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How to handle incessant urgency for pastors, church leaders

urgent, busy
Getty Images/Vincent Besnault

“Pastor, I’ve got to show you something.” Sunday mornings come with various tasks, but I could tell by his tone that I needed to stop what I was doing and follow him. The longtime church member guided me down the stairs to our education area below the sanctuary. He pointed at the door.

“Do we have another leak?” I asked.

“No, but it’s just as significant. Every single doorstop in the church is not to code. They will all need replacements.”

I stood with this kind and caring church member, looking at doorstops. In his mind, they were both urgent and significant. They were neither. What did I do? I listened to his concerns and then walked into the worship service. In this case, his urgent concern was not malicious. But that’s the problem. People mean well when they call you in urgency.

The taxing consequences of constant urgency

You become a reactive leader when you give the bulk of your attention to urgent matters. Little flare-ups always exist. Urgent church leaders reactively move from one to the next. When you set the right priorities, you can discern the dangerous fires with the potential to affect everyone. There are several taxing consequences of constant attention to urgent matters.

The pace of requests is frenzied and unpredictable. Pastors and church leaders receive endless requests for information and guidance. These requests range from the vitally important to the mundane. They come in the form of authorizations for critical ministry decisions or non-essential matters of church facility operations. The difficulty arises when the leader becomes so inundated with requests that he or she can no longer discern what is primary, secondary, tertiary, or totally imprudent. In this scenario, the leader ends up fixing the squeakiest wheel.

The substance of the work is disjointed. The sheer variety of tasks involved in ministry can become daunting. Church leaders will go from counseling someone on serious personal issues to calling the air conditioner repairman. The disjointed nature of ministry work can make the leader lose sight of the true vision of the church.

The work can become reactive. Sometimes pastors and church leaders can feel more like firefighters than Gospel workers. They react to “fires” in the church because of the gravitational pull of immediate needs. Some situations require leaders to put a hold on everything. The problem, however, surfaces when this reactive management mode overtakes and detracts from the proactive planning necessary for leading God’s church.

Decision-making and planning can become too incremental. Rarely are decisions in the church made cleanly and distinctly within a specific timeframe. Instead, decisions evolve over time and across many segments of the church. In addition, prolonged decision-making can become an emotional drag on a leader. As a result, the leader spends an excessive amount of time managing and assuaging the emotions of others.

The difference between what is urgent and what is significant

Urgent matters require immediate attention. When you hear a child scream, you feel a sense of urgency. Is it a broken arm? Or did another child grab the toy? The only way to discern the nature of the scream is to give attention to the matter. In the church, pastors and church leaders can bounce between urgent concerns and never get to what is most significant. The tyranny of the urgent has a real effect on church leadership because people lack self-awareness that their issue is less significant than someone else’s problem. Everyone wants attention now.

Significant priorities often get delayed because tending to urgent matters takes an emotional toll. Can something be both urgent and significant? Yes, but such convergence does not happen often. Urgency implies immediacy, while significance tends to have longer-term effects.

In The Church Revitalization Checklist, I dedicate an entire chapter to setting the right priorities. When priorities are neglected, the church creates an unhealthy culture of fragile resiliency. Many churches are simultaneously fragile and resilient. Every Sunday can feel like the precipice of disaster. Yet the same church survives year after year, decade after decade. Struggling churches tend to maintain constant tension between fragility and resiliency. It’s the perpetual state of not quite dying.

This feeling of suspended animation creates a climate in which church members learn to survive but never thrive. On the other hand, the organizational culture has just enough momentum and life to get to the following Sunday, the next month, and the next year. So many churches seem to be hanging on by their fingernails, but those fingernails prove to be incredibly strong.


Originally published at Church Answers.

Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida. 

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