In my first church, back in Indiana, my deacons made an interesting request of me. They wanted me to track how many hours I worked for the church Wanting to prove myself a good pastor I tried to bump up the hours as high as I could. 55 to 60 hours wasn’t uncommon. A few times I hit over 70 hours. One day the topic of my hours came up with one of the deacons. With an odd glint in his eyes he said to me, “You know, when brother so and so in our church has put in 55 hours his week is just beginning.” Apparently this was supposed to shame me. It didn’t. Brother so and so, an older man, had a beautiful, sweet wife whom he mostly ignored. He was always gone. I didn’t find that inspiring. I decided to put my marriage ahead of my job and I’ve always been glad I did. My wife and I celebrated 30 loving years last week.
You and I must deal with these sorts of issues on a regular basis. I call this the “priority pickle”. Many people want our time and efforts—how do we decide who gets what? We can’t be all things to all people. In order to please some we must be willing to disappoint others. Unlike God we have limited resources. How can we choose the right priorities? Here’s what I’ve often heard Christians say about this subject:
“God comes first, my marriage second, my family third, my church fourth, my job fifth. . .”
Before I evaluate this let’s consider a prior question:
Why is a priority ranking system useful?
1. A thoughtful priority system allows me to choose what’s most important
Given our limited time and resources it’s crucial that we make the most of them. Without a conscious priority system we can end up spending too much of our time/energy on activities which, while not bad in themselves, are relatively trivial. In Luke 12:15-21 Jesus tells the tragic story of a rich man who pours considerable time and energy into increasing his riches only to fall dead and leave it all behind.
The rich man, it turns out, had wasted his life since he was rich materially but spiritually poor. If God’s not our top priority, in the end, our life amounts to little. On a smaller scale, thinking through our priorities allows us to develop strong relationships or improve our giftedness or make an impact for Christ on our community. These things all take time; precious time, and without a clear priority system many of them will not happen.
2. A thoughtful priority list makes difficult decisions easier
A brother told me a while back that he was going to be offered a desperately needed full-time job. That was good. The problem? The job would require him to stop coming to church, not just for a few weeks but for the indefinite future. To his credit, my friend had decided to turn the job down. His relationship with God and his church family was more important to him than a job. He knew his priorities and he stuck by them even under pressure. It’s a lot easier to make the tough call when we’ve already committed to putting certain priorities ahead of others.
What does the Bible teach about our priority ranking system?
Is the initial list I mentioned, “God first, marriage second, family third,” taught in Scripture? Well, yes and no. The Bible clearly teaches God’s pre-eminence (“You shall have no other gods before me” Ex. 20:3) but the idea of putting marriage second, family third, and so on comes more through implication than by direct biblical teaching – although it makes sense given the relative importance of each category.
What does it mean to rank one person/thing above another?
If my family is ranked above my church does this entail that the family always gets priority – that they always get first dibs on available time, money and resources? I once had a Sunday School teacher who called off just minutes before he was to teach because his kids were hungry. “Family comes first. I’m taking my children to McDonald’s” he told me. So while they ate scrambled eggs, others had to scramble to find a last-minute teacher. Is the higher ranked relationship always given the trump card? Where does this leave those in the lowest ranks – typically including acquaintances and strangers? Do they get only the scraps? Can we make a significant commitment to them as well? As we’ll see below, a ranking system gives us general guidelines as to our priorities but it needs to be used in a sensitive, skillful way.
Insights to remember when making a priority list:
1. My priority list provides a good general guideline but needs to remain flexible
Generally, I will follow the proportions on my list of priorities – giving more time and loyalty to certain priorities than to others. This is a healthy long-term strategy. But there are times when the circumstances (or God) call for a temporary imbalance. What happens when an older parent begins to fail? Or a child is slipping out of contro l? Sometimes we may have to set aside the normal balance in order to deal with an emergency or pressing need. Maybe we give up most of our free time to help Mom until we can get her adequate care. This is, I believe, a healthy flexibility which reflects the normal ebb and flow of life. In the short-term, other people can usually handle a bit of neglect, especially if they understand the purpose behind it. The challenge is to to try not to let serious imbalances become a long-term way of life.
2. Everything on the list is interrelated
Each priority impacts the others. How I relate to God, for instance, will affect how I relate to my spouse, my children, my friends and my job. If I’m close to God I’ll be a better husband, father, friend and employee. Conversely, how I treat my wife affects my relationship with God (1 Peter 3:7).
It’s all part of an interrelated system. This means that it’s very hard to get an “A” with one priority if we’re getting “D’s” and “F’s” with the others.
3. None of God’s priorities for me are optional
God has given us a number of priorities in Scripture involving a wide range of people and activities (God, family, church, neighbors, unbelievers, work, spiritual activities, etc.). While we can’t devote equal time to all of these, they all matter. To simply opt out of evangelism, for example, because of work demands, or to ignore church because “that’s our only family time” is to overlook God’s specific commands.
4. My unique gifting, passions, and personality will guide my priorities
A while back I began writing columns like this on practical Christian theology. I work on them early in the morning – plunging into all sorts of intriguing “why” and “how” questions. It’s hard work, but I love it, find it useful and very satisfying. I’ve made it a priority because it’s who I am; who God made me to be. You too will take up some priorities for the same reasons. You may cook or write songs or serve on community boards. Your God-given gifts/passions are meant to guide your priorities.
Tune in next week for more practical observations on this subject.