Taming Ministry Chaos

This is a very quick and superficial response to a question I received on Twitter about the kind of systems and structures that someone in Christian work can use to tame the chaos that frequently accompanies it. Others have written more at length, but the below gives and indication of the things I find helpful

I hope someone finds something useful from the thought I have had to give to this for my own use over the years. Mainly I hope you will read this and take comfort from the fact that you are far more organised and far less of a basket case than I am, and don’t need to do any of it because you find it so blindingly obvious

The below might sound like a list of practical, rather than spiritual, structures. But the aim is the removal of chaos and distraction which detrimentally affects our peace, spiritual life and growth in wisdom. Chaos is in direct contradiction to these.

The problem

First, ministry chaos is real. There are a wide variety of interrelated reasons but a few chief ones might be:

  • Complexity. Christian ministers deal not only with a variety of complex tasks, but also with a greater variety of paradigms than most other jobs. One minute they are a public speaker, the next a pastoral counsellor, the next a marriage-mediator, the next an expert on legal matters. And the list goes on and on.

  • Switching between complex tasks is, in itself, complex. There is only a certain amount that you can swap between an immediate pastoral crisis and the 8 hours of uninterrupted peace it takes to prepare an excellent sermon

  • Demand outstrips supply. Churches don’t grow or employ enough leaders for the job they want done, nor know how long it takes to do it leading to mission creep and lack of time. If I had £1 for every time a minister has told me they are juggling too many responsibilities always afraid of when they will fall I would be a wealthy man

  • Ministry involves a large number of different kinds of activities, meetings, relationships, inputs, outputs and open/recurring loops, many more than was historically the case. Many of these require different kinds of records and text

These factors and many others lead Christian workers frequently to work up to or slightly beyond the maximum that is possible and sustainable. The issues are usually slightly worse still if the minister is itinerant. Nobody at the start of ministry training is taught how to deal with this or given systems and structures for taming it. The result is that we tend towards being chaotic but learn to make peace with the chaos rather than tame it. A minister can justify their study being a shambles as long as they know where everything is!

However, sooner or later normalised chaos starts to drive our patterns rather than us dealing with it. We feel it has to be negotiated with rather than resolved. If we are high performing we can sustain that for longer but we are nevertheless debilitated by it. Of course we don’t know how much more energised we would be if we dealt with it, because we never do

Popular systems for taming chaos, such as the well-known GTD (Getting Things Done) are helpful to know about but often fail in ministry situations because of a critical flaw: they assume there is a limited amount of possible work to be done and that simply learning to do it more efficiently will allow more free time and a clearer mind. It doesn’t take into account the situation where it feels like there is a potentially infinite amount extra that could be done, which disincentivises doing things more efficiently


This bugged me for years. I knew I was debilitated and that it had an affect on my work and spiritual life, but didn’t have any handles on how to start to change it. The following list is some of the principles I have committed to over the last 6-8 years. They have made a profound difference

  • Put sabbath in your diary and spiritual discipline practices firmly in your daily routine before and more importantly than absolutely anything else. If you don’t, they are the things that get squeezed out

  • Establish clear, regular daily habits. These are the most critical factor in taming chaos. More about mine below

  • Establish clear, mutually understood expectations with your church or ministry about what you do, do not do and how much it is reasonable to expect of you. Work to an agreed number of blocks per week and sound alarm bells early on if you are finding it impossible to maintain

  • Learn to say “no” to people who expect you to do say yes to everything they ask. Your nos give value to your yesses

  • Never agree to anything at all on the spur of the moment. Always say “I will check with my diary/spouse/acocuntability group/elders/PCC and get back to you”. This stops you being driven by the immediate and who makes the the most urgent in your face appeal

  • Work through your diary several weeks or months in advance, always making sure that 20% is free for the inevitable urgent things that will fill it up nearer the time

  • Always put the preparation time as a firm commitment in your diary when you agree to do something

  • Get someone to have oversight of your diary

  • Find a system that works for you for separating the different kinds of data and text you have to handle. This is incredibly important. More on my system below

  • Have a trusted collection point for everything, which you then process things out of. When you think of something, have an idea, something crosses your mind that you know you will quickly forget, get it out of your head and into your collection bin

  • Figure out a way to move between large and small scale tasks as helpfully as possible

  • Never, ever, ever use your email inbox as a todo list. It means anyone can add to it whenever they want. JUST GET THOSE EMAILS OUT OF THERE


Here is the nitty gritty of how I do it. I don’t always make it work, but the more I commit to these things, the better it gets. Unlike the principles above which I think are universally applicable, structures to make them work need to be decided on by each individual, personalised and habituated

  • My regular daily habits are as follows:

    • Bible, prayer and worship first

    • Spend 20 minutes on the following

      • Review my diary and several inboxes

      • Zero my email inbox into other places - data file, todo list, etc, see below. Wherever that email belongs, it is not in your inbox. You don’t need to keep those emails in your inbox, it is doing your head in. Either:

        • action or delegate them them

        • file them if there is important reference data

        • put them somewhere else to be actioned if it will take longer, needs input from others or for you to do some thinking or research before responding

        • dump them

      • Do any action that can be completed in two minutes

      • Clear my real and virtual desktop. If they are cluttered it messes with my head

      • Review work projects and checklists

      • Schedule my day. Schedule to clear one BIG thing first. Then if I get distracted or the day falls apart then at least I have been spiritually engaged with God in my Bible, worship and prayer time and have moved one major rock in my work

  • I find I need to keep different kinds of data in different containers. Others may be able to work it differently, but for me I need to separate out long term data I want to file in ways that I can find, current project notes, todos/reminders and text that I generate. The tools I use to rationalise this are as follows. They are slightly more complex than they could be because I use both an ipad and a windows PC. If I used Apple products only there would be ways to make this simpler. This represents the simplest system I have yet constructed that actually works for me. Some of these tools require investment in understanding and customising them to work for you, but the more you use them the more useful they become. Some cost, but the benefit to me is more than worth it. If I couldn’t afford them I would still look for systems that fulfilled the same functions for me

    • A unified place for text to start out, that then goes elsewhere. Drafts app on ipad

    • A filing system for long term data. Evernote

    • A todo / reminders / project management task organiser. MyLifeOrganised App and desktop app. This is the expensive one and something of a workaround. There are brilliant, simpler, cheaper organiser apps if you only want to access online or within an Apple ecosystem. My need is ubiquity. I want to access it on every platform and few options cross over from IOS to Windows. This is the best I have found. It is also a bit complicated to get your head round, but it works for me. Google other options for you
      NB for me it is CRITICAL to not have todos and data in the same place

    • Project Notes, future ideas, writing ideas, etc. OneNote

    • Valuable but I don’t always want it - a distraction-free writing tool. For long-form writing I always use Scrivener which has it built in. There are cheap apps that remove all distractions from your computer screen. The “aha” moment for me was when I realised that I frequently produce text (for sermons and training sessions) rather that documents. And could therefore be free from MS Word for producing it, which is an inherently distracting environment

The important things for me are to find the minimum number of systems that actually work to reduce chaos and STICK TO THEM. Adding more tools than needed just increases the chaos. I am a bit of a flibbertigibbet when it comes to technology so tend to give up on solutions in search of better ones before I have made any one actually work for me. Therefore I have a note on my desktop that says

  • ALL data gets filed in Evernote

  • ALL todos go in MLO

  • ALL project notes, ideas and writing ideas go in Onenote

Given my propensity to disorganisation I also have notes prompting me to use these systems consistently posted in a whole variety of places where I see and respond to them like one of Pavlov’s dogs!

There are all kinds of other things that could be said. If Facebook on your phone is your chief distractor then delete it. I know one minister who has someone who carefully screens and filters their emails for him, but nevertheless has a phone that makes an irritating noise every time one comes in, rendering the filtering system completely redundant. You know the things that debilitate you. Pick one to work on and make a start

Good luck!