Why you need downtime and how to spend it
Most pastors don’t waste enough time.
At least that’s my conviction. But wasting time well is an acquired skill, because there is good wasting and there is bad wasting. Bad time wasting is the hang around/watch TV/perform random online search kind that leaves you with less life than you started with. You may be doing it right now. I don’t need to say any more about that, except to stop.
The good kind of time-wasting will actually lead you to be more connected with God and more full of life. But it’s hard to engage in, because there are always more pressing matters. This isn’t really wasting time, of course, but our culture makes it feel as though it is.
There are three categories for these well-wasted times.
1. The discipline of solitude.
I used to think that solitude would involve pure, unadulterated prayer and intense spiritual activity; and because it is not, I never do solitude without a sense of wasting time. I have learned that wasting time is fundamental to solitude. People often want to know what you’re supposed to do when you go into solitude. But this is the wrong question. The point of solitude is what you don’t do.
Spiritual disciplines can be categorized as practices of abstinence and practices of engagement. In abstinence I refrain from doing what I normally do. In engagement I practice what I normally do not do.
Solitude is essentially a discipline of abstinence. In solitude I withdraw from relationships and noise and stimulation and see what there is when I am alone with God. The point of solitude is not what I do—it is what I don’t do. I get away from all the voices and demands of my life and find out about what my little life is like when all the distractions are removed.
The primary gift I find in solitude is freedom. After time alone, I begin to remember that what other people think of me really matters very little. Those people all have their own lives; they will all die one day and take their applause and criticisms with them. I’m always aware of this, but in solitude I come to feel it deeply. I feel a sense of peace that I treasure. A Bible or a journal may be fine for solitude, but they are not necessary. The primary thing to remember about solitude is just don’t do anything.
(Interestingly enough, the Sabbath was described in Exodus in terms of “not-doing”— “on it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals … “)
A second form of time-wasting is musing, or listening. Here I bring before God what I am concerned about. Often for me it involves either family or ministry. I am worried about one of my children. I am concerned about the health of my team. I am unsure about whether our ministry is functioning well.
I spread these out before God, and then I listen. This listening is a form of prayer, but it is prayer than involves thinking and imagination and asking questions. Often I will ask God at the beginning of it for wisdom regarding next steps to take. I might write some ideas down. It will often lead to plans.
It’s important not to mix up solitude as a discipline with planning or musing. When I plan, I am hoping for an outcome. But by its nature, solitude as a practice requires letting go of all outcomes. When I am engaging in solitude for God’s sake, I am not trying to get anything out of it; the pressure of wanting something keeps me from the very freedom God wants to give. But when I am musing over a concern, I am very much hoping for some next step to take.
3. Production enhancement.
The best example of this third kind of time wasting is a cow. A cow is a miracle on four legs, producing milk that fuels all kinds of people. But if you look carefully at a cow through the day, it looks remarkably unproductive. It spends hours chewing and then re-chewing. It takes less than five minutes to download the milk that it took 24 hours to produce.
But when you’re creating milk, you just can’t make it go any faster. There are limits in the creativity game.
If you are going to create, you need some time to chew the grass and stare into space.
In my experience, the more creative people are, the more space-staring they need to do. You can make instant coffee. But milk takes time.
For me, production-enhancement time wasting usually involves some activity that I love just for its own sake. I read history. I go to the ocean and stare at the waves. I do a crossword puzzle. I call up a friend. I put a fire in the fire pit outside. I play the piano.
How do you waste time badly? How do you waste time well? Are you wasting time adequately? If you find yourself feeling inwardly free, if you find yourself with all the ideas you need for planning, if you find yourself in a creative ferment, then you should probably stick to your current schedule. If not, you might want to re-think how you’re wasting time.
Enough for today; time to go back to work.
John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.