We would all agree that the worst possible rut to ever be in as a pastor is living in a perpetual state of distraction, overwhelm, and superficiality.
Yet, if someone were to ask us how we’re doing, we’d be lying if we didn’t say that’s how we spend the majority of our week. We race from one “oh that’s good enough” partially finished task to the next.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson said there’s a reason he throws away any mail he receives that is addressed to the “busy pastor.” Not that that doesn’t describe us at times, for it surely does, but because, as Peterson says, “I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.”
Why Become a Minimalist Pastor?
Jesus had a center from which he operated that was perfectly still, unmarred by the waves around him. He knew what he was called to do, made decisions accordingly, then acted to the best of his ability and never felt rushed.
Jesus is our model, not that guy on the stage at the last conference we attended. That guy – you know the one – the guy who built that super massive church in under three months flat and is on the covers of all the magazines in church world.
Let me let you in on a little secret: that guy is miserable. Trust me. I rub shoulders with these guys and they’re not what they appear.
That guy – the high-rising celebrity – has won the battle and lost the war.
That guy is not someone you want to be like, no matter how big his church gets, how many book contracts he signs, or how cute/special/endearing/meaningful his Instagram feed (that his assistant runs) appears.
Here’s the thing – the problem is not that guy. We know that guy is a mess.
The problem is us.
Your Life Doesn’t Have to Be Chaotic
If we’re perfectly honest, we are that guy, just without the sizzle.
Deep down we want to switch seats with that guy – to be where the action is and growth is happening. And who wouldn’t?
Here we are in our boring, flatlined, stale church that’s going nowhere in the town that we hate, so we pay money to hear guys like this implicitly tell us how we can be like them.
The mistake we make is thinking that that kind of frenetic lifestyle is what is demanded to create Kingdom growth.
I’m telling you it’s not, at least not the kind of sustainable growth that helps people who are legitimately far from God grow into self-feeding and reproducing disciples of Jesus.
That kind of growth takes a different kind of pastor altogether.
That kind of growth demands an uncluttered one. One that is free from distraction.
That kind of pastor is never busy.
That kind of pastor has time.
That kind of pastor doesn’t feel rushed.
That’s because that kind of pastor has embraced the spiritual concept of minimalism.
From Clutter to Centeredness
Our physical surroundings are simply a manifestation of the decisions we make and the processes we allow to occur around us.
Crammed calendars, overstuffed bookshelves, credit cards with balances, random files stored everywhere on our laptops – it all comes from one place – our conscious choice.
We’ve chosen to live this way.
In his book Confessions, Augustine said, “The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”
In other words, our disordered minds create disorder around us, and that disorder manifests itself in the very things that end up imprisoning us – both spiritually and physically.
If our heads have been allowed to function for too long in a dizzying mess of randomness and shallowness, then pretty soon our physical surroundings will begin to reflect the disordered states of our minds.
Centered pastors do not have cluttered desks.
Centered pastors do not have overbooked calendars with zero white space for contemplation.
Centered pastors do not feel the need to say yes to every opportunity.
Centered pastors do not finish their sermons at the end of the week.
Minimalism in Action
I have dedicated the next two years of my life to systematically minimalizing every aspect of my life and ministry.
What do I mean by minimalism?
Minimalism is consciously stripping away the extraneous things in my life to make room for God’s best for me, my family, and church.
I’m decluttering, divesting, leaving, giving away, selling, and saying no to countless things in my life right now, all in the attempt to make room for God’s best.
I’m only about a one-tenth of the way into my journey with this, but here are some of the things I have minimalized so far:
Ten years ago, if you asked me what I did, I would have pulled out a long sheet of paper highlighting my priorities and goals, blah blah blah.
Today if you ask me what I do I can actually tell you. I don’t need a piece of paper to help you understand my complex, convoluted thought process.
I get up and write, then I work out, then I pray. Then I do one or two tasks at my desk, then I meet with staff and leaders, then I coach. Then I spend time with my family, read, and go to bed.
That’s what I do every day.
In the fall of 2015, I hired a trainer and a dietician and slowly stripped away the extra 47 pounds I was carrying. I sleep better and have tripled my energy. My disordered body was simply a reflection of my disordered mind.
I went from countless standing meetings in my calendar, as well as the seemingly endless impromptu meetings I would randomly schedule every week, to just three. No meetings on Mondays. If what God has called me to do can’t be done in those three meetings, then what I feel pressured to do isn’t from God. My staff knows if I catch wind of carelessly thrown-together meetings they will hear me say loud and clear, “Plan better. Use the existing meetings you already have in place. This is an endurance race, not a sprint.”
This past Wednesday I held a “book party” at my house and gave away my entire library except for three commentaries for each Bible book and my collection of spiritual classics. That. Was. Painful.
I purchased a standing-sitting Varidesk and love it, and nothing but the bare minimum exists in my workspace area.
Nothing remains in an electrical socket overnight unless it is absolutely needed. Not only is this a draw on electricity, wasting precious resources, but it is a sign of disorder. Waste is always the first sign of disorder.
I eliminated every unused app that had been sitting on my iPhone and have condensed everything so that it fits on one screen on just three lines (no swiping to the right or left to find things). On my iPad, I have eliminated every app (including email, messages, etc.) except for YouTube and Netflix. I use my iPad for viewing programs while I work out on the elliptical and nothing else, so why have the distraction?
I used to brag about how much time I spent on my sermons. What a blowhard. Now my sermons are done by noon on Monday, and they are the highest-quality messages I’ve ever preached in my life.
I have no social media apps on my cell phone. Enough said.
I have moved all my files on my laptop to Dropbox so I can share them between all my devices, as well as share certain files with my co-workers. Doing this has dramatically decreased time spent locating and sharing files. For instance, everyone involved in planning services can access my sermon real-time in Dropbox. They can follow its progress and know where to access it later for slides, etc.
Not only have I streamlined the location of my files to Dropbox, but I’ve begun purging the endless number of files I’ve accumulated over the years. I’m moving important ones to an external hard drive.
I’ve removed everything except the bare minimum in my car’s glove box, center console, and trunk space.
Nothing but a Bible and my Kindle sits next to my bed.
I donated almost my entire wardrobe to Goodwill and now have a streamlined closest. No more bulging drawers. I purchased quality hangers that allow me to clip my pants and hang them without wrinkling. I own three pairs of dress pants for church and an assortment of high-quality shirts that will last. I got rid of the bazillion unmatched socks I had in my drawer and reduced my workout shorts to seven pairs of shorts and shirts to work out in each week. Every piece of clothing has a purpose and makes me happy when I wear it. If I don’t like it and look good wearing it, it’s gone.
Ten years ago, if you walked into my church office, you would have been greeted by a ring of bookshelves, floor to ceiling, that walled the perimeter of the room.
Now when you walk into my office 80 percent of the room is taken up by five big lounge chairs and a coffee table in the middle. Why? Because that’s what I value.
There are lots of other things that are on my to-do list to attend to, but these are a few of the highlights so far.
The Benefits of Pursuing Minimalism
I’ve only just begun the process of minimalizing my life and consciously stripping away the extraneous things to make room for God’s best for me, my family, and church, but the process of decluttering and divesting myself has been transformative.
First off I have white space in my weekly calendar to live a deep life. I have time for prayer. I have time to read. I have time to evangelize leaders in my community. I have emotional space in my week to reflect and live in a centeredness that allows me to spring into action and attack problems when needed. The difference between where I am now, and the place where I used to lead from, is intentionality. I am not responding to problems as much as I am thinking of steps to take before problems can occur.
Second, my physical surroundings are slowly beginning to take on the characteristics of my inner world. Rooms, closets, desks, drawers, and files are becoming clear. It’s clear why I have them. Everything serves a purpose and is of high quality, whether it is a future sermon illustration or a shirt.
Questions to Ask as You Minimalize
Here are some questions that I’m finding helpful as I strip away the extraneous things in my life to make room for God’s best:
Do I Have Two of These?
I’ve been haunted as of late by Dorothy Day’s comment that “If you have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.”
I’m looking at where we have two of everything. Do we really need two large ladles when one will do? Why three large bowls when one will do? Do I need that extra coat when a homeless person in downtown Philadelphia could be wearing it right now?
Does This Have a Purpose?
Minimalizing my life, for me, is not about getting rid of stuff for the sake of getting rid of stuff. For me, it is about getting rid of the stuff that creates noise, clutter, and undue expense.
So I’m constantly asking myself, “Why do I own this? Do I need it? Did I simply buy this on impulse? Would selling it or giving it away create much-needed space in my life?”
Anything that doesn’t have a specific purpose is dead weight. Leave it behind.
Does This Bring Me Joy?
I want more joy in my life, and the funny thing is as I’ve gone from room to room, file to file, drawer to drawer, I’ve paid closer attention to what makes me joyful.
Many of the things I thought would bring me joy, upon closer examination, do not.
For instance, expensive meals do not bring me joy, but the adventure of finding obscure and unique restaurants around Philadelphia does.
Junk in my basement and garage (not surprisingly) does not bring me joy. That’s gotta go.
Debt does not bring me joy. Gotta go. Every penny of it.
Three hours of TV does not bring me joy, but one hour spent on a great show I love does.
Saying yes to everyone who asks to meet with me does not bring me joy. Getting people the help they need, does.
The Path Forward
I don’t know what journey you’re on right now, but I would love for you to join me in this pursuit of minimalism.
What could happen in your life, your family, and church if you consciously stripped away the extraneous to make room for God’s best?
Just imagine what your life could be like.
More is not better.
Better is better.