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Taming the Busyness: Getting Organized and Staying That Way

Ministry is a high calling: a cliché, but also true. We have the joy and privilege of being present at the milestone events of life—births, weddings, deaths—what some of us call “hatch, match and dispatch” in our cheeky moments. One of the practical things I learned in seminary was this: when the call comes that a parishioner has died, hang up the phone, take out the calendar, and cancel any non-essential commitments for the next several days. The pastoral care and funeral are now the priorities. Then turn to the following year’s calendar and write a reminder to contact the family: “anniversary of Rose’s death—call her daughter.”

Tending to one’s calendar seems like a mundane activity in the midst of the emotional upheaval of a death—and it is. And yet our ministries are full of such moments. Yes, ours is a lofty calling, but we still need to get things done. There are plenty of urgent and important matters in ministry (death of a church member). Others are not urgent, but deeply important (our own self-care). Still other issues are merely urgent, but not important (insert your own example here). How do we organize our lives so as to make the best use of our time, while providing flexibility to respond to needs as they arise?

I’ve been a collector of organizational tips for a long time, but especially since moving to
part-time ministry. I resonate with my friend Karen Sapio, pastor of Claremont
Presbyterian Church in southern California, who remembers working part-time while her
kids were little. “I had about two or three hours of work time each day if I was lucky,”
she says. “I didn’t have much of an organizational method. I pretty much arrived at the
church and worked furiously on whatever I could until it was time to pick up the kids at
child care.”

Whatever our life circumstance, we know that our resolve to be more organized waxes
and wanes depending on our time, energy, and Myers-Briggs type. Here are some tips
I’ve found helpful along the way, and others gathered from friends and colleagues:

“Take Care, TCB GTD”
With all due respect to Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” I’d like to revise her song a
bit. I am a committed disciple of GTD, or Getting Things Done, David Allen’s popular
book on “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” The book is well worth reading for people
who want to get their lives in order, but the basic idea is that we carry around a lot of
unnecessary anxiety when we don’t have a way to organize and process the information
and details that come across our desk. Having a system that is complete, efficient, and
even a little fun (get yourself some colored folders and a labelmaker, friends!) alleviates
that stress that comes when we are trying to keep too many to-dos in our heads.

If you’re a more spontaneous type for whom a high level of structure makes your teeth
itch, here are just a few GTD tidbits that even a half-hearted organizer can implement:

Action items that are truly “actionable.” Many of us fall into the trap of putting things on
our to-do lists that are so broad that we take one look at them and think, “That’s too
much, I don’t have time for that now.”

“Plan Youth Sunday” is a great project, but not a good action item—it needs to be broken
down into smaller chunks, such as “write letter to planning team,” “check youth ministry
shelves for books and resources,” etc.

Group like items together, by context. Contexts are places where things get done: on the
phone, on the computer, at home, in the car on an errand. Many of us organize our to-do
list by project (if we organize it at all). As a result, items are buried in a list rather than
right where we need them.

Do you have a few minutes before your next appointment? Pick up your To Be Called list
and get going. Are you in the car between a hospital visit and a judicatory meeting? An
Errands list will remind you to stop by the bakery or the post office.

Tickler files. These are file folders organized by date (I use one per month) in which you
toss random ideas you want to think about at a later time. That’s where I put the cool
World Communion liturgy that someone gave me last week that I don’t need to think
about again until the fall.

Gotta-Have Gadgets and Doodads
OK, gadgets are not essential to being organized. In fact, many effective pastors I know
do quite well with a paper calendar and pencil (with eraser—things shift often in
ministry). Nonetheless, here are some items, both high-tech and low-tech, pricey and
free, that might make your life easier:

PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). Those of us who have ‘em can’t imagine going back. It
is an expense, to be sure, but the peace of mind of having everything in one place,
(http://www.olivetree.com/, including your Bible), is well worth it. It’s also nice not to
have to record every single meeting on the calendar. Set the recurring ones to repeat, e.g.
every second Tuesday, and you’re good to go. I have mine set to remind me of
appointments and deadlines; it beeps and dings so much I go around sounding like R2D2.
But I never miss a meeting. Accidentally, that is.

A twist on the PDA concept: Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Park
Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, keeps his calendar on his cell phone, which he
syncs both at home and at work. “In addition to having a portable schedule that I can
check wherever I am, [my spouse] Kate can keep track of my schedule all the time,” he
says. “Of course, that doesn’t eliminate conflicts and tensions between church and home,
but it makes it a little easier to plan or schedule stuff together. I’m still a terribly
disorganized person—my desk is a wreck. I chalk that up to creativity. But I rarely miss
an appointment.”

Global Positioning System. Says Susan Olson, convener of the Young Clergy Women
Project, “A GPS system will save you enough time and gas to pay for itself. I have one as
a gift and I keep thinking how much time I would have saved doing pastoral calls if I’d
had one when I was first starting out. Heck, I would have argued to take it out of the
book budget!”

Paperwork center. I keep everything I need for correspondence in one place: stamps,
envelopes, notecards, church directory, checkbook for paying bills, and even a sheet of
paper with credit card numbers on it so I can pay bills without fishing my wallet out of
my purse. I keep all this in a basket so it’s portable—I can dash off a note while the kids
are playing nearby in the family room or write a couple of checks while watching “The
Daily Show.”

Calendar. This one’s not rocket science. But what kind of calendar? Many of us swear by
paper calendars; others have gone high-tech. Google calendar is accessible from any
computer with an Internet connection. And some of us prefer a combination, like Susan
Olson: “When I was a solo chaplain, I kept prayer requests in a paper calendar. When the
year was up, I could go back and note in the new calendar things like death anniversaries
and anniversaries of other important things (I’d also add in student birthdays as I became
aware of them, weddings I performed, etc.) and plot them on my electronic calendar to
remember to send notes.”

A magical magnetic door. OK, it’s not magic, and it’s certainly not worth it to have one
installed, but if the door of your house happens to be made of metal as ours is, grab a few
magnets and stick them to the door. These are great for papers that need to walk out with
you when you leave. No more leaving a stack of letters on the table for days (and days,
and days…)

Alternative: get a magnetic white board mounted next to your door.

Jott. I always wondered if I was the only one who called my voice mail to leave myself
reminders. I wonder no longer! (www.jott.com Jott) is a free service that allows you to
call an 800 number, leave yourself a message, and have a text version of it waiting in
your e-mail box the next time you log in. You can even have it send messages to other
people (a great way to tell your friend or spouse you’re running late without texting in
rush-hour traffic). I have been known to Jott myself poem snippets and sermon
ideas—much more effective than scribbling notes on a fast-food napkin in my car. (Now
where did I put that exegesis?)

Vitalist. There are tons of online to-do lists out there. (http://www.vitalist.com/ Vitalist) is
my choice, because it follows the Getting Things Done methodology (and it’s free). You
can sort your to-do list by date, project or context, set up ticklers, move actions into a
“waiting” category if you’re waiting for someone to get back to you, and more. Having
an online to-do list means it’s accessible from any computer with an Internet connection.
When you’re going to be offline, it’s easy enough to print your Vitalist or just write down
the day’s action items. And you can Jott to it, too!

Who’s Got Your Back?
It’s great to live in faith that God will provide, but that’s no reason to tempt the
Almighty. My very unofficial survey of clergy suggests that very few of us keep proper
backups of our computer files. Susan Olson keeps her sermons on a memory stick she
carries with her between home and work. It’s good to have some redundancy, storing
precious files in more than one place. Even better: a backup system that will do the work
for you. Mozy is an online backup service that my husband, a former independent
computer consultant, has recommended to his clients with great results.
(http://mozy.com/ Mozy) automatically and unobtrusively backs up those files you
designate and stores them on their servers for less than $5 a month. Once you sign up and
install the software you don’t need to give your files another thought. You can retrieve
backup copies if you need them. God forbid.

The String Around the Finger—21st Century Style
My beloved uncle will leave me a voice mail from time to time, saying, “Call me back:
it’s been 78 days since we last talked!” I finally asked him how he kept track. The
iGoogle personalized homepage has an application called (http://leancode.com/dayssince/
“Days Since.”) Set it up to remind you to do those things that easily slip your mind.
(http://leancode.com/daysuntil/ “Days Until”) is also available. Never miss your
mother’s birthday again!

Perhaps you need something more in-your-face. Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor and candidate
for moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), uses (http://www.hassleme.co.uk/
HassleMe) to receive periodic e-mails that, well, hassle him. According to
(http://www.reyes-chow.com/2008/02/quit-shoving-fo.html his blog), every four days or
so he receives an e-mail that says, “This is a hassle to remind you to quit shoving food
down your pie hole.” Whatever works!

Sermons and Worship
In my informal survey, I found many different ways of storing sermons and worship
materials. Ann Bonner-Stewart, managing editor of Fidelia’s Sisters and associate rector
of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina, has a low-fi but effective
system: giant three-inch three-ring binders with the bulletins and hard copy of the
sermons, hole-punched and filed from Advent 1 to Christ the King Sunday from a single
liturgical year. She also has a separate funeral/wedding binder, with bulletins and
sermons.

Rob Monroe, a layperson who works for National Capital Presbytery in the Presbyterian
Church (USA), says, “I am in charge of coordinating getting our pastor’s sermons online.
We’ve been exploring just posting them in a blog so that they are searchable by whatever
she wants them in. We have included scripture references, too. Currently we just have
them posted on our website and she can refer to them that way.” Organization and
outreach! Of course, blogs can also be private, if you want an easy way to save and search
sermons for your own use. Tag them with a theme, book of the Bible, or liturgical season for
quick browsing.

Sarah Erickson, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning Columbia Theological Seminary
in Decatur, Georgia, does what most of us do: she keeps her sermons and worship files on
her computer. Naming conventions are important for these files. If you start with the
year, then the month and the day, files will be in chronological order. For example, your
Easter sermon would be “2008-0323 Easter” or something similar. Sarah also files any
notes—exegesis, orders of worship—under the same date, so they stay together.

The Last Word
We all know people who are so uber-organized that they are forever multi-tasking and
seeking to maximize each available moment. These people are not fun to be around (it’s
not fun to be that person either). And this kind of mentality can be detrimental to
authentic ministry.

Louis Imsande, associate pastor of Roswell Presbyterian Church outside Atlanta, puts it
this way: “For too long I have carried my engineering principles into ministry… But, I
am starting to see that ‘decent and in order’ can impede the Holy Spirit. I am starting to
think that those ‘annoying’ people who interrupt my schedule/organization might just be
divine appointments from God. Maybe I should be open to the Spirit moving at a time I
have not scheduled.” The point of any organizational system or strategy is not to exist for
its own sake, or as some grasp at perfection, but to free us up to be present, trusting that
whatever we’re doing is what needs to be done at that moment.

So do not worry about your life, what you will do or whom you will call. Is not life more
than doing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither Jott nor Vitalist, and yet God feeds
them. Are you not of more value than they? So do not worry about tomorrow, for
tomorrow’s action items are on your to-do list. Today’s work is enough for today.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is editor of Christ and Creativity for Fidelia’s Sisters,
associate pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke Virginia, writer, and mother of
three. How does she do it? A regular regimen of GTD, periodic freak-outs, dark
chocolate, hiding under the covers, and lots of supportive friends and family. It doesn’t
hurt that she’s an off-the-chart J on the Myers-Briggs. Still, she does manage to unplug
the calendar from time to time.

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Comments

  1. Um, so is it Providence that you posted this article on the same day I double booked myself on TWO separate occasions? Yep, I am supposed to be two places at 10:00 AND 5:00. I keep an electronic calendar, but it is helpful if I actually ENTER IN my periodontist and finance committee meetings. . .Thanks for all the fun tips and gadgets, MaryAnn. Great stuff!

  2. Just another tip.
    If you have a spouse and/or kids, make sure that your calendar (or at least, the fact that you’ll be elsewhere) and theirs have a place to meet regularly (paper or electronic, doesn’t matter). It’s no good to have “Susie at Johnny’s birthday party” at 2 pm Saturday on one calendar, “wedding, Saturday 2 pm” on another and “help friends move house, all day Saturday” on a third.
    Do not ask how I know this.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    How ironic that I read this yesterday, the day I picked up my new Palm Centro (smartphone) after my PDA died suddenly. (There was weeping and gnashing of teeth.) I’d had a Palm since Seminary and have the liturgical calendar, several bibles, and a lot of forms and prayers transcribed. I have the Prayers for Commendation and the forms for baptism in my hand. Makes me feel better!
    The hardest part is the lack of support from extended family- my mother outright makes fun of my electric calendar, telling me how much better and nicer it would look to read things off a paper calendar, and how much less stress I’d feel. I wish they would get off my back and let me schedule the way I want to! Instead, I’m always the one missing out on family events when they decide on a whim to do pumpkin carving on the Wednesday that I have Vestry meeting… “Well, we didn’t know. We don’t have that many appointments! We finish work at 3 and 5PM.”
    Ah well. Thanks for the article!

  4. I needed jott! I spent an entire drive from middle school to my office reciting the last couple of lines of an article I was trying to finish….
    next time I can can myself!!
    Thanks for the tips, but also for the hope that even J’s can learn to let go a bit…

  5. Very helpful and practical – I’m signing up for Jott now!

  6. Can I quadruple-recommend the back-up systems? A couple weeks ago, my husband left for Chicago to teach his first class of the spring term. He backed everything up on the external drive we bought when he started his dissertation. The next day his computer was stolen from a computer lab! Happily, he didn’t lose any of his work, because he had backed up the night before. Back-ups mean reasonably happy endings!

  7. MaryAnn,
    Thank you. I’m going to pull this article back up over the summer when I plan on creating some better organizational systems.

  8. Another option for the digitally disinclined is the Hipster PDA ( http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/03/introducing-the-hipster-pda ).
    And online I almost swear by a combination of Backpack ( http://www.backpackit.com/ ), Writeboard ( http://www.writeboard.com/ ), and Instapaper ( http://www.instapaper.com/ ).

  9. For implementing GTD you might try out this web-based application:
    http://www.gtdagenda.com
    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.
    As with the last update, now Gtdagenda has full Someday/Maybe functionality, you can easily move your tasks and projects between “Active”, “Someday/Maybe” and “Archive”. This will clear your mind, and will boost your productivity.
    Hope you like it.

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