I’m not busy

stock-footage--d-animation-of-a-wall-clock-running-very-fast-through-hours-clouds-fly-past-in-the-backgroundThree times in the last week or so, I have received a communication from someone which says ‘I know you are very busy…’ and these have stuck in my mind. One of these said ‘I am sure you are very busy—I know that I am.’

A couple of things struck me immediately. The first, and most urgent, was: What have I said or done that has provoked this comment? Am I looking tired, or hassled? Have I failed to give people my attention? Have I not replied to messages? What is it that makes me look ‘busy’? If I am giving off signs that I am busy, that suggests that I broadcasting a signal ‘I don’t have time for you’—and that is worrying.

Secondly, how do I reply to this comment? In our culture, are we allowed to say ‘Actually, I am not very busy’? I practised saying this in my head, and it sounded odd. What kind of people say ‘I’m not busy’? When my late mother retired, one of her comments was ‘I don’t know how I ever found the time to work!’ Even in retirement, she was busy. We appear to have created a culture where the only people who are not ‘busy’ are people who are, well, a bit sad. Busyness has become the mark of a full and satisfied life. But is it really so?

So what do we mean when we say ‘I am very busy’? It might actually mean ‘I am in a role which demands more of me than I want to give.’ This might be the case for those in ‘secular’ employment or with responsibilities for family members. We might genuinely be in a situation which, through little choice of our own, makes unsustainable demands of us. Economic pressures have recently robbed us of an hour’s sleep; we sleep too little on average; and the hyper connectivity of digital devices makes it worse. Clergy need to take this reality seriously. They are in the incredibly privileged position of having more control over their own time than most in their congregations; woe betide the vicar who takes the morning off and then complains when commuters who were up at 6 am don’t attend an evening meeting!

The phrase ‘I’m very busy’ is sometimes a cry from the heart—I feel oppressed by the burden of the things I am supposed to do—either from a sense of guilt, or need, or the agendas others impose on me.

412K8W6GG2LOne of my favourite books on time management is Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster, who also wrote Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to PlayMark refreshingly blows away a lot of nonsense about time management—including the idea that you can ever ‘manage’ time. The issues about busyness we face are not issues of time management, but issues of self management—how we perceive things and how we organise our lives. Romans 7 is actually highly relevant to our ‘time management’ issues!

But Forster also highlights early on a key reality: if we are ‘busy’ then it might simply be that we are over-committed. How much work can you do in an hour? Answer: an hour’s worth. But if you are committed to 2 hours’ work in an hour, no amount of ‘time management’ is going to solve that. You actually need to cut down on your commitments. That is more easily said than done, but it still raises a challenge for me. Do I take on too much? Am I too quick to say ‘yes’ to things? Even if a large part of the commitments we have is not under our control, there are always parts which are.

Saying ‘I am very busy’ can express a different kind of frustration too. It might not simply be the amount of work we have, but the way it comes to us. Constant demands and a steady stream of interruptions can frustrate our sense that we are achieving anything. (Ask my wife!) Mark Forster again puts his finger on this: what we need is ‘sufficient focussed attention’ on the things that are important. And that means setting aside some of the immediate demands. Do emails need to be answered on the day they are received? Can I talk to that person tomorrow, rather than right now? Does that meeting need to be this week, rather than next? This is where we need to use careful judgement; putting people off can communicate the ‘I am very busy’ line. But surely better to say ‘I’m not too busy; let’s chat tomorrow’ than ‘Yes, I can talk now…but I have a lot to do!’

But there is also a third possibility: we make ourselves busy because that is the way we gain a sense of significance. If we were not busy, there might be the gnawing sense that we are not, after all, totally and absolutely indispensable to the projects we are involved in and the people we are in contact with. And that is deeply threatening unless we have a well-rooted sense of identity and confidence in who we are.

3028428-inline-i-1-creative-routinesGod gives us two gifts which can serve as a defence against these feelings. The first is the gift of Sabbath. The command to rest (not just me, but all my household) is at once an invitation to trust in God for his provision (the crops will still grow, the emails will wait another day) as well as a bulwark against the presumption that the universe will not run unless I do my bit to keep it going. In fact, Sabbath rest can often be a key to fruitfulness. Last week I saw an interesting ‘infographic’ which suggested that the world’s greatest creative geniuses had only achieved what they had because they took rest seriously.

The second is the gift of calling. If we are involved in the things we are because God has called us to them, is our level of busyness a reflection of that call? Is God calling us to be busy? In one sense, yes. We are to ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16). But I am not sure that this is always the source of my busyness.

So: are you busy? What is the reason for your busyness? Is it poor use of time? Or circumstances beyond your control? Do you need to give more ‘sufficient focussed attention’ to some of the things you are doing? In the end, is your activity borne out of your sense of God’s call on your life? Are you free to say to someone ‘I’m not busy’?

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26 thoughts on “I’m not busy”

  1. Ian

    Couple of observations….

    1. Busier people are often viewed as more able so get asked to do more

    2. I personally (as I guess do others) find it hard to say no to requests for help…this means I spend almost all of my time dealing with things that have become urgent….ie. I know that I build no slack space in so I am running as 99%+ all of the time and so when something left field comes in it throws me. The appearing busy is therefore probably an unintended defense mechanism to filter out frivolous requests (ooh he looks stressed I will only ask him important stuff!)

    3. Here’s the controversial one…my experience of those in full time ministry is that they have a different rhythm to their lives and perhaps have never (or not for a long time) worked in the ‘real world’ (deliberate quotes) and they don’t actually understand how busy commercial life has become with ‘right sizing’ (note I am typing this whilst attending a teleconference on internet banking activation on mobile phones so have to create little spaces even when working!). They are then surprised when they get short shrift for phrases like “I think the best time for everyone would be to meet at Friday at 2pm” (a literal quote).

    Just some random musings!

    • Thanks Jonathan. I think your points are well made. On number 2, I found Mark Forster really helpful…and his message is summed up in the title of the book ‘Do it Tomorrow.’ He has some really good advice.

      On 3, I hope you appreciated the ‘Woe betide…’ comment in the post, which goes along the same lines. Since we have had a dog, I have quite often been getting up at 6.15, which is not my natural time…but a good reminder that some folk in the congregation, and most in places like London, are up then as a routine.

      I wonder whether these realities ought to shape our thinking about what happens on Sundays a bit more…

    • I should also add that pastoral visiting by clergy should include visiting people, especially men, in their work places. I am just in the process of arranging one such visit!

  2. In his “Interpretation” commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann suggests that God’s own sabbath rest in the creation accounts is a sign that the created realm has been given a certain autonomy and will continue to function without God constantly being “hands on”.

    If that’s right, God’s own sabbath rest models ours…………..

  3. This rings true with me on so many levels, even as I am currently writing a blog post to do with time from the perspective of a University Chaplain. I see so many comments in my Twitterfeed from clergy colleagues in parochial ministry, doing a mixture of things they love and loathe, and find myself both constantly concerned for their well-being (up at 4am each Sunday to write the sermon? That can’t be healthy) and, with my life/ministry subjected to their reflected busyness, feeling uncomfortable, even guilty, that I might be perceived as “not busy enough”. We seem to have co-opted worldly “busy-ness” practice into practical ministry to an extent that vocation becomes work (and yes, I do talk of “my work”, mea culpa!) I willingly go beyond my contracted hours as a manifestation of my calling, not as sacrifice or burden imposed by external expectations. I recognise that it means I am a lucky (or blessed?) man indeed.

  4. I’ve recommended Mark Forster’s book to our deanery…very helpful. Another useful perspective is Tony Horsfall’s ‘Working from a Place of Rest’ which is an extended reflection on Jesus and the woman of Samaria in John 4. We read this as a staff team and had a helpful morning away discussing it and how it might shape our working with one another.

  5. MikeYaconelli has an interesting angle on things: “Workaholics in the Christian church get pat on the head & told they’re committed & dedicated. No! You’re needy & you’re in trouble!” 😉

  6. Stephen Cherry deals with this subject in his helpful book – Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry (Sacristy Press in paperback & ebooks) and tweets #NotBusy

    It’s been interesting to try and put ‘not busy’ into practice.

  7. I’ve noticed time and again that when somebody is called ‘busy’ it is a kind of cachet. There’s nearly always approval in such a comment and people who are always on the go are respected because of it. So not to be busy risks going down in people’s estimation and as you point out, you have to be confident enough to find your value in other things.

    I have worried for some time about the way church leaders simply don’t seem to understand what life involves for working members of their congregation. I completely agree that we should be revising how we look at things. In other words, not ‘what can I give him to do?’ – more, ‘how can we support him in his very demanding life?’

  8. Good observations all round. I suspect sometimes that ‘busyness’ is a manufactured condition to avoid spending time with some people in the place of others!

  9. All this is hardly surprising in a culture where politicians constantly refer to “hard-working” (ie deserving) families. Work and productivity in our culture are what justifies our existence on the planet, hence the tabloid press’s rabble-rousing over benefit cheats. While clergy may try to resist this attitude, our congregations can often express their expectations with a veiled “that’s what you’re paid for”. And all the while comparisons are implied with predecessors or Father so-and-so down the road.

  10. Someone should write a book about this. Oh, I did! Shameless plug: ‘Busy Living: Blessing not burden’ by Emma Ineson (Continuum). Buy a copy and help fund my daughter’s university education…

  11. I am reminded of the observation that Jesus was never rushing around or in a hurry.

    I would still say that he was busy though, doing what he could “see His Father doing”.

    Accordingly I don’t think we should see being busy as a bad thing in itself.

    By all means let’s consider the extent or depth of someones busy-ness as part of any overall spiritual health check but to allow it to become a “red flag” issue in itself will (I think) create many more problems than it solves.

  12. Great piece thanks Ian.

    deacongill, take a look at London Institute of Contemporary Christianity’s Faithfulness on the Frontline which seeks to address the situation of supporting and enabling those in the workplace.

    Ive come across the phenomenon of tiredness recently, so when I ask how people are the response was once ‘busy’ it has now changed to ‘tired’. I wonder if the hyper connectivity issue doesn’t give us the ability to be bored anymore, to create and fully rest. Our constant visual stimulation means we go to bed wired and not relaxed leading to exhaustion after a busy day.

  13. Thank you for that Ian.
    I especially like the info graphic 🙂

    I’ve found Eugene Peterson provocatively helpful in this respect. He has Strong words to say about ministerial Busyness. Briefly clergy are busy for two reasons; either a) we’re vain. In a sense you touch on this one in regard to our fear of what people might say if we said we weren’t busy. Being ‘busy’ reinforces our [i suggest blasphemous] notion of our own importance (sic). Or b) (somewhat counter-intuitively) we’re lazy. I.e. We refuse to take responsibility for our use of time and allow others to, for the sake of ‘peace’, but ultimately to our own destruction as of course this comes from the same root as a).

    Lots more could I’m sure be said in this regard, but just a small query re Sabbath, which to my (perhaps untutored gaze) is a theme largely missing from the tradition until the reformation. Jewish writers aside, I note that all the books I have on it are written by Protestants, whom one might suggest are largely responsible for our busy culture?? 🙂

    • Yes, I suspect the Protestant work ethic has quite a lot to answer for—though it does take seriously the notion of responsible stewardship of our time and energy. It was in fact Paul who said ‘Ya don’t work, ya don’t eat’ (or something to that effect…)

  14. An interesting article. I was struck by the beginning of paragraph two: “A couple of things struck me immediately. The first, and most urgent, was: What have I said or done that has provoked this comment?”

    At which point my eyes moved a couple of inches to the right to see your bio which reads: “Ian Paul: theologian, author, speaker, academic consultant. Adjunct Professor, Fuller Theological Seminary; Associate Minister, St Nic’s, Nottingham; Managing Editor, Grove Books; member of General Synod.”

    I don’t know you, but do you realise that you’ve listed eight roles that other people would list as their single main single role? This tells me that you’re a busy person and without knowing you, if you really are a managing editor for a publisher as well as an associate minister in a church, you’re probably already spreading yourself too thin, let alone having six other roles.

    So, as a person not knowing you and having only read your bio that tells lists diverse and challenging positions, how can one think anything different about you?

    • ‘How can anyone think differently about you?’ Well, one way is to meet me—which is what most people do.

      Being Associate Minister is a non-stipendiary (unpaid) role; I work for Grove one day a week. Synod meets for two weeks a year…and so on. So it is not such a busy list as you infer. A little knowledge goes a long way…

      • Understood – I’m not criticising you. I’m answering your question. You asked why people think you’re so busy. I took the time to answer your question.

        You brand yourself as a busy guy. Rather than be defensive, take a fresh eyes look at what is written or you have written about yourself.


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