Limited Time Is Grace
Time has been set for us; we didn’t have a vote, and we have zero ability to escape. The time structure that shapes the existence of all God’s creatures bursts off the page of Genesis 1. In one of his first and more significant acts as Creator, God lays down the structure of seven days, along with the structure of Sabbath rest. As a leader, you simply cannot ignore the limits placed on you by this plan and maintain spiritual and relational health and a life of long-term ministry effectiveness. It seems ridiculously obvious to say, but nonetheless important, that you will never get thirty hours in a day, and you will never grab nine days in a week. And you will always need Sabbath rest no matter how mature you become or how many leaders work alongside you.
Every limit that God has set for us has been set because God knows whom he’s created; he knows how we were designed to live and in love does not require more of us than we are capable of doing. Limits not only reveal his wisdom; they also express his love. Limits are not a prison; they are a grace.
You cannot allow your leadership community to assign more work to a leader than can be done in the time allotted to him or her. You cannot ask a person to pile work upon work, day after day, without periodic Sabbaths of rest. There are few more important things for a spiritually healthy leadership community to consider than the time limits that God designed for his creation from the get-go.
One other observation about the time contraints we live within. These were part of God’s perfect plan for people and for a world that had not yet been damaged and complicated by sin. If in a perfect world these were seen as a necessity for sin-free people in an undamaged world, how much more significant are they for us as we now grapple with the exhausting complications, discouragements, brokenness, and temptations of the surrounding world and with our own divided heart and its conflicting motives? Sin causes us to push against God’s wise and loving boundaries. Sin causes us to deny our susceptibilities and to assign more power to ourselves than we have. Sin tempts us to think that we know better and that we do not need what God knew we would all need.
But let me make even more practical the importance of a leadership community recognizing and submitting to God-given limits of time. I want to paint a visual in your mind. Picture a triangle of interlocking circles, with one circle at the top point and two interlocking circles forming the bottom of the triangle. So there are three interlocking circles of the same size. Those circles are meant to represent the three vital dimensions of your life. The top circle is your spiritual life (I know that all of life is spiritual), that is, your life of personal worship, devotion, and spiritual discipline. The left bottom circle is your relational life, that is, marriage, parenting, body of Christ, friends, and neighbors. The right bottom circle is your labor life, that is, your life of gospel ministry and church or ministry leadership. These are the three major areas of your life that God has designed to fill your 24/7, along with the Sabbath of leisure and rest.
Above, below, right, and left of this pyramid of interlocking circles of calling and responsibility, you have nothing, because you will never have 29/7 or 24/10.
Now, stay with me here. This means that as one of these areas of your life grows, it can’t grow outward, because there is no outward. God chose to give you only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week, and you will never get anything more. So if one of these three circles grows, it will of necessity cause another circle to shrink. This is where a leadership community gets into trouble. When you unwittingly deny God-given limits of time, you assign more ministry work than a leader can do without shrinking the amount of time he can invest in other vital and unavoidable areas of calling and responsibility. How many ministry families have been damaged because ministry work began to take up family time? So more ministry means the leader spends less than the needed time investing in his marriage, parenting his children, fellowshipping with his church family, and serving his neighbors.
Resist the Urge to Try Harder, Do More
As leaders in the body of Christ, we have to quit acting as if balancing family and ministry responsibilities is the inescapable catch22 of ministry life. God is too wise, loving, patient, and kind to ever do that to us. We have to resist a “try harder, do more” leadership culture that results in unrealistic expectations, achievement idolatry, and a whole basket of bad fruit. I’ve written and spoken about this before, but I must also mention it here: in the New Testament there is no lengthy or detailed discussion of the tension between ministry and family that we seem to take for granted. This discussion is not there, because the Lord of the church would never call us to one area that would necessitate our neglecting or disobeying another such area. One of the reasons that tension is so often there is that we tend to ignore or deny the wise and loving time limits God has set for us. It really is possible to have a spiritually and relationally healthy family (circle of fellowship and friends) and have a dedicated and productive ministry life at the same time.
The limits of time is yet another argument for ministry always being done in community, so that no single leader attempts or is assigned to do more than he can responsibly do while also giving proper focus to the other things that God has called him to. Are your leaders working too long and too hard? Are their assigned responsibilities setting up tension with other areas of life? Do you have a mechanism for monitoring this? Are your leaders worn out? Have you watched leaders burn out? Have you talked to wives or friends to see how those relationships have been affected?
Are your leaders too busy to give adequate time to worshipful devotions, meditative study of Scripture, and a robust life of prayer? Is this concern a regular part of your discussions together as a leadership community? Do you provide Sabbaths of rest for your leaders? How often does the issue of time come up when you gather together? Is ministry and the desire for ministry achievement balanced with a commitment to relational and spiritual health in each of your leaders? As you think about God-ordained limits of time, what changes are needed in your leadership community? A spiritually healthy leadership community always does its work with God-designed limits of time in view.
This article is adapted from Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by Paul David Tripp.