The Pitfalls of Productivity

Last year, I read half a dozen books on productivity, management, and leadership in preparation for church planting. All the books came highly recommended by friends and coworkers whom I respect, and I reaped tangible benefits from them. In fact, I may even recommend some of these to certain people. However, as a Christian and a pastor, I have a lingering discomfort with the premise of many of these books, and I fear that too many Christians are uncritically accepting their insights.

Nearly all of them speak of investing in tasks that maximize one’s personal talents and yield the greatest return and fulfillment. They emphasize making tough decisions based on your priorities, even if doing so makes you unpopular. “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will,” they warn. “Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences. … so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass.”

You instead, should do work that only you can do—work that you love—because “life is too short not to do some things you love.” More specifically, “Focus your attention on the activities that rank in the top 20 percent in terms of importance,” they say, “and you will have an 80 percent return on your effort.” “If something [you’re] doing can be done 80 percent as well by someone else, … delegate it.” One of the books goes even further: “If you rate [a task/option] any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it.”

My objection to these approaches is twofold: (1) they wrongly assume that your priorities and interests are more important than others’, and (2) they wrongly assume that you actually know what is most important.

My Priorities or Theirs?

When people invade and throng his home, presumably seeking to be healed of their diseases and relieved of their demons (Mark 3:7-12), Jesus does not turn them away. In fact, he’s so busy attending to their needs that he and his disciples “could not even eat” (Mark 3:20). I can hear the productivity gurus protest, “Jesus, you need to establish clear boundaries so that you can keep people who siphon off your time and energy at bay.” “You need to stay focused on your primary mission to “[proclaim] the gospel of God” and tell people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus invites his disciples to “come away by [themselves] to a desolate place and rest a while,” the crowd, however, finds and follows them. Yet Jesus fails, once again, to draw clear boundaries and protect his personal time of rest. Instead, he “[has] compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he [begins] to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Then later, rather than sending them away to go find food, Jesus does something that goes lavishly beyond what was required or expected of him. He feeds them, all five thousand of them.

Only one chapter later, Jesus faces yet another test of his focus and resolve. Will he adhere strictly to his priorities this time? A Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter, but Jesus knows that his mission before his death and resurrection is to the Jews, and not to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, Jesus acquiesces upon the woman’s heartfelt insistence (Mark 7:26-30).

Consider the time when Jesus welcomed the children whom his disciples had deemed a nuisance (Mark 10:13-15)? Or that time when Jesus healed a blind beggar whom many sought to silence and ignore (John 10:46-52)? Or that time when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding party at the request of his mother, even though “[his] hour [had] not yet come,” as he said so himself (John 2:1-12)? How extravagant and superfluous!

Even a cursory examination of Jesus’s life exposes the profound selfishness and individualism of much productivity advice. But Christians are to be different. They are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [themselves], … [looking] not only to [their] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Why should I think that my priorities are more important than others’ priorities?

It’s this kind of utilitarian mindset that counsels pastors (as I found in one pastoral ministry book) to avoid the neediest people, because they consume the most time but add the least value to the church. The time is better spent, they say, in discipling and training people who show promise. But Christians are to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, [and] be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:4). The pastors, of all people, should have the Father’s heart to leave the ninety-nine sheep to go out in search for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7)!

Moreover, doing only what we alone can do and only what we love to do are not viable options for a vast majority of people throughout the world. This line of thinking divides people into two classes and privileges the first: (1) those who do what they love (usually creative, intellectual, and/or socially prestigious activities) and (2) those who do what they have to (usually mundane, repetitive, and/or menial activities). Those whom we delegate to are essentially relegated to unimportant, invisible roles that serve our purpose.

As a pastor, I am primarily called to minister the word and pray. I feel that I am true to who I am and what God has gifted me to be when I am discipling and teaching others. But what about printing the bulletins, listening to voicemails, setting up chairs, and cleaning church facilities? Are these tasks beneath the dignity of the pastor, but not beneath the dignity of the industrious faithful who sacrifice their time and energy to serve the church?

My conviction is that the pastor should be involved in some kind of “menial” activity for the church, like our Lord who washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). This cultivates humility, servanthood, and a deeper appreciation for the interdependent members of the body, and models these values for the church. Similarly, a pastor should not only invest in gifted, responsive members, but also in some people who are particularly needy and slow to change. This cultivates, love, humility, and a dependence on God’s grace, and models these values for the church.

What Are My Most Important Priorities?

You might object that Jesus never strayed from his mission and always did what the Father willed—that even the examples I adduced reveal the coming of the kingdom of God and therefore are directly related to Jesus’s central mission—and you would be right. But this actually proves my second, related point: that many books on productivity wrongly assume that we know what the most important priorities are. Yes, Jesus never strayed from his mission because he knew the Father’s will perfectly, but we do not.

Furthermore, if the seemingly ancillary and extraneous things that Jesus did happened to be integral to his calling, how can we so easily dismiss things that appear ancillary and extraneous to us? How can we be so cocksure that we know what is most important and therefore must be prioritized?

Reflecting on my own calling, how does a minister know that certain people are worth discipling and others are not? How does he know that a particular counseling situation demands his attention while another does not? How does he know which missions opportunities he should pursue?

Of course, there are answers to these questions, but these answers are, at best, provisional. What if God is doing a mighty work in seemingly small and insignificant people? What if God is weaving together an improbable series of events to advance the kingdom of God in the details that we overlook?

In Acts 16:6-10, we see the Holy Spirit disrupt Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s priorities and redirect their missionary journey. As missiologist Leslie Newbigin correctly observes, “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of ‘resources,'” but of “the free and sovereign deed of God” of which we have no advance knowledge.

Therefore, our prioritizing and strategizing should be submitted, first of all, to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It should begin and end with the prayer of humble relinquishment, “Your will be done.” The rigid utilitarianism and clinical efficiency of “productivity” neither give due weight nor credit to divine intervention.

I do not say these things to discount the value of strategic planning. I well understand its importance, and that is why I read these books in the first place. Those who lack clear priorities and have a tendency to overextend themselves should read these books and benefit from them. But we must remember that faithfulness, not efficiency, is the goal of Christian vocation. God’s glory, not success, is the goal of Christian life. Let us not hide selfishness and self-importance behind the facade of “productivity.”

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3 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Productivity

  1. A really great book that I’ve recently read is “First Things First” by Matt Perman. He takes many concepts from authors like Stephen Covey but comes at productivity from a Christian perspective and goes into how our productivity can glorify Christ. It’s a fantastic read, highly recommend. All the best!

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Steven! I’m glad to hear that there is a book that examines these productivity books from a Christian perspective. I found two titles, one called “What’s Best Next” by Matt Perman and John Piper, and “First Things First” by Stephen Covey. Which book did you mean?

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      1. Sorry, got them mixed up, “What’s Best Next” is by Matt Perman and he takes concepts from Stephen Covey’s “First Things First”. “What’s Best Next” really integrates the Christian walk with being productive, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

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