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Leadership the power and privilege of ministry.
Fall 1998


Taking Care of Busyness
How to minister at a healthy pace.

Not long after moving to Chicago, I called a wise friend to ask for some spiritual direction. I described the pace of life in my current ministry.

The church where I serve tends to move at a fast clip. I also told him about our rhythms of family life: we are in the van-driving, soccer-league, piano-lesson, school-orientation-night years.

I told him about the present condition of my heart, as best I could discern it. What did I need to do, I asked him, to be spiritually healthy?

Long pause.

"You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life," he said at last.

Another long pause.

"Okay, I've written that one down," I told him, a little impatiently. "That's a good one. Now what else is there?" I had many things to do, and this was a long-distance call, so I was anxious to cram as many units of spiritual wisdom into the least amount of time possible.

Another long pause.

"There is nothing else," he said. "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life."

He is the wisest spiritual mentor I know. While he doesn't know every detail of every grain of sin in my life, he knows quite a bit and can probably guess the rest. And from an immense quiver of spiritual sagacity, he drew only one arrow.

I've concluded that my life and the well-being of the people I serve depends on following his prescription, for hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. Hurry destroys souls. As Carl Jung wrote, "Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil."

For most of us, the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.

Hurried sick

One of the great illusions of our day is that hurrying will buy us more time. I pulled into a service station recently where the advertising slogan read, "We help you move faster."

But what if my primary need is not moving faster?

Time magazine noted that back in the 1960s, expert testimony was given to a sub-committee of the Senate on time management. The gist was that due to advances in technology, within 20 years or so people would have to cut back radically on how many hours a week they worked (or how many weeks a year they worked), or they'd have to start retiring sooner. The great challenge, they said, would be figuring out what to do with all the excess time.

Yet 30 years later, not many of us would say this is our primary time challenge. We seem to have no excess time.

Consequently, we buy anything that promises to help us hurry. The top-selling shampoo in America rose to the top when it became one of the first to combine shampoo and conditioner in one bottle, eliminating the need for all the time-consuming rinsing. Domino's became a name in pizza because they promised to deliver in 30 minutes or less. ("We don't sell pizza," said their CEO. "We sell delivery.")

USA Today reports, "Taking a cue from Domino's Pizza, a Detroit hospital guarantees that emergency-room patients will be seen within 20 minutes—or treatment is free." The paper notes that business has been up 30 percent. (It doesn't say how much the mortality rate has gone up!)

We worshipped at the shrine of the Golden Arches not because they sold good food or cheap food but "fast" food. Still, people had to park their cars, go inside, order, and take their food to a table—all of which took time. So we invented the drive-thru lane so families could eat in vans on their way to soccer practice, as God intended.

Our world has become the world of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."

Churches obsess over getting services finished on time. Cell phones and pagers now interrupt more sermons than cranky babies. Every preacher knows that on the hour a symphony of watch beeps will fill the auditorium (though no two of them sounding at precisely the same time).

Ironically, all our efforts have not produced what we're after—a sense of what might be called "timefulness," having enough time. In fact, quite the reverse. Robert Banks, author of All the Business of Life, notes that while our society is rich in things, we are extremely poor in time. In fact, never before in human history has a society been so things-rich and so time-poor.

Meyer Friedman (who with Diane Ulmer wrote Treating Type A Behavior—and Your Heart) defines hurry sickness as "above all, a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time, frequently in the face of opposition, real or imagined, from other persons."

The great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.

Though our age intensifies "hurry sickness," it's not a new problem; people in ministry have been subject to it at least since the days of Jesus. During one hectic season of ministry, Mark notes of the disciples, "For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat."

Far too many people involved in ministry think of this as a life verse, as if God will reward the hectic one day with, "What a life you had! Many were coming and going, and you had no leisure even to eat. Well done!"

Not quite. Jesus was aware of this problem, and he constantly withdrew from crowds and activities. He taught the same to his followers. In one instance, when they returned from a busy time of ministry, filled with adrenaline, he told them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

If you want to follow someone, you can't go faster than the one who is leading; following Jesus cannot be done at a sprint.

Jesus was often busy but he was never hurried. Being busy is an outer condition; being hurried is a sickness of the soul.

Jesus never went about the busyness of his ministry in a way that severed the life-giving connection between himself and his Father.

He never did it in a way that interfered with his ability to give love when that was what was called for. He observed a regular rhythm of withdrawal from activity, for solitude and prayer. He ruthlessly eliminated hurry from his life.

As much as we complain about it, though, there's part of us which is drawn to a hurried life. It makes us feel important. It keeps the adrenaline pumping. It means I don't have to look too closely at my heart or life. It keeps us from feeling our loneliness. As long as I have meetings to attend and occasions to preach and teach, I can demonstrate that I am an important person.

"The press of busyness is like a charm," Kierkegaard wrote. "Its power swells . . . it reaches out seeking always to lay hold of ever-younger victims so that childhood or youth are scarcely allowed the quiet and the retirement in which the Eternal may unfold a divine growth."

Hurry, then, is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.

Life in the slow lane

We don't have to live this way. The hurried can become unhurried. But it will not happen by trying alone, nor will it happen instantly. You will have to enter a life of training.

One useful practice might be called "slowing." This involves cultivating patience by deliberately choosing to place yourself in positions where you have to wait. For instance, over the next few days or weeks, try these:

  1. Deliberately drive in the slow lane on the expressway. It may be that not swerving from lane to lane will cause you to arrive five minutes later. But you will find that you don't get nearly so angry at other drivers. Instead of trying to pass them, say a little prayer as they go by, asking God to bless them.
  2. Declare a fast from honking. Put your horn under a vow of silence. (One author writes about the world's shortest unit of time, the honkosecond: the amount of time that elapses after the light turns green and before the car behind you honks.)
  3. Eat your food slowly. Force yourself to chew at least 15 times before each swallow.
  4. At the grocery store, discover which check-out line is the longest, and get in it. Then let one person go in front of you.
  5. Reread a book. In our day we have largely traded wisdom for information. We keep reading more and thinking less. David Donald notes in his biography of Abraham Lincoln that Lincoln grew up with access to few books: the Bible, Aesop's Fables, and a few others. Portions of these he read over and over, until, as Lincoln's stepmother remembered, "he never lost that fact or the understanding of it." His law partner said, "Lincoln read less and thought more than any man in his sphere in America."
  6. Take an hour simply to be with God. Don't use this time to prepare messages or do strategic planning. Don't use this time at all. Simply be with God.

In short, find ways to choose waiting deliberately, that make hurry impossible. As you practice them, tell God you are trusting he will enable you to accomplish all you need to get done. Often people worry that if they don't rush, they will accomplish less. In fact, researchers have found that there is simply no correlation between hurry and productivity. You will discover you can survive without hurry.


Solitude is a more traditional practice to cure hurry sickness. Jesus engaged in it frequently. At the beginning of his ministry, he went to the wilderness for extended fasting and prayer. He also withdrew when he heard of John the Baptist's death, when he was going to choose his disciples, after he had healed a leper, after his followers had engaged in ministry. This pattern of withdrawal continued into the final days of his life, when again he withdrew into the garden to pray. He ended his ministry, as he began it, with the practice of solitude.

Ministry must be done in a rhythm of engagement and withdrawal. Wise followers of Christ have always understood solitude to be the foundational practice.

What makes it so important? Solitude is the one place where we gain freedom from the forces of society that otherwise relentlessly mold us. It is (in one old phrase) the "furnace of transformation."

Dallas Willard noted an experiment done with mice a few years ago. A researcher found that when amphetamines are given to a mouse in solitude, it takes a high dosage to kill it. Give it to a group of mice, and they start hopping around and hyping each other up so much that a fraction of the dosage will be lethal—so great is the effect of "the world" on mice. In fact, a mouse that had been given no amphetamines at all, placed in a group on the drug, will get so hyper that in 10 minutes or so the non-injected mouse will be dead. "In groups," Willard noted, "they go off like popcorn."

You'd think only mice would be so foolish as to hang out with other mice that are so hopped up, so frantically pursuing mindless activity for no discernible purpose that they put their own lives at risk.

But what exactly is solitude? Some people ask, "What do I do when I practice solitude? What should I bring with me? The primary answer, of course, is "Nothing."

Not long ago, a man told me about preparing for his first extended period of solitude: he brought books, message tapes, CDs, and a VCR. Those are the very things you go into solitude to get away from.

At its heart, solitude is primarily about not doing something. Just as fasting means to refrain from eating, so solitude means to refrain from society. When I go into solitude, I withdraw from conversation, from others, from noise, from media, from the constant barrage of stimulation.

"In solitude," Henri Nouwen wrote, "I get rid of my scaffolding." Scaffolding is all the stuff I use to keep myself propped up, to convince myself I'm important or okay. In solitude I have no friends to talk with, no phone calls or meetings, no TV to entertain, no music or books or newspapers to occupy and distract my mind. I am, in the words of the old hymn, "Just as I Am": not my accomplishments or resume or possessions or networks—just me and my sinfulness, and God.

Solitude requires relentless perseverance. Unless I pull my calendar out and write down well in advance when I am committed to times of solitude, it won't happen.

I think about solitude in two categories: I need brief periods of solitude on a regular basis—preferably each day, even at intervals during the day. But I also need extended periods of solitude—a half day, a day, or a few days—and this is possible only at greater intervals. Frances de Sales, author of the classic An Introduction to the Devout Life, used the image of a clock:

"There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn't need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner, every morning and evening a man who really takes care of his heart must rewind it for God's service. … At least once a year, he must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is, every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be."

As much as we complain about it, there's part of us that is drawn to a hurried life. It makes us feel important.

I try to begin my days by praying over the day's schedule—meetings I'll attend, tasks I must perform, people I'll be with—and placing them all in God's hands. Through the day, I try to take 5-minute breaks, close the door to my office, and remind myself that one day the office will be gone and I'll still belong to God.

At the end of the day, I like to review the day with God: to go over the events to see what he might be saying to me through them, and to hand any anxieties or regrets over to him. One of the great benefits of this exercise is that you begin to learn from your days.

When I was in athletics in school, we used to watch videotapes of our performances. They were sometimes painful to watch, but it was worth it to be spared from making the same mistakes over and over.

It's the same here. For instance, when I began this daily review, I discovered I experienced much more anger than I ever thought. I began to be aware of the attitudes and responses that were guiding my life.

Unrestrained prayer

I also need extended times alone. I try to withdraw from the church for a day once a month or so, and sometime during the year to do a retreat for two days. Retreat centers designed for such experiences are becoming more and more common, although any place where you can be undisturbed can do.

One of the great obstacles you will likely face is that extended solitude will feel like a waste of time. We're so conditioned to feel our existence is justified only when we are accomplishing something. But also, for me, this feeling comes because my mind wanders so much. I used to think if I devoted a large chunk of time to praying, I should be able to engage in solid, uninterrupted, focused prayer. But I can't.

The first time I tried extended solitude, my mind wandered like a tourist with a Eur-rail pass. I would start praying, and the next thing I knew, I was immersed in an anger fantasy, and someone who had hurt me was being deeply wounded as I was righteously vindicated. Or I would find myself in some grandiose success fantasy that would make Walter Mitty blush.

What I have come to realize, slowly, is that bits of focused prayer interspersed with these wanderings is all my mind is capable of now. One day I hope to do better. But for now, I have to accept that a large chunk of prayer time will be lost to wandering. Brother Lawrence said it like this: "For many years I was bothered by the thought that I was a failure at prayer. Then one day I realized I would always be a failure at prayer; and I've gotten along much better ever since."

Getting off speed

Some time ago, a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, carried the story of Tattoo the basset hound. Tattoo didn't intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off for a drive with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

Motorcycle officer Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it, "the basset hound picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could." He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog had reached a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, rolling over several times.

Too many pastors end up living like Tattoo, their days marked by picking them up and putting them down as fast as they can.

It's time to learn another way to live. To do that, we must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.

John C. Ortberg is a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

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