When Christian workers gather, they often talk about “how busy I am.” They relate to their mates “how much is going on” and “how much I’ve got on my plate.” Many find their busyness a constant struggle. Often their busyness is due in part to their tentmaking job or project work. Not few talk about it with some sense of pride: some more obvious, some more disguised. After all, my being busy points to my level of commitment to the Great Commission. It also points to the level of contribution to the kingdom I’m making. Being busy, and talking about it, makes me somehow feel important.
The problem is: busyness is not the virtue many of us believe it to be. Busyness is, before we ascribe any spiritual judgment to it, a factor that correlates negatively with movement breakthrough. Yes, you read that right. Busyness prevents catalysts from seeing a movement! So says my research into 147 movements, and so say the more than 300 pioneer leaders involved in the global study. A catalyst’s busyness often stands in the way of a movement. Are you surprised? Even shocked? Then read on.
In this article I will unpack how busyness can impede a movement. But I will also show some ways out of the problem. I am going to share proven steps to move from busyness to fruitfulness.
The factors correlating with movement breakthrough
Before we dive in, let’s make sure we’ve got the big picture and understand how “busyness” fits in with other factors correlating with movement breakthrough. By busyness, I do not mean “working hard.” I mean “doing too many things, so that one works in a rush and loses the ability to be fully present to the task at hand. As a result, one skims through activities and regularly neglects what matters most.”
Looking at a large and representative number of movements worldwide, I found six factors that correlate positively with movement breakthrough, and two factors that correlate negatively. I wrote about the six positive factors in a recent blog post: "The Factors That Actually Start Movements." The two factors that correlate negatively with movements, meaning they prevent them from happening, are:
People not open to the gospel.
Limited time due to tentmaking.
We compared effective catalysts with other pioneers in the same context who had not catalyzed a movement. With this approach we were able to see what distinguishes effective catalysts from non-catalysts. We asked both the same question: On a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much), how much did this factor impede the catalyzing of your movement? In the following table, we see how they rated our two factors. We also see a clear difference between effective catalysts and non-catalysts.
Factors that impeded movement breakthrough
Limited time due to tentmaking
People not open to the Gospel
I have already written about the factor of receptivity to the gospel (see my blog “A Movement Can Happen Anywhere”), therefore we will concentrate here on “limited time due to tentmaking.”
Having limited time is reported as one of the two main factors impeding movement breakthrough. This came as a surprise to me. Neither particular wrong things happening nor right things happening at an insufficient level. Rather, not having the time to do the key things necessary to catalyze a movement is the one internal factor that impedes movements. Both effective catalysts and non-catalysts report this as one of the two limiting factors. Those who have been effective in catalyzing a movement less so. Because this factor is an internal factor, it is under the direct influence of the catalyst, unlike lack of openness to the gospel, apparently effective catalysts have found ways to better mitigate this limiting factor. This is good news: it can be mitigated. In this article I want to show how. In order to do that, we first need to understand the place of tentmaking in movement ministry.
The place of tentmaking in movement ministry
Tentmaking can be either required or a deliberate choice. It is required for expatriate catalysts resident in a country that does not issue missionary visas. The tentmaking catalyst needs a residence permit but also a credible identity to do movement ministry in the country. The other kind of tentmaking is a choice. The catalysts would not have to do this work in order to reach the people on their heart to reach. They choose to do so. They start a project in order to meet the holistic needs of the community and in order to express the love of God in tangible ways to them.
My experience with limited time and busyness
I have a lot of empathy for everyone who struggles with limited time, with too much going on, and with being busy. I have been there. I worked myself into burnout when I was leading a rapidly growing NGO serving more than 200,000 civil-war affected displaced people. At the same time, hundreds of Muslims were coming into the kingdom, and merely running life in one of the least developed places on the planet required a lot of time, not to mention managing my team’s safety in the midst of a civil war.
I am certainly one of those who has struggled with limited time due to tentmaking. I am also one of those who have fallen prey to busyness. But in my struggling, I learned to minimize the limitations project work imposed on me and I have also managed to banish busyness from my life. What I share here has worked for me, and I have presented it to other catalysts in my coaching. Therefore, I offer it to you in this blog.
The right choice of tentmaking work
The first big step is to choose tentmaking work or a compassion ministry project that is most conducive to movement ministry.
Tentmaking options are to some extent limited by the context. One limiting factor is what jobs are available among the companies, NGOs and ministries in the country.
Even though the kinds of jobs available are limited, entrepreneurial catalysts don’t limit themselves by this factor. They simply establish the company, NGO, or ministry needed in the pursuit of movement. This gives much more freedom to make the best choices on the way to movement.
A tool to choose the right tentmaking work
Our team determined three criteria that would guide us in choosing the right tentmaking projects. We leaned on what Jim Collins says about great organizations (Good to Great, 2001) and developed the following selection grid, consisting of three filtering questions:
What are the felt needs of the communities we are reaching?
Are we passionate about this work?
Which project will give us the most hours of time spent with the people we are reaching?
The reason (the “why”) behind each criterion is important. (1) Why meet the felt needs of the community? We bring the kingdom, we bring the love of God, and we want to demonstrate the gospel holistically. This is perceived most clearly by those we are reaching when we address their holistic felt needs. We identified those felt needs through focus group discussions in the community. (2) Why is being passionate about this work important? Life and work in a civil war is extremely draining. Thus it is vital to build into one’s life as many things as possible that give energy, not drain additional energy. And God created each of us uniquely, loving certain kinds of work and not loving others. (3) Which project will give us the most hours of time spent with the people we are reaching? Why this? We had limited time, limited energy, and limited capacity. And we were believing God for a movement. Therefore, we concluded, we wanted to create as much contact time with our people as we could, that would allow us to demonstrate love tangibly, model a Jesus lifestyle, and share Jesus with them.
We used this grid whenever a new need or project opportunity came before us and whenever a new team member with professional skills useful in our compassion ministry joined us. It may be of help to you, as you determine what job or project will be your best fit.
Reframing “limited time”
Even after a catalyst has chosen the right tentmaking work or compassion ministry project, this does not mean the factor “limited time due to tentmaking” has been resolved. The element of “limited time” remains as a bottom line.
The fact is that every catalyst has limited time. A poor choice of a tentmaking job further reduces the hours left for movement ministry. A good choice turns the tentmaking work into a movement ministry opportunity, and the “limited time” is reduced. Yet we all still have limited time. Our day has only 24 hours, only 1,440 minutes. A good number of these are taken by sleep, devotions, self-care, family, and managing life. A deeper issue needs to be explored.
Addressing the deeper issue of “busyness”
In my coaching of movement catalysts, I find that the tyranny of the urgent reigns way too much. When a catalyst refers to their “being busy,” I ask the coaching question: “What are the main things that keep you busy?” In many cases their answer reveals they are kept busy by urgent, time-pressing issues that others bring to them, and they respond to. A catalyst must learn not to live under the tyranny of the urgent, to discern between the urgent and the important. In my own praxis, I have found the Four Quadrants a very helpful tool. A powerful yet simple filter to discern anything that comes your way, before responding with action, is to always ask: “Is this truly important or merely urgent?” I have adopted the practice of, whenever possible, praying over and sleeping on things before deciding. On the next morning I usually have more clarity concerning how important something is (or isn’t!).
Busyness negatively correlates with movement breakthrough.
When sensing someone struggles with busyness, another coaching question I ask frequently addresses a heart issue: “What drives you?” The answers that self-aware catalysts give often point to a felt need for validation which drives them to be engaged in many things, to prove something to themselves and to others. The need can be a need for approval, for recognition, for meeting an inner standard, or for meeting others’ expectations.
The brutally honest answer for too many would be: “When I’m busy, I feel important. When I am in high demand, I feel significant.” The problem is, as long as we seek significance and value in what we do, we will never be able to do enough, never be able to do it well enough, never be able to impress others enough. As a consequence, we do more. We do things that do not take us closer to movement. We become always busy, in a vicious cycle. Busyness, therefore, is not so much a matter of a disordered lifestyle, but rather of a disordered heart.
An ordered heart most wants what God wants most. A disordered heart wants too many things and thus easily loses sight of what God wants most.
The ordered heart has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension of an ordered heart is that our hunger for God Himself runs deeper than our hunger for a movement. The horizontal dimension is that in our movement pursuit we can discern: “What matters most now? What is the one thing we need to address now that takes us closer to movement?”
The problem with busyness is that it renders us incapable of discerning what matters most and incapable of pursuing what matters most. A busy person has a disordered heart, and therefore a cluttered mind. A busy catalyst is unable to align their heart fully with God. As a consequence, they are unable to co-labor in tandem with God toward a movement. Their busyness prevents a movement. The sad reality is: Busyness is a pandemic among Christian workers.
Busyness is not so much a matter of a disordered lifestyle, but rather of a disordered heart.
Ordering our hearts
We must order our hearts! Only then can we master our busyness. Only then can we deal with the tyranny of the urgent. And only then will we set our foot steadily on the path toward a movement.
When I realized this, I began to eradicate busyness from my life. Few things have enabled me more to connect with God.
Here are some questions I use in my coaching of movement catalysts (and of myself). You can use them either as self-coaching questions for personal reflection or you can walk through them with a friend or coach.
Self-coaching questions for reflection:
What are the main things that keep me busy?
Among the things I am doing, which ones are not directly contributing to the vision he has given us?
Where am I driven by the tyranny of the urgent? Where do I need to put “first things first”?
What are the activities that yield the greatest results?
Am I doing what only I can do (delegating the rest)?
What among the things I am doing can I delegate to someone else, empowering them in the process?
To whom am I giving my time? How much time do I devote to my key disciples?
What drives me?
How much do I cultivate God’s rest in my heart and “rest from my works” (Hebrews 4:10)?
How much am I embracing my God-given limitations: limited energy, limited time, limited capacity?
How can I do less, but better?
If busyness is an issue for you, please take some time out to reflect deeply on these self-coaching questions. If you are unable right now, block out an hour or two in your day planner at a time that suits better this week. I pray you will come out of this time with an ordered heart. I pray that busyness will not prevent a movement in your life.
In a study I conducted with church planters among Muslims (Fish, 2009), the leaders who had the highest number of disciples spent, most frequently, at least a four-hour block of time every week prayerfully reflecting on, evaluating, and adjusting their life and ministry.
What Are Your Thoughts?
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Learn more about the Best Practices of effective catalysts in my new book Movement Catalysts. You can check it out here!
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Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist
Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to great: New York: HarperBusiness.
Comer, John Mark. 2019. The ruthless elimination of hurry. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook.
Fish, Bob. 2009. IC 2009 leadership study-survey. (Unpublished).