a collection of words.

The constrained freedom of a small diary

The constrained freedom of a small diary

Right now, I’m in the early stages of my time in full-time, gospel ministry. It’s something that I dreamed about for a long time and got close to, with a couple of churches in a couple of countries voting on whether or not to bring me on staff. The last thing I would say to describe the experience of “getting in” is to call it straightforward. But Andy Gemmill, one of my instructors at Cornhill, has often said that getting into ministry is relatively straightforward.

The hard part is persevering faithfully for the long haul. The proof is in the headlines surrounding church ministers.

Alongside this, a huge topic in the zeitgeist has been mental health and burnout. YouTubers will talk about relentless pressure to feed the machine. There is the phenomenon in Japan of people literally working themselves to death. Sadly, such pressures are present within the church as well.

the problem in gospel ministry

For pastors, there is the pressure to always be available. At a moment’s notice, to be able to keep all of the plates spinning while also handling whatever emergencies may come up. To this, Andy says, we need to constantly remind ourselves of our creatureliness. The three great desires of the pastor and of the congregation is that the pastor will be:

  1. To know everything or have all of the answers
  2. To be able to do something about every problem or situation
  3. To be constantly available

Or to put them in slightly more technical words:

  1. Omniscient
  2. Omnipotent
  3. Omnipresent

If those words sound familiar, then you’ll probably recognise the very obvious fact that those words can only ever be used to describe God. And so our problem, whether we are in the pulpit or the pew, is that we are either trying to be God or expecting our pastor to be God.

how constraints bring freedom

My mentor, Ken, once preached a sermon on how freedom isn’t to live without restraint or constraints. Freedom is living in line with constraints. His own example was about driving within the speed limit. It is possible to drive faster than the speed limit says you are supposed to. The trouble is that doing so will necessarily limit your ability to continue driving freely. You can have your driving license taken away. Continue to break the law and you’ll find yourself in a state-sanctioned cage.

Freedom is actually knowing what you are here for and not trying to do something other than that thing. For example:

I have a very defined and set vocal range as a baritone. My voice isn’t particularly low or high. My range is wider than that of someone who hasn’t spent any time doing voice training. What I am not, however, is a tenor or countertenor. There is a limit to how high I can sing. If I try, and I have, to sing higher than I can I, and the people around me, feel physical pain. I do actual damage to my ability to sing at all.

constraints change

Once upon a time, I was able to do much more than I can now. I don’t know if it is just getting older or if it is the way that my experience has broken some of my resolve, but there are real limits to how much I can accomplish in a day. There was a time when I was working 75-hour weeks between two jobs on top of organising musical worship every other week while also trying to be a family man.

I can’t do that anymore. I just can’t. To try and do that would burn me out really quick. And it actually hurts a bit to know that I can’t do that anymore. It was a point of pride, to be able to just keep going. That pride has been broken, though.

the constraint I’ve put in place for the year of establishment

Which finally leads me to the reason I placed a picture of a small notebook at the top of this post. My pastor told me about a colleague of his who kept a very small diary. When asked about it, he said it was a means of stress control. A small diary means that there is only so much that can go into it. There are only so many meetings that can happen and there are only so many tasks that can be done.

A day per page
A day per page

In a year where there is much weighing on my mind (visas and immigration, work, moving...), I’ve decided to take the same approach and I’m now using an A6-sized diary (by Midori, if you’re into stationery). As a compromise, it uses a page-per-day layout meaning there is enough space to fill an entire day with meetings if I need to.

Space for a limited number of tasks
Space for a limited number of tasks

As you can see, there’s only space to put in seven tasks. I’m using this space to keep track of what my priority tasks are. Those things that absolutely need to get done in a day. There is more that does happen, like general admin stuff or home stuff, but that stuff happens as a force of habit. There’s a time in the day to check and answer emails. There’s a time to get meal planning and grocery ordering done.

But when it comes to things like... sermon study or reading or the kind of planning that requires focus? Those things need to exist as headlines for the day because otherwise, the busywork will get in the way.

finally

...do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. - Matthew 6:34

My big constraint is that there is only so much I have the mental/emotional bandwidth to focus on. In only being able to see a couple of days at a time, I am hoping that working with a daily planner like this will help me focus on what needs to happen today rather than getting bogged down with what needs to happen in the future.

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Jamie Larson
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