Doing Our Best Work

Note: While I focus on pastoral work in this article, I believe anyone who struggles with scheduling creative work may benefit. I debated publishing this, fearing that some may not understand the various pressures and struggles of pastors and others who must address problems without clear solutions or perform other tasks which draw on creative resources. After sharing the article with a friend who encouraged me to post it, I offer it in hopes that some find encouragement, hope, or understanding.

The Creative Pastor

Are pastors creatives? While I’ve lamented the stress of forced creativity of writing and presenting weekly sermons, I don’t know if I’ve viewed pastors as creatives. I know artists, musicians, screenwriters, and such do creative work, but pastors aren’t writing screenplays, poems, songs, or painting beautiful pictures. I’m not sure I’ve considered that pastors may be just as creative but in a different way.

When I started reading the book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, I thought the author would address work, rest, and recuperation. As I made my way through the book, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang began discussing creativity and how rest and recuperation aid in creative endeavors. I resonated with his discussion. I realized my work as a pastor was more creative than I thought. I also realized that pastors, in general, may be forced into being creative because pastoring in the 21st Century has become a creative endeavor.

I know better than to put all pastors, or anyone, in a generalized mold. Some pastors are creatives and some are not. Nevertheless, many of the tasks pastors are called upon to do are creative tasks, preaching and teaching being two such tasks.

Pang includes CEO, politicians, and even generals in his list of creatives. Why? Because their jobs require them to use imagination, inspiration, and make decisions without clear answers or processes, being able to think on their feet.

Pastors have to write, sometimes a lot, deal with problems without clear answers, and use imagination and inspiration, casting pastors into Dr. Pang’s categories for creatives. I’m not sure why I didn’t come to such a conclusion earlier. Once I began viewing pastoral work as creative work, some of my struggles and challenges over years of being a pastor started making sense.

Maker and Manager Schedules

A few years ago, I read an article about the maker and manager schedule. In his article, Paul Graham argued that makers (creatives) and managers (non-creatives) operate and do their best work with different time schedules.

Creatives need long blocks of time to do creative work which includes research, thinking, reflecting, and the like. Non-creatives can carve their days into hour, half hour, or fifteen-minute increments. Such time blocks enable them to have meetings, manage direct reports, and perform various office duties.

Mornings and afternoons are viewed similarly by managers. Managers don’t mind having morning and afternoon meetings. For creatives, a mid-morning meeting means nothing will get done; nothing worthwhile anyway (See Graham’s article for why this is the case).

Reading Graham’s article helped me to understand my struggle with a “normal” 8 am to 5 pm workday schedule. I loathed getting up and heading into the office in the morning. My resistance wasn’t because I wanted to sleep in and stumble into the office at 10 am or 10:30 am. I resisted because I felt being in the office from 8 am to 5 pm didn’t allow me to do my best work.

The Best Time for Work

Many creatives rise early, getting up at 5:30 am, 4:30 am, or some other pre-dawn time. Sleeping in until 7:30 am is late for many creatives. Early mornings aren’t the reason to forego a “normal” workday schedule.

Creatives tend to get their best work done in solitude. Since creative work takes reflection and deep thinking, creatives abhor disruptions and distraction. Many creatives get up early because no one else is up and they won’t be disturbed. By getting up early, they can spend the first few hours of the day doing their most important work.

The Genesis of a “Normal” Schedule for Work

The industrialized world doesn’t operate on a maker schedule creating a struggle for creatives. American culture believes getting work done requires a manager’s schedule and operating by any other schedule isn’t considered a full day’s work. When a creative takes a 2 pm walk or 1 pm nap, some may scoff believing they are “slacking off” not understanding that those activities are essential for the best creative work.

In his book Rest, Dr. Pang tracks the history of work from the mid-Eighteenth Century through the Industrial Revolution to today. In that time, he maps how our understanding of work has changed dramatically.

Work has gone from being task-oriented, or “I have some stuff I need to get done,” to time-based, or “I go in at 8 am and leave at 5 pm.” Time-based work is measured by the hour. If you spend 8, 9, or 10 hours in the office, you will be seen as working hard. Just spending time at work equates to working a full day whether you accomplished anything or not. If you spend a few more hours at work, being the first one to arrive and the last one to leave, you will be seen as a hard worker and “go-getter.”

Being Productive

Some jobs make it easy to measure productivity. If you make 100 widgets and Joe makes 30, you were more productive than Joe. Some work, especially creative work, doesn’t work that way.

Viewing creative work as industrial work means writing thirty articles when Joe writes one article makes you more productive. Yet, if Joe’s one article became the de facto standard for that topic and your articles, well, let’s just say your articles were derivative and not very insightful, then Joe’s one article provides more value than your thirty. Although, value is in the eye of the reader.

Sermon Time

Many pastors are expected to preach at least one sermon a week. Each week a sermon must be produced and presented. How long should creating a sermon take?

Sermons take time. Good sermons, I am convinced, take more time than not so good sermons. Reading, research, thought, reflection, and writing all take time. How long should a pastor take preparing sermons? That’s where we get into the challenge of measuring creativity.

In seminary, I was told every to spend one hour of preparation for every one minute of the sermon. A twenty-minute sermon, I was told, should take twenty hours of research, thinking, and writing. That’s a lot of time.

Depending on the pastor, he or she may spend twenty hours in sermon preparation. Many pastors, however, find sermon preparation gets preempted by other responsibilities. Therefore, pastors may end up spending five hours, three, or even an hour or so the night before preparing their sermon. When pastors share how much time they spend on sermon preparation, some spend a lot of time, others, not so much. Some pastors don’t feel they have the “luxury” to spend hours on sermon preparation because they have many other roles and tasks.

So, which sermon is better? One that takes a long time to create, or one that is put together in an hour or so? Better, in this regard, is in the ear of the beholder.

Measuring Creativity

How does one measure insight and depth? How should we measure creativity, insight, or inspiration?

Creativity makes connections between dissimilar items. To make connections, certain things have to happen. Dr. Pang refers to English psychologist Graham Wallas and his 1926 book “The Art of Thought” which outlines a four-stage model of Insight:

1) Research: To gain insight you must first prepare through research and understanding.

2) Incubation: A time for getting through mental blocks. Easy problems can take seconds or minutes (think crosswords and Sudko). More difficult problems can take much longer.

3) Illumination: The moment an answer “bursts into your consciousness.” We could refer to these as “shower moments.” They come in an instant, but there is much time in research and incubation behind such “instant” insights.

4) Verification: This is when you fill in details, fit your solution into a larger project, or otherwise call it done.

Aha Moments

We’ve all experienced this insight model. We are confronted with a problem or dilemma and we can’t find the solution. We think, research, talk, plan, strategize, but the solution still won’t come to us. Then, we go on vacation, take a nap, go out to eat, or take a shower. When our minds wander, not actively thinking about the problem at all, BAM! Insight hits. The solution seems so clear when it seemed so foggy before. Excited, we run back and verify that we have, indeed, figured out the answer.

Dr. Pang points out that, the first and last stage of the process are the only two stages that take measured time and are active. You spend a lot of time researching a problem. You spend a lot of time verifying the solution. The middle two stages? Those stages take time as well; we just don’t know how much time.

The Creative Problem

I’m a creative pastor. Your pastor may be too. Perhaps you are a creative pastor as well.

So, back to the problem. Our schedules should be structured for the work we do. What does that mean? That means getting up early even before 5:30 am, spending 3-4 hours in prayer, reading, researching, writing, and working on sermons, newsletters, letters, etc. Exercising and nap (per the Rest book) and then heading into the office in the afternoon for an hour or two. Then, in the evening, attend any meetings.

That would be a full day. Actually, that would be too much of a full day. Perhaps that schedule creates problems and struggles.

Such a schedule would push over the recommended 4 – 5 hours that Dr. Pang says humans effectively work on creative endeavors. Of course, if you are building a widget you may be able to continue building a widget without too much degradation in quality after five hours of work (Although, there is research indicating working more hours in any job results in less productivity. If you want more information, Google the “Parkinson Law”.) Gaining greater productivity by increasing hours worked is NOT effective for creative work.

Effective Creative Work

Creative work takes deep focus and after four or five hours most people are unable to provide the focus needed for creativity. You can continue working past the recommended four hours, but you will have diminishing returns and, basically, waste your time.

Dr. Pang argues that creative work takes rest and rest should be seen as a companion to work. The two go hand in hand. One of the reasons why he, and many others, encourage naps, is so creative work can be at its best. The restorative nap prepares individuals for a productive afternoon.

Creative Pastoral Work

If there is such a thing as a ‘creative’ pastor, shouldn’t we encourage creativity and the schedule that empowers creativity? If pastoral work requires creativity, wouldn’t it be in the best interest of both the pastor and the church to look at pastoral work in creative terms?

The world bases its work life on an industrialized 8 am – 5 pm schedule. Some church offices and Staff Committees view the pastor’s work, not as creative work, but as factory work. Those churches expect pastors to arrive at 8 am or earlier and leave the office at 5 pm or later. If the pastor operates by some other schedule, some may believe the pastor isn’t “putting in” his or her time.

Doing Our Best Work

With their varied roles, duties, and responsibilities, pastors may not work well by industrial scheduling standards. Some people, living by industrialized schedules, may view a non-industrialized schedule as “slacking off.” Given the constant transition, new problems, and tasks pastors are called to perform, it is time to step back and look at both the type of work and schedule that pastors need to do their best work, and encourage pastors (and others) to work in ways conducive to their best work.

While some pastors may take advantage of flexible schedules to slack off, most pastors want to do their best work and will. Under a manager industrial time-based schedule, Pastors attempting to do their best work end up working more hours which works against their goals, not to mention their health and family life. Working under such schedules becomes counterproductive to their deepest desire to give their best to God and others.

Perhaps it is time to match the nature of pastoral work with a schedule that is conducive to both creativity and productivity. While some work does lend itself to a manager’s schedule, not all work does. Knowing the difference and scheduling work appropriately could be freeing and effective. Viewing work days within a maker’s and manager’s scheduling framework could be a first step in helping pastors do their best work.

Leave a Reply