I’m really 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.

Christianity Today recently republished their best 40 articles from the last 36 years of their existence, and they have just reposted the 1981 article by Eugene Peterson ‘The Unbusy Pastor’.

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the one addressed “to the busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me. I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way in which it is used to flatter and express sympathy.

So my second question is, 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!

Peterson takes a more ruthless approach to the possible reasons behind this phrase:

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both reasons are ignoble. I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself-and to all who will notice-that I am important…

The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do.

I believe that 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.


God 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. I recently 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.

Peterson believes it is vital to address this question if we are to do what God has called to. For this in full-time Christian ministry, this has significant consequences.

I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to cultivate and deepen my relationship with God. I want all life to be intimate–sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously–with the God who made, directs, and loves me…

I want to be a pastor who preaches. I want to speak the word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with. I want to know the Scriptures thoroughly, personally, intimately; and then be able to say them again to the people around me…

I want to be a pastor who listens. A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what is going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so when they are through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.

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’?

(Part of this piece was first written five years ago, and other parts three years ago. I think it is still relevant.)

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12 thoughts on “I’m really not busy…”

  1. TL;DR – too busy.

    Just kidding. 😉

    Another reason I find myself saying “I’m busy” (or something like it) is to try and avoid some request/task that is being brought to me. I want to “be busy” to have what seems like a valid excuse for saying no.

    I think the ability to say “no” in an honest, yet firm way that avoids making the other person feel you just don’t care about them is another relevant aspect to the topic.

    Perhaps that’s fodder for a future (re-?) post…

  2. Thank you, Ian, for another interesting article.
    The sad truth is that many of us have a tendency to like to be busy – it makes us feel important, and that is really inappropriate.
    When this happens I know I need to go back to e.g the Sermon on the Mount, to spend more time in prayer and focussing on the Lord, to remind myself of my calling, to take time to meditate on bible promises etc
    I remind myself to prioritise the important over what seems urgent and to be prepared ultimately to give up dong stuff! After all to God be the glory, not ourselves…

  3. Thanks Ian. I like the distinction between time management and life management.

    Someone told me a few years ago that God has given me enough time each week to do everything he calls me to achieve – and that includes a mandatory, non-negotiable weekly day of rest. So if I’m too busy I must be taking on some things that are not God’s will for my life – and that is not heroic, it is sin and disobedience.

    About a year ago, after feeling constantly worn out on a ministry treadmill, I decided that I would attend no more than three evening meetings a week, plus Sunday services, so I have at least three evenings a week to be with family or do something recreational. If I have to miss a PCC, or deanery synod, or a school governors meeting, or pastoral care team gathering, or whatever – that’s too bad. I am much happier and more efficient as a result. Neither of my two churches have fallen apart; in fact both have continued to grow.

    My family and my churches get the best of me when I minister out of rest, freshly energised, not when I forget that the title “Messiah” is already taken.

  4. Several years ago (I think after reading the blessed Eugene’s article) I resolved never to use the word busy of myself to others. I think I’ve done pretty well, however, I still get, ‘I didn’t like to trouble you, I know you’re so busy.’ Is this because I’m giving off wordless signals? Or do other people want me to be busy and therefore more ‘important’ than I would ever dare consider myself to be? I absolutely will not collude with that, and I always respond along the lines of, ‘Well, I’m never too busy to pick up the phone when it rings (or respond to a voicemail message), or to meet with you if you need to talk.’ I’ve just got back from a week off; so far this morning I’ve put the supper in the slow cooker, taken the car to the garage, had a chat with the bowls club greens team on my walk back, spoken to the church administrator to make sure all’s been well while I’ve been off, caught up with emails, while listening to a CD I bought in a charity shop. Later I’ll attend our Lunch Club for the elderly, have a meeting with their team afterwards, spend some time preparing for Sunday (something new to say about Transfiguration?!) and then meet with the ordinand who’s leading the 1030 on Sunday. Busy? No. A full day? I think so. Time for others if they need it? Definitely.

  5. Thanks Ian – one somewhat surprising discovery is the assumption of people outside of church that assume that we are all very busy. Of all the calls I get from people outside of church who have no idea of what I do or about my schedule, at least 50% of them begin with the words “I know that you are really busy but …”. Maybe they are being polite but I always reply, “No don’t worry, this [what you are asking me about] is what I do – I’m happy to help.” Of course I am just as busy as the next minister but I certainly don’t want people getting the impression that I’m too busy for them. But curiously in a post_Christian society, this idea is definitely out there.

  6. In my experience I find that my work load goes through peaks when I am very busy and have to stay focused on a few things intently, to periods when I am not busy and free to do most things. So for some of us it isn’t the case that we are always very busy. If I need to focus on something I try to arrange things where people can’t get at me. If you are, or people think you are always busy then you need to take a look at your life.

  7. There is that adage: ‘If you want something doing ask the busiest person you know’. It works but maybe adds some pressure.
    I’m sure some busyness is ‘Pavlovian’. When I retired from teaching I would sit down at home and immediately feel guilty that I wasn’t tearing around doing something because in that job you never have enough time to fulfil all its demands. It took nearly 6 months to get rid of that guilty response.
    On a more spiritual level, Dallas Willard always recommended the twin virtues of silence and solitude. To make them work one has to deliberately switch the mental metabolism down into idling mode. I’m convinced there is a connection between noise and busyness/hyperactivity (why do so many people have earphones in permanently?)!! And why do we have to have a guitar picking out Dsus4 when there is prayer or reflection in worship times – are we afraid of silence? My favourite verse is Revelation 8:1 which is helping me discover an ‘obsession’ to pray which especially incorporates solitude and silence!

  8. Great and ever timely post Ian. I am loving retirement and not busy, partly because it is now easier to say ‘No’ to things. This even includes reading your posts! But I needed this one to stop me from worrying about the garden rather than relaxing with Elizabeth. When I was a Vicar in Northumberland I received a wonderful letter from a relation of one of our church members: “Dear Vicar, Please could you send me a copy of your parish magazine. I would ask my sister but she is so busy I don’t like to trouble her.” It made me laugh at the time. I wish I’d kept it!

  9. “I’m very busy” is often minister-code for one of two things:

    1. I really do do some work, but not that is easily quantifiable. Please value and affirm me because of my visible activity

    2. There are worse sins in my life that I would like to talk about but this overwork feels like the safe one to reveal in order to test out whether you are trustworthy to be told anything else

  10. Sorry – you lost me at Eugene Peterson. Decent premise, but when your primary reference is the guy who wrote The Message Bible, it loses some cred.


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