Years ago an older deacon’s wife in our first church provided wise advice about discerning the difference between what is urgent and what is important. She said urgent matters are always screaming. They typically distract us by making the most noise.
This practical counsel resonates all the time but makes more sense when pastors and church staff members are navigating the busy intersections of the holiday season. While we’re guiding the multi-faceted elements of the church Christmas celebration the noise of year-end is also playing in the background. It gets louder as the clock ticks toward December 31. While cantatas and living nativity scenes and class parties and Advent worship are happening the unmet goals and objectives that launched the year last January are often yelling at us too. Discerning truly significant matters from what is merely loud may be our greatest seasonal challenge.
In study one day I tracked the journey of Jesus and the disciples through the Gospel of Luke as they traveled to Jerusalem. Luke’s language reminded me that it was an intentional, purposeful trip aimed at a very specific destination. Along they way there were many pauses, detours, and delays, some of them loud interruptions by the people and circumstances they encountered. Jesus trained the twelve, healed the sick, taught the crowds, addressed his opponents, and steadfastly moved the entourage toward the one destination that was important: Jerusalem. The people and needs along the way were significant enough to warrant his attention. Jesus wasn’t thrown off course, however. Jerusalem was the focus, the one important matter for his mission. Luke brilliantly annotated the text with reminders that there were urgencies along the way. Yet, from Luke 9:51-53 through their arrival in Jerusalem small phrases remind us of what was really important. You can visit them at Luke 10:38; 13: 22,33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:28, 41.
The frustration of weighing things of importance against urgencies can also threaten our commitment to finish what was started. Many observers conclude that we’re suddenly a culture that quits. The frantic pace of life, often lacking the discipline to say “no”, our tendency to overload to-do lists, and the question marks about what really matters can make finishing another obstacle. But, quitting is an ugly possibility for most church leaders. Jesus finished the redemptive work of God on the cross (see John 19:30) and the Apostle Paul finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7), examples that add another layer of stress in high-pressure times. Who wants to disappoint our Lord or fall short of such high standards?
Now, there’s a contemporary twist to finishing. It’s what many leadership and management teachers call the “carry-over.” This is simply the practice of expanding the finish line so we can move an objective to the next frame of effort. In the case of church life, it may be to carry-over a mission objective, or a budget goal, a training initiative, an outreach strategy, staff development, the mission assignment at the local school, or some other church function. There’s a catch to the carry-over, though. That we didn’t get around to it this year may signal that it wasn’t high on our priority list. The carryover effect may keep that same matter labeled as such even at the fresh starting line of a new year.
So, with all the noise, how do we discern the important from the urgent, and in consequence, what is carried over and what is not. Here’s a way for church leaders to measure the items on the to-do list, a priority system, if you will—
1. Obedience to God should be our first priority.
What God has commanded should always comprise the leading items on our list of important matters. Jesus said, “My food is to do
the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (John 4:34, NIV). Perhaps this one thought kept Jesus focused on Jerusalem when the noise of urgencies along the way sought to distract him.
2. Leaders families should factor into the important category.
The noise of the holidays and church life is usually so loud leaders cannot hear the voices of those in the mission field down the hall. Making disciples of all nations involves drawing four circles, the “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth” segments
(Acts 1:8, ESV) of our personal sphere of influence. The Jerusalem circle begins right there in the spiritual leaders home. This assignment should always appear at the top of the leaders important matters list.
3. Kingdom matters should always be important.
Church calendars, budgets, and ministry objectives are not always Kingdom oriented. Many times they are the preferences of the church and are therefore church aims. In many instances the church priorities are the loudest urgencies. Jesus said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33, NIV). Kingdom issues should be among our most significant mission and ministry matters.
4. What builds and edifies the body should be important.
The Apostle Paul contrasted the urgencies of the times with the important elements of church mission in Ephesians 4. He concluded the section with verses 15-16— “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” What builds and edifies the body should always be important to spiritual leaders.
5. Promises made should constitute important items.
Leaders communicate integrity and reliability by keeping their word. Promises made to others should always be listed among our most important matters. Again, in Ephesians, Paul wrote—“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 2:25, ESV).
Urgent matters are always screaming at us, loud and often discordant. The clamor and noise can muffle the still small voice that beckons us to what really matters. This is the season that celebrates Christ and ushers us toward a New Year. Our attention should be fixed on him, the author and perfecter of our faith (see Hebrews 12:2). I am reminded of an important interchange between God and three of the disciples during the journey to Jerusalem mentioned earlier. Peter, James, and John had accompanied Jesus to a mountain where they prayed. A cloud appeared and a voice spoke to them from the cloud. It was the voice of God. He said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35, ESV).
When the noise of urgencies is so disorienting, we should listen to him. It’s how we can be assured about what really matters when the noise of life makes us uncertain.
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!