Bill Hybels is the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and the chairman of the board for the Willow Creek Association. Leader of one of the most influential churches in American church life, he is the author of more than 20 books, including his most recent, Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, published by Tyndale Momentum. He was interviewed by Executive Editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: Your title, Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, sounds as if were written just for pastors who often have very cluttered souls.

Hybels: That’s true, and I’m glad you caught on to the real heart that’s behind the book. Some people perhaps think I am talking about clearing out your basement, or straightening your desk a little bit. That’s not really going to help in the final analysis; what we all are looking for, you know, is to be able to travel a little more lightly, a little more focused, a little more streamlined through this world. Through the years, I’ve noticed some dynamics in my own life that clutter my mind and soul. As I’ve learned to declutter, it simplifies my life.

Preaching: What drew you to write about this topic?

Hybels: Self-survival! My life got very complicated. I started Willow when I was 22. To my surprise—probably more than anyone else’s—it grew rapidly. Then we were in a building program, and then we were hiring staff, and then we were training leaders from other churches. All that happened at such a young age that I had to try to figure out how to survive the complexities that were swirling around me. So I started this book—didn’t start writing it but started thinking about it—probably decades ago.

Preaching: You deal with a variety of issues or topics in the book, from finances to forgiveness. You deal with practical, day-to-day issues, and you deal with relationships. Each practice you talk about deals with an issue or an area of clutter in our souls. What’s the area you feel you struggle with the most in your own life?

Hybels: Schedule, no question. It took me a long, long time to figure out how holy an endeavor it is to sit down and draft a new God-first schedule as often as you need to do it, to live the kind of life that Scripture talks to us about. For many years, I would say, “I have these 30 things I have to get done, so I have to sit down and cram them into the schedule.” Then I dutifully checked them off, and then try to cram in 35 the next time around.

Through a series of events God used to get my attention, one day I realized I was looking at this wrong. I said, “Instead of the schedule trying to cram in all I’m trying to get done, what if I looked at my schedule, and asked, ‘Who am I trying to become?’ If I lined up my schedule with the priorities of who I am trying to become, then am I trying to become someone who walks more closely with Christ? Am I trying to become a better husband and a more dialed-in dad? Am I trying to become someone who’s educated about world events? Am I trying to become one who’s alleviating some misery and suffering in the world?'”

Well, if I’m trying to become that kind of person, then I need to put certain elements into my daily, weekly, monthly schedule, so I become that kind of person, as opposed to asking it the other way. Just what am I trying to get done again this week? That breakthrough was earthshaking to me.

Preaching: I suspect that for many pastors, the whole issue of scheduling and time management is probably the biggest issue they face at a practical level. In the process of researching this book and in your own experience, are there some particular ideas or tips you discovered that might help other pastors as they fight this battle with the calendar?

Hybels: Most pastors don’t have what I call finish lines, so they can work a 16-hour day. There are people who still want to see them. There are problems that still have be solved. There is money that still has to be raised. There are initiatives that still have to be launched. So you wonder, “All right, how long do I work? Do I take work home? Do I email until 11 at night?”

When I was in the business world before ministry, I found I could draw a line of demarcation between my work and my personal life a lot easier. I would say to myself at the end of the work day, “All right, enough is enough.” If I had to be more crass with myself, “I’ve earned enough money today. I don’t have to earn any more money today. Enough is enough.”

It’s a little tougher for a pastor to say, “You know, I’ve advanced the gospel enough today.” Because you always think, “What would six more hours have brought?” I had to go all the way to the Old Testament and understand afresh how days went, and when days started and stopped in the Old Testament, and how sabbaths were spent, and when the festival seasons were.

God said, “Look, for a while I don’t want you to think about work, even My work.” So I developed this whole idea of establishing a finish line at the end of every work day and how to think about that finish line for pastors. For pastors, I think it’s really important to have a weekly finish line. I make the point that you need to affix a ritual to it so it sticks a little bit more. I talk about monthly finish lines and annual finish lines, as well. Those thoughts have been very powerful in my life.

Preaching: Beyond the calendar and schedule issue, are there some particular ideas you found to be helpful in simplifying your own life?

Hybels: God has given me the opportunity and the challenge of mentoring pastors around the world. When I’m done teaching, I’ll often have dinner with four or five pastors, and they’ll often use the words, “I’m overwhelmed.”

I’ll say, “OK, you’re probably talking about schedule, so let’s handle that one first.” We will go through that, then, they all look at me and say, “No, it’s more than that,” and I say, “I know it is. So what else is it?” Then they’ll talk about some relational rifts they have with an elder, a deacon, a family member, or someone; and then they’ll talk to me about the fact their finances are really not in great shape.

So they carry around anxiety about their broken relationships and financial indebtedness, and a few other things that can clutter the soul. You start to realize you can straighten up the desk and put a new schedule together, but until you deal with pretty much everything that can clog up or clutter a soul, you’re not going to feel as if you’re traveling lightly. You’re not going to feel as if you can walk the way Jesus imagined us walking—not until all that clutter is cleared.

Preaching: Going back to the issue of schedule, how does your weekly schedule look as you move toward preaching on Sunday?

Hybels: My life probably looks a little different than most. I’m almost 40 years into the establishment of how my life works, but I’m preaching 35 times a year now, which is more than I did in the past decade. From 6 or 6:30 in the morning until 11, five days a week, is sermon prep for me—no meetings, no breakfast meetings, virtually no interruptions—and sermons take a long time for me to put together. Teaching is my third level gift. I have leadership first, evangelism second and teaching third. As you know, sometimes your third level gift requires a little more human effort.

So, it takes me that long to put sermons together at the quality I believe God wants from me. Then around 11, I shift into meetings and do non-stop meetings until about 4:30; that would be four days a week in the office. So, in essence, most of the morning is sermon prep, late morning lunch, and all afternoon would be leadership meetings.

Preaching: With you doing 35 weeks out of the year, how do you arrange the preaching schedule through the rest of the year?

Hybels: I have a little teaching team around me, and we put a recommendation together about who is going to preach when I’m not preaching, and then we take that to our team of senior staff leaders of the church. We run it by them to see if we can gain their support.

We are prayerful about it, and we are developmental about it. We have younger teachers whose giftedness we are trying to grow. We want to give them opportunities to teach our congregation. There are some guests whom we think our church needs to hear from periodically, so we have some (what we call adjunct faculty, if you will), who we have on almost an annual basis.

Preaching: How do you go about planning and scheduling the sermon series that you do?

Hybels: What’s been disappointing in some of my travels in mentoring pastors in various places is how often the preaching menu simply flows out of whatever the pastor happens to be excited about at the moment. While that’s good for the pastor, it might not be the healthiest diet for a local church.

So we try to step back and say regardless of who will teach, regardless of what we are excited about right now, let’s spin that question around, and ask, “What subject matters will our church need to hear about on an annual basis? Should a member of the body of Christ at Willow Community Church go a full year without hearing something about this or that?” There are some messages we have to do on an annual basis because they are what keep the congregation strong and vital.

Another way we look at it is to say, “Given where our church is and what God is doing uniquely in it, what values do we need to lift up this year that maybe sagged a little bit last year or are really heated up right now that we want to heat more?” So, we think about it from a values perspective, as well.

It’s also good to ask, “What portion of the Bible do we think the Willow Creek Congregation needs to sink it’s teeth into and really devour during four, five or six weeks?” We wanted to take them through Ecclesiastes last year, and there are certain books of the Bible that at certain times, we say, “You know what? It’s time for Willow to go through the Book of Luke again.”

What we don’t tend to do is simply say, “What does Bill feel he should preach about right now?” That’s not the highest priority when we are talking about what the congregation should hear.

Preaching: What are some of the series you’re in now or you have coming up?

Hybels: We had one in the fall titled “The God I Wish You Knew.” Our sense is that there is a lot of bad press going on about God these days—what He’s against and what fanatical believers do in His name. There are a lot of people wondering, “How fair is this God? How good is this God? How holy?” We want to say, “Here’s the God we wish you knew.”

Preaching: As you said, you’ve been at this for a long time. Based on all the things you learned, if you could go back and have a conversation with Beginning Bill, at the very start of your pastorate—if you could go back and share one piece of advice or counsel with yourself as a young pastor, what would that be?

Hybels: I probably would say, “Establish the spiritual practices in the life of new believers and continue to drive home the centrality, the significance of training everyone who comes to the church for whatever reason.” If they’re exploring, if they’re brand new Christians—whatever—but to establish people in the classic spiritual practices so they become self-feeders and self-learners and people who share from God by His Word, by His Spirit, through His family in small groups, etc.

It’s easy for a pastor to slip into, “It’s my job to put on better and better services.” A lot of services need to get better, but it’s also our job to establish people in their own spiritual practices so that if they go from our church to another church, or if they get transferred by their company and go to a country around the world where the church is not allowed to meet, those individual Christians can thrive because they’ve been taught well how to be rooted and grounded in the things of God through spiritual practices.

I wish I had done a better job of that for 39 years. Through different eras, I did better than others on that emphasis, and have been on it for several years again and will for the rest of my duration. I wish I had been steady all the way through on that.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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