When our small staff (of two) met for a long-term planning and goals review, my colleague was visibly stressed. She said, "My whole life is church. I'm drained, rather than energized, by ministry. I want to be able to go home without thinking about work all the time."

We talked about delegating some of her duties. But she was already delegating effectively. Then we talked about her schedule. She produced a "to do" list with 64 items on it. No wonder she felt pressured!

Her list included everything from meetings and telephone calls to recruiting ministry leaders and revising ministry positions. With the help of another set of eyes, she realized some of the duties could be delegated. But it still left an intimidating list and an incredible mess on her monthly planner.

Eventually we arrived at a simple but effective way of keeping priorities straight and burdens in perspective.

Focus on five

The "Big List" was overwhelming, and the cluttered pages in her planner added discouragement to defeat. So I suggested she choose no more than five things from the 64 and write them on a clean page in her day calendar.

Which five? First, she evaluated deadlines and started with the most urgent. What needs to be done by tomorrow? By Sunday? Second, she asked, "What steps could be taken now to make visible progress toward long-range goals?"

By narrowing her focus, she discovered many of the pressing things weren't as urgent as she felt before. She chose five items, and then we established a rule: she had to finish all five before looking again at her Big List. She could not add a sixth task after completing the first. Only after all five were done could she choose up to five more. The rest of the Big List stayed hidden in the hard drive of her computer until the five were done.

We did, however, make two exceptions to the rule. On Friday, if she had the time to choose one more task for the day, that's fine. Second, if the unexpected happened and something else on the Big List needed to be dealt with immediately, it had to replace one of the five already chosen. The replaced item, then, returned to the Big List.

In this way, we controlled the pressure while gaining a sense of accomplishment and success.

Calendar clutter

We also needed to remove the clutter from her monthly calendar. Too many of the little squares were stuffed with writing that overflowed or turned vertical to fit in.

We decided first that the monthly calendar would only be used for recording evening appointments. Other appointments were written in her day calendar, where they were always visible alongside the daily list of five tasks.

Then we developed a master copy of a weekly calendar. We divided each day into three segments: morning (9:00-12:30), afternoon (1:30-5:30), and evening (7:00-9:00). We further divided the afternoons into two task sessions.

Into these boxes, we placed time for working on the list of five, for study and prayer, for relationship building, for meetings, and for developing new ministry.

Yet as we assigned tasks to various spaces on the calendar, we discovered there was more time than we imagined!

As we've practiced this plan—both the list of five and the weekly master schedule—we've found that it works.

It's adaptable enough to meet the flexibility ministry demands, and it puts into balance ministry, administration, and personal life. In other words, it has tamed that Big List and made it a servant of ministry rather than a tyrant.

Grant McDowell is pastor of Leduc Alliance Church in Millet, Alberta.

Working 69 to 5

Shred the "Big List" down to five manageable tasks.

Comprehensive "to do" lists often cram long-range goals, urgent tasks, relationships, ministry, and administration all into one pressure-cooker. Here's a sampling from my colleague's not-quite-69-item Big List, and how we narrowed it down to take the pressure off.

To do:

  • Recruit leader for next year's Open Session.
  • Recruit Sunday school teachers for junior and senior high.
  • Make up new schedule for nursery next year.
  • Revise the Sunday school superintendent's job description.
  • Prepare for "See You at the Pole."
  • Call recreation center about wall climbing with the youth.
  • Select date and plan for next youth service.
  • Prepare next month's youth newsletter.
  • Plan some events, so we have something to put in the newsletter.
  • Make a list of clean-up duties to be done after youth events.
  • Arrange sign language for the Music/Drama Day Camp.
  • Set up building for the Day Camp.
  • Create and print programs for the parents of day campers.
  • Create and print the Sunday service program.
  • Call the music team and give them the song list for the day camp.
Identifying the top 5

My colleague was feeling anxious about the camp, but those remaining preparations could all be done in a week. We made those tasks a single "top 5" list and scheduled them for the week before the camp. Knowing time was set aside for those things took tremendous pressure off now.

So, what to do this week?

We narrowed it to:

  1. Call recreation center.

  2. Prepare for "See You at the Pole."

  3. Meet with a potential leader for next year's Open Session.

  4. Select date for next youth service.

  5. Make a list of clean-up duties to be done after youth events.