“Improve Your Time Management and Enhance Your Ministry” featuring Nicole Reilley

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
"Improve Your Time Management and Enhance Your Ministry" featuring Nicole Reilley

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Podcast Episode 131

How can church leaders improve their time management and maximize ministry? In this episode we speak with Nicole Reilley about time management, saying “no,” and prioritizing rest and sabbath. Also, learn how digital resources can help you better manage your time.

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How can church leaders improve their time management and maximize ministry? In this episode we speak with Nicole Reilley about time management, saying “no,” and prioritizing rest and sabbath. Also, learn how digital resources can help you better manage your time.

Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, the assistant director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and I’m your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me is Rev. Nicole Reilley, a United Methodist pastor with over 30 years of experience. She’s the author of Expanding the Expedition Through Digital Ministry, and she is now serving as a clergy coach, social media manager, and host of The Clergy Wellness Podcast. Thank you, Nicole, for taking time to speak with me today about time management and ministry.

Nicole Reilley: My pleasure.

Jessica Anschutz: As you know from your experience in ministry, there is always more work to be done, and to-do lists are ever growing. So how can church leaders better prioritize their work in the midst of those circumstances?

Nicole Reilley: I think, first, it’s just hard. Right? I mean the reality is that we are sent to do really tough work in usually challenging circumstances, so I think we have to ask ourselves early on: What really matters to us? What’s really 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?

I think a lot of times we are people pleasers as clergy, and we set ourselves up just to react to what the needs are instead of taking a couple steps back and take authority and look at our lives and our schedules and decide: How do I want to do this? How do I want to live this? I always thought about: What gives me the most bang for my buck? I felt that ministry, sermons, staffing and leadership development, raising money, those were the things. When I gave those my attention, things moved forward. But I imagine it would be different for everyone.

Then I think it’s also: What are you going to say no to? There’s a lot of demand on clergy time for things outside of their local church. Oftentimes, if you’re a United Methodist, the district and the conference want a piece of your time as well, and 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 have to decide what success looks like for you.

Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s really important. It’s also, as you note, contextually specific …

Nicole Reilley: Yeah.

Jessica Anschutz: … as far as what’s going on in your life and in the life of those around you and what are the expectations not only of the congregation but in judicatories and other community activities. In a podcast episode that you had, 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: So the idea of the North star is really a variation on Stephen Covey’s idea of the “big rocks.” So 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’ve got to put them in the jar in the right order or else you can’t put them in. For me, it’s an 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 actually turns in that direction, lets us focus our attention there. For me, the big rock, or my North Star, were the sermons. The sermon was always a really 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 sleeping, 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 in my week, 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 I think those things lead to wellness more. 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, right?

Nicole Reilley: Yeah.

Jessica Anschutz: That isn’t just the latest phone call or email or person to drop by our office. I think that’s really, really important. I love that you name sleep and exercise as North Stars, because I think 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: I think you have to just decide they’re not negotiable. You know 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 have to do to take care of yourself. A lot of times, because we care about community; we care about people; we want to move things forward. We don’t prioritize these things. 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, you know, he looks very redeemed. He looks like he’s living the message of what this is about. And I thought I looked pretty 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. I mean people aren’t going to come to church because they want to give their money and have more stress, right?

Jessica Anschutz: Right.

Nicole Reilley: 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: Absolutely. I love that. And we’re on the journey together.

Nicole Reilley: Absolutely.

Jessica Anschutz: 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 and things like that. So, I think that’s really a key to our success

Nicole Reilley: It’s really 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, right? 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 example and a close example that you had in being able to witness 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: Yeah, I think because we want to be helpful, because we want to move things forward, we often think that we can just jam one more thing in and keep saying yes. Also, I think we’re looking to contribute. We have the sense that the church is in this big crisis a lot of times and maybe we could help. And I think that there’s going to be things you’re going to want to do. There’s going to be things you feel called to do. There’s going to be 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, down the road, the most helpful.

I want to say yes to the things that let me give my gifts, the things that God has given me to help the body of Christ. But I think sometimes they’re just trying to fill spots. You know, I’ve been on conference committees where I was not the right person. It wasn’t my passion. I wasn’t super interested in it. Yet it was taking four weekends a year and all kinds of time, and it just wasn’t a good use of my time. It’s hard to say no.

Jessica Anschutz: Right.

Nicole Reilley: You know, 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 this wasn’t the right project for me.

Jessica Anschutz: I think that can help alleviate any guilt or stress that we feel. I know that sometimes when you say no then they’re like, “Well, if you won’t do that, then how about this?” I still don’t have time.

Nicole Reilley: No, I think it’s that “take thou authority.” Right? You have got to be in charge of your own life, and I know that 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 just live like that — on that adrenaline rush. We have to have some systems, some 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 have to 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: But increasingly we see a rising number of bivocational clergy. I think time management has to just be 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 folks 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 then I was also pastoring a church. What was helpful to me, and what I think is helpful in general, is that 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 actually mean as far as the days you’ll see me or sermons I’ll preach or funerals I can do?

I think 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, you know, 30 hours a week all weeks? I think that kind of clarity is really important. Also, I just want to say I think churches are way 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 really not helpful in the long term.

When caller ID became a thing that was like the best technology for me as a pastor, because I could be at home on a Saturday morning and see that really the same person every single week called me on Saturday morning. I’d see her name there and just let it go to voicemail. She’d never leave a voicemail, but she was lonely on Saturday morning. She was a widow, and she would just 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 just called it congregational care, because if I’m giving all the care, we’re in trouble here because I’m, first of all, not wired in that way. I’m wired differently, and so I’m not going to be the one who is going to be holding your hand and all of that all the time. But I’m going to raise up other people who will do that ministry because I think that that’s a really important ministry.

I think one of the other couple of things I would think of with bivocational ministry is, if you are going to be the main preacher, getting a hold of that. And I think that you have to decide how much time you’re going to give that and what are some ways you can cut down on the amount of time it takes. I think working with other pastors is key here. Who are the other pastors who you can do a sermon series with? Who are the people who you say, okay, we’re going to do a sermon series on hope. We’re going to do four weeks. I have three other pastor friends. Who’s writing the sermon for each of those weeks and how we’re then going to customize whatever? You know, someone sends us the exegetical work or some illustrations or whatever. I think it’s how we work together so we’re not just having to re-create the wheel all the time.

Then I think, in pastor work in general but probably especially in bivocational work, really look at leaving, I don’t know, some squishy time or some open time for those emergencies, so you’re not just packed with I’m leading a Bible study and I’m preaching every week and I’m, you know, marrying, burying. You know, what are the two to three hours that are squishy for whatever comes up so you’re not feeling so stressed out?

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Jessica Anschutz: I like that phrase, “squishy time,” and I think we I think we all need it.

Nicole Reilley: Yeah, I think it’s huge because I think, a lot of times, we just pack our schedule with all the things instead of saying, you know, here’s a couple hours here, here’s a couple hours there. These are times where, if I need to deal with something, I can do it and I’m not feeling like angry or put out that now I’m going to have to work late. I have some time built in for that.

Jessica Anschutz: I think that’s a very practical and useful tip. As I think about our current digital age, we learned a lot about remote work in the midst of the pandemic and doing ministry remotely or even in the hybrid context. How can we resource or utilize those digital resources to better manage our time?

Nicole Reilley: I think everyone needs a system. One of the resources that I use is OmniFocus, which is a program that I use to put all of my tasks in and organize them. That’s just been super helpful.

I would say also using something like the Pomodoro Technique, which is a technique where you work for, standardly, like 25 minutes and then you have five minutes off. There is actually a website. I think it’s pomofocus.io https://pomofocus.io/ and it is a timer that’s right there. What I like about it a lot is you can set it up for different sounds. I have like a ticking sound that goes like a clock, and that 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. But I think that kind of a tool really helps. I would also say, I know it might be a little a little controversial, but I think ChatGPT is also a tool for ministry at this point. I use it for social media. 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. I’m like, it’s Transfiguration Sunday again. What do I do with that? You know? 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 just a game changer because I just was like, “Oh, this is very interesting. This is very helpful.” So, I think it can spark things, it can get us going. Some of these, whatever the tool, the technological tools that you use are, I think that they’re not to take the place of the human touch, but they are helpful in getting us going and getting the fire lit as we move forward in doing things.

I work at home now full-time as a clergy coach, but I will say that 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, just something to signal to myself that work is ended and now you 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 in some point in my day. And at this point, in my ministry, I’m able to take like 45 minutes and put my feet up, read a book, or sit out in the garden or do something. And that’s part of the rhythm of the day. There’s that rest piece and then there might be more work after that or there might be other responsibilities after that. But just having some rest and having that as part of what I calendar.

Jessica Anschutz: For folks who aren’t calendaring rest, how would you encourage them to get started?

Nicole Reilley: Yeah. I think, first, just kind of being aware of what your calendar looks like first. 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’m looking at: What have I been doing? How much have I been working? And where have I been wasting time? I think one of the things is that a lot of times we may not have a rest session on our calendar or a break for even lunch and may be eating, but we’re scrolling social media, right? Our body’s going to do what it’s going to do, and if we can become more conscious of it (How much time did I spend on social media? How much time did I waste looking at things on Amazon instead of doing my work? What if I built in a break? Would I do less of that and have more time that actually does renew me?) just to not feel like you’re getting away with anything. I think sometimes we scroll on social media or we shop online as a way to care for ourselves because we feel to actually say I’m taking 30 minutes to put my feet up, we feel like we’re getting away with something. And I just don’t think that’s true. I think that we’re not machines. We are actually human beings, and we do need a better rhythm of life.

What is a rhythm of life that’s sustainable? Clergy are dealing with terrible burnout and terrible exhaustion, and a lot of that just relates to the fact that we have terrible rhythms of life. The whole Scripture is around … we have these 10 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 and wonderful and lovely. And we serve and we give and we do all the pieces. It’s not either-or.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you for lifting that up and 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. And one of the first things that came up was: How do you find time for Sabbath in the midst of 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 that it’s one of the Ten Commandments, right? 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. Yeah, 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, you know, a wedding or funeral on Saturday. I always took all my vacation, all my education time. I think if you want to thrive in a 30-year career, you have to do those pieces. Other professions do those pieces. They require these things.

I think 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 of 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 have to invest in yourself, you have to 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. It does nothing for us, and it is bad for the churches we serve.

Jessica Anschutz: Well, I am so enjoying this conversation, but I recognize that our time is rapidly drawing to a close, and I want to invite you to sort of 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: I think at the beginning of ministry, I thought I could just work hard enough to move things forward and that, if I just worked a little harder, things would come together more quickly. I realized that that’s 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.” Right? I’m going to do what I need to do in order to be successful in what matters to me in my life. I think 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 to 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 all the way to 500, and have learned a lot over the years. If I could talk to Nicole of 30 years ago, you know, I would definitely 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. I have one child, 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 I think that’s 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 really helpful at some point. I think too many times I was just going, going, going. But I think there are lots of opportunity in ministry. There are lots of possibilities. And 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. And I hope more people will take that to heart. I want to thank you, Nicole, for taking the time to speak with us today, to reflect with us. I want to remind our listeners that your book is Expanding the Expedition Through Digital Ministry, and that your podcast is the Clergy Wellness Podcast and I hope that folks will both check out your book and listen to your podcast.

Nicole Reilley: Thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to share. I think our clergy are our greatest resource, and they need time and attention and lots of love and encouragement in this season.

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Expanding the Expedition through Digital Ministry book coverExpanding the Expedition Through Digital Ministry (The Greatest Expedition) (Market Square Publishing, 2021) by Nicole Reilley is available at Market Square BooksCokesbury, and Amazon.

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About Author

Nicole Reilley is a life and ministry coach who focuses on working with pastors to help them achieve their best lives while living out their calling. A United Methodist pastor with over 30 years of experience, she is passionate about reaching new people for Christ and developing disciples through digital ministry, leadership development and spiritual practices. She is coauthor of Expanding the Expedition Through Digital Ministry (Market Square Publishing, 2021), available at Market Square Books, Cokesbury, and Amazon.

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is the Assistant Director of the Lewis Center and co-editor of Leading Ideas. She teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and is an elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy. She is also the co-editor with Doug Powe of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024).