Richard Exley Ministries

The Art of Prioritizing

The pastor wears many hats – administrator, leader, visionary, caregiver, counselor, mentor and preacher/teacher.  All of his roles are important to the ministry of the church, but none is more important than his proclamation of God’s eternal Word.  The apostles established the preeminence of preaching when they declared, “…’It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’  … So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”  (Acts 6:2-4, 7 emphasis added).

The apostle’s decision to make prayer and the ministry of the word their first priority was not made in a vacuum.  The infant church was experiencing an internal crisis.  “…the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).  The resulting antagonism threatened to splinter the fellowship.  Something had to be done and done fast. (click here to continue reading)

Who could have blamed the apostles if they had given their attention to this pressing need?  After all doesn’t the Bible teach us to take care of the widows and those who are in need?  It certainly does, but not at the expense of prayer and the ministry of the Word.  Let the pastor appoint godly men and women to minister in these areas so he can remain focused on the preaching of the Word.

This situation, and others like it, demonstrates how important it is for the pastor to establish clear Biblical priorities.  As any pastor will tell you, the tyranny of the urgent is constantly tempting him to forego the important.  More often than not he will be required to choose between legitimate concerns.  He is not choosing between good and evil.  That would be easy.  Like the apostles, he must choose between pressing needs and spiritual preparation.  Should he make hospital calls, visit the shut-ins or give himself to prayer and the study of God’s Word? 

Well do I remember a time some years ago when I was faced with the same kind of dilemma.  The congregation I was serving was experiencing significant growth with all the dynamics that entailed. We were building a new facility, adding more staff, and enlarging our ministries. My own responsibilities were expanding as well. With increasing frequency I was traveling and ministering throughout the country. Our radio ministry had expanded into more than 150 cities and was placing more and more demands on my time.  Not infrequently I found the work of ministry crowding out my time for prayer and study.  Of course it wasn’t long until I found myself physically drained and emotionally depleted.  On top of that my preaching lacked the power it once had.  I knew I had to do something, but what?

First I had to admit that I wasn’t superman, that I couldn’t do it all.  Then I had to decide what to do, what to delegate and what to let go undone.
        For me the first step proved to be the hardest.  All my life I had been taught that I could “…do everything through him [Christ] who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). Now I was being forced to acknowledge my limitations. How could I reconcile this apparent contradiction?

 Then it hit me.  I could do everything God called me to do because He would give me the strength to do it, but if I added to my God-given responsibilities then I was on my own.  It was the difference between living a God-centered life and a need-centered one, the difference between a divine assignment and an opportunity.
 
At that time my life was a hodgepodge. There were a number of divine assignments to be sure, but I had also cluttered my life with ministries I had taken upon  myself.  In order to remain effective in my calling I had to recognize the difference and choose accordingly.

Step two was deciding what to do – what my divine assignments were – those non-negotiable responsibilities. Some of them were readily obvious. Of utmost  importance was my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If I did not maintain a vibrant spiritual walk nothing else would work, not my ministry or my life.  Being the husband and father God had called me to be was also mandatory.  No one else could fill that role.
As the senior pastor there were certain God-given responsibilities that no one else could do.  I could not delegate the preaching or teaching responsibilities.  I could share them, but as long as I served as senior pastor I would be the primary person through whom God spoke to our body.  Neither could I abdicate my responsibility as the pastoral intercessor.  God had given me a charge to pray for His people and I would answer to Him. Everything else on my plate, however, was negotiable.  

Step three was deciding what to delegate.  After careful consideration I decided to delegate the day-to-day administration of the church to my senior associate.  He was gifted in this area and a man I trusted.  Next we called a minister of pastoral care and gave her the primary responsibility for pastoral care and the counseling center. Trained volunteers were brought in to help with the preparation and editing of tapes for the daily radio broadcasts. Finally each elder was given an area of responsibility with a written portfolio.  Although the ultimate responsibility for the administration of church and its ministries rested with me as senior pastor, I now had a capable group to help me do the work of the ministry.

Of course there were a number of challenges as I implemented these changes, especially when it came to deciding what to let go undone.  While almost everyone applauded my attempt to establish Biblical priorities, most parishioners felt their situation was the exception to the rule. 
 
I will never forget the board meeting where the elders unanimously agreed that I needed to restructure my workload, especially where it involved counseling and other time consuming one-on-one ministry.  Following the meeting one of the elders pulled me aside. With no little urgency he said, “I need to meet with you as soon as possible to discuss a pressing family matter.” 

No sooner had he gone than a second elder shared a similar request.  Neither man saw anything incongruous about requesting personal ministry only minutes after urging me to cut back in that very area.  To their way of thinking the boundaries they urged for others did not apply to themselves.  Unfortunately they were not alone in their thinking.  Almost everyone thought I should guard my time, that I should give myself to prayer and the study of the Word, but no one thought I should do so at his expense.  Nonetheless in order to honor my commitment to Biblical priorities I had to resist the temptation to allow the expectations of others to structure my ministry.  It wasn’t easy but it was critical that I do so.

Once you recognize that your highest priority is prayer and the study of God’s Word, it is your responsibility to schedule your time accordingly.  An older and wiser minister once told me that I would always have time for what I did first.  Then he  counseled me to make prayer and study the first order of business each day.  I haven’t always been faithful to his advice, but when I have it has paid rich dividends.
 
Over the years I have found it helpful to discipline myself to rise early and go to my study.  Not only is my mind refreshed from a night’s rest, but there are also less distractions and interruptions at this early hour.  Of course early morning is not the only time for sermon preparation, but it has always worked best for me.  Whatever time you choose you will have to guard it zealously.