for them and then you take the afternoon off. Or doing a quarterly retreat. I just came back from doing a three-day retreat, and I rested, I read, I felt rejuvenated. Then, is there a way you can take a day every other month for study, an extended time for study? You must invest in yourself, you must prioritize who you are and the gifts that God has given you, and you can’t do these things if you don’t take time off. I think it’s just ridiculous when we treat ourselves that poorly. That does nothing for us, and it is bad for the churches we serve.
Jessica Anschutz: I am enjoying our conversation, but our time is rapidly ending. I invite you to reflect on your years of experience and what you know now about time management and what you wish you had known when you started out in ministry.
Nicole Reilley: At the beginning of ministry, I thought I could work hard enough to move things forward and that, if I worked a little harder, things would come together more quickly. I realized that is not actually how this works and that when I did that it was a lack of faith on my part.
I have realized over the years that I can’t make other people happy in the local church, that some people will be happy about the sermon on racism, and some people will be unhappy about the sermon on racism. As one friend said to me, “If someone is going to be unhappy with my life, it’s not going to be me.” I’m going to do what I need to do to be successful in what matters to me in my life. I served at the beginning of my ministry from too much anxiety, and over the years I’ve learned to serve more out of joy and out of my gifts and to be able to say I don’t know how to do these things and I don’t know what this is, and then pick up the phone and call people to get help — resourcing each other. I think as clergy we often feel on our own.
I’ve always been a meditator. I grew up as Roman Catholic. When I was going to be confirmed, they taught us meditation and it really stuck with me. I think the periods of my life where I struggled the most in ministry with stress or anxiety were the times in my life that I was not living into regular rhythm of prayer and meditation. Looking back at 30 years, I feel like I’ve had lots of wonderful opportunities, served churches that were 60 people all the way to 500, and I have learned a lot over the years. If I could talk to Nicole of 30 years ago, I would talk about: Focus on your own journey, on what matters to you. Focus on having more fun and enjoying yourself a little more.
I have one son and he and I always had a great time together in ministry. When he was little, I would take him with me on some things, and that has really served him well in his life — those experiences that we had. That’s something I feel like I did right. But I think taking it down a notch would have been helpful at some point. Too many times I was just going, going, going. There are lots of opportunity in ministry. There are lots of possibilities. Our job is to give out of our gifts, to serve in a way that lights us up, to develop other people into leaders, to help people on their walk of discipleship. Out of that, God grows the church and God moves things forward.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s beautiful. I hope more people will take that to heart. I thank you, Nicole, for taking the time to speak with us today, to reflect with us. Your book is Expanding the Expedition Through Digital Ministry, and your podcast is the Clergy Wellness Podcast and I hope that folks will check out your book and listen to your podcast.
Nicole Reilley: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to share. Our clergy are our greatest resource, and they need time and attention and lots of love and encouragement in this season.
- The Clergy Wellness Podcast hosted by Nicole Reilley
- Some Practices to Improve the Use of Your Time by Ken Williard
- Leading Like Moses: 4 Ways to Know What to Delegate by Micah Fries and Jeremy Maxfield
- 3 Practices to Help Pastors Increase Productivity by Eric Daniel