Why Productivity Matters in Ministry: The Difference Between Seminary and Actual Ministry

On Wednesday I asked what one thing about Getting Things Done you found to be most helpful. Thank you so much for all of your thoughts (both in the comments and by email). They have been really helpful!

Here is one comment from a reader that I especially wanted to highlight:

The whole concept/category of “knowledge work” was really helpful—never heard or thought along those lines previously. It helped to clarify practically why I struggle the way I do with productivity (my own heart issues obviously not addressed).

I wondered why I felt so incredibly productive in seminary and, well, the total opposite in ministry. Seminary was incredibly challenging, but it was so simple: just do what the professors assigned. All my tasks were clearly spelled out. Not so in ministry. As a self-employed “knowledge worker” with nobody handing me a syllabus, I was in quite a different position, and up to that point, I wasn’t able to clearly articulate why I felt so unproductive.

The label didn’t cure me—just clarified the problem. It helped to realize that I probably wasn’t the only one struggling.

I love this comment because of how it gets at one of the core challenges that I think many people in ministry experience — namely, the transition from seminary to full-time ministry and work.

This is the transition that actually got me interested in productivity in the first place. I went through seminary pretty fast — at one point I took 48 hours (= 16 classes) in a 9 month period. I did this without using a planner or even calendar (although I did write down a list of assignments once). One semester I completed all of my assignments within the first six weeks, and then had the rest of the semester almost entirely free from obligations (other than going to class; I used the time to work more and, I think, do more reading or something). I had never even heard of David Allen, and life worked great.

But then we moved back to Minneapolis (we had been at Southern Seminary in Louisville) and I started full-time at Desiring God. And my first task was not so small: launch a nationwide radio program while managing the church and conference bookstores at the same time. I found that my default practices for productivity just didn’t work. I realized I had to be more intentional and deliberate about how I got things done.

I had always read a lot. My focus up to that point had almost exclusively been theology. So I said to myself, “I’ll try to do the same thing with productivity — I’ll find some key books to read and try to develop an overall approach and system to keep track of what I have to do and stay focused on what is most important.”

At Desiring God, some people were reading Getting Things Done. So I picked that up. I also noticed that in the employee handbook for the church that they encouraged the use of Franklin Planners and would even pay $50 a year for you to get one and replace the pages each year. So I got one of those as well. This led to developing my own approach that merged what I took to be the best insights from David Allen and Stephen Covey, along with some of my own thinking.

Anyway, that’s how I got into productivity. I think the struggle I had is something that many other people also have experienced and continue to experience. And that’s why I resonate with Andrew’s comment above so much

  • http://www.armchair-theology.net/ Dave

    For those of us who haven’t read Allen’s GTD where can we find a good primer on his treatment of “knowledge work”?

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I can identify as well.
    To me, the difference is not really one of knowledge work vs. physical work, but rather one of highly defined vs. not highly defined.
    I was the same as you in college. My professor gave me stuff to do, and I got things done. Then I got out into the “real world” and started a business. Talk about a sudden change! That’s what drove me into learning productivity as well.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Allen borrowed the idea (just like many, many authors) from Peter Drucker. Here’s a good primer: http://www.druckerinstitute.com/whydrucker/why_articles_nextworkforce.html

  • http://www.squarepeggedness.wordpress.com Rachael Starke

    This little aside:

    “… at one point I took 48 hours (= 16 classes) in a 9 month period. “

    has finally helped me understand why you are so gifted and doing such unique and helpful work.

    You’re not actually human. You are, in fact, simply a super computer carefully and lovingly built by a group of YRR IBM engineers back in the early eighties. It all makes sense now.