"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Personal Organizational Skills

Cutting the Chaos

Mike Woodruff

    If your mind’s a muddle and your desk is so cluttered it could be considered performance art, it’s time to start acting like a professional. Here’s how.

    Youth pastors are a unique breed, and our pace of life and occupational quirks prove it. Our offices mix books and computers with Frisbees, water cannons, rock videos, and boxes of pancake batter mix. And, typically, we don’t do the organization thing very well. It’s not our shtick.

    For a long time, I thought that was okay. Kids aren’t all that organized, so why should we be? But now I’m singing a different song. Why should we accept messy desks, missed meetings, and marathon workweeks as part of our routine when few other professionals do? Why are we so quick to accept our stereotype as energetic but unorganized, spiritual but messy, well-intentioned but misdirected, when it really is a backhanded put-down? The truth is that you can’t grow a ministry beyond your ability to manage it. The chaos wins. These are some of my best chaos-busting tips...

    We’re battling on at least four fronts in the information management war. Once, we struggled only with phone calls, visitors, and the post office. Now we face an e-mail explosion that won’t soon abate. Some claim that the average white-collar worker in the United States is getting more than 100 e-mail messages a week.

    Actually, I like e-mail. As a person who lives or dies by his network, I find e-mail a great way to interact with lots of people. It beats the phone, which is the ultimate in urgency, and it’s easier to manage than voice mail. It’s cheaper and faster than the post office, and it’s a great leveler of organizations. People I never would have been able to reach by phone have responded to e-mail.

    But there are days I can easily spend three or four hours simply sending and receiving e-mail. We clearly need help.

    If you’re sending e-mail...

    * Be brief. Ideally, the reader can see the header and the entire message on one SVGA screen. If you need to send something longer, send it only to those who absolutely must read the whole thing. Send a short summary to others, and offer to send the entire message.

    * Respond quickly. The value of this medium is that it allows quick responses. Don’t sit on a message for more than a few days. If you’re out of the office and won’t be checking your messages, let people know by setting up an automatic reply.

    * Tell the story in the subject line. Generic headings such as "meeting agenda" or "follow up" aren’t much better than leaving the header box blank. Take fifteen seconds to precisely describe your message so it’ll be clear to the receivers, too.

    If you’re receiving e-mail...

    * Filter the spam. By some estimates, as much as 15 percent of all e-mail messages, 30 percent for America Online users, is spam (unsolicited, unwanted, electronic junk mail). What can you do?

    * Place a filter on your e-mail.

    * Use two mailboxes—one for private correspondence with friends, family, and work, and the other for more public discourse such as chat rooms.

    * Never respond to the line "If you want to be removed from this list, send e-mail to...." Your request may actually place you on a spam list.

    * Be smart. Disney isn’t giving away free vacations, and Neiman Marcus doesn’t have a $200 cookie recipe. There’s no kidney theft ring in New Orleans, NASA hasn’t found a lost day, and Craig Sherold from England isn’t dying of cancer and doesn’t want your business card. If you get a message that sounds too good to be true or too bizarre to be believable, it probably is.

    * Use one touch. You should open your "snail mail" over the recycle bin, ready to discard what you can, respond to what you can’t, and file what you must. You should open your e-mail the same way. The goal is to touch the document as few times as possible, and your options are simple: Delete it, respond to it, or file it.

    * Follow the FIFO rule. If you scan the in-box to choose what you want to read, you’ll be left with a long list of awful messages at the end of the day. Thus the First In First Out (FIFO) rule.


    There are two major types of files: action and standing. Action files are standing files you need often. Most people have about 10, including things to copy, things to read, things to file, and things to talk to the boss or assistant about. The standing files can generally be divided along three lines: administration, Bible study, and everything else.

    You’ll be able to file with the best of them if you follow these four simple rules:

    * Don’t file it. You’ll likely never look at 80 percent of what you file away (Barbara Hemphill, Taming the Paper Tiger [Kiplinger Books]). When in doubt, throw it out. Most of us make the mistake of looking at a piece of paper and asking, "Can I imagine a scenario in which I might need this piece of paper?" And of course unless it’s tissue paper you just used to wipe your nose, the answer is yes. The question we should ask is "If I need this piece of paper in the future and don’t have it, how much trouble will I be in?" If the answer is "I’ll get fined, fired, or put into prison," then file it. But if all you have to do is walk down the hall and pull a copy out of someone else’s files, then deep-six it. Generally speaking, you don’t want to keep anything someone else is keeping. The more stuff you file, the more difficult it is to find what you need.

    Place the papers you’re not quite willing to part with in a box, and label it with a throwaway date. Put the box in the church basement or some other storage facility, and forget about it. If you need something, you can find it. When you stumble into the church basement years later and trip over the box, throw it away. (Do not—I repeat, do not—open it and start looking through it.)

    * Design a system that works for you. Those who do the filing get to design their own system. They should make it as simple as possible and keep a list of all the files. If you do this, you can recruit volunteers who don’t have a degree in library science to help you file.

    * File, don’t pile. Most people have more than 36 hours of work sitting on their desks, which is not as much of a surprise as it is a problem. Case in point: While working on your Bible study, you glance at a stack of papers in the corner. The sheet on top is an important letter you had forgotten about. You pick up the letter, wince, and then look for a better place to set it—a place where you won’t forget it. But when you refocus a couple of minutes later, your eyes wander again. By moving the first letter, you uncovered another important letter. (Remember, everything on your desk is there because it is important.) You can do this all day and never actually do any work. So if you save something, get it off your desk and into a file.

    * File it where you’ll find it. The trick is to think big, not small. When you look for a spot to keep the receipts for next month’s financial report, you’re better off placing them in a general file containing all your administrative duties for next month than you are placing them in a folder just for receipts. If you start a whole new file, you’ll not only end up with millions of file folders but you’ll also spend an eternity trying to remember what you called it—is it under F for "financial report" or M for "money" or R for "receipts" or T for "treasurer"?


    There are only three ways you will ever get more time:

    * Do what you currently do more quickly.
    * Delegate what you’ve done in the past to someone else.
    * Stop doing some of the things you currently do.

    Of these three ways, the real gains come with the last one.

    To do this, check to see if your e-mail software offers a filter feature. Typically, you can find this service under "Tools" or "Preferences" or "Options." Go there, look for a junk mail or spam function, and turn it on.


    The typical business person averages 10 minutes between interruptions, making interruptions the #1 management headache in the world. Our job is subject to the same problem. What to do?

    * Realize that not every interruption is an interruption. You’re both paid and called to focus on others. Some of what may strike you as inconvenient is really a divine appointment.

    * Realize that most interruptions are your fault. When you design a program that revolves around you, don’t be surprised when everything revolves around you.

    * Give people the information they need before they interrupt you. Think ahead about questions you’re likely to be asked, then post the answers on your Web site, include them in the church newsletter, or set up a phone hot line so people can retrieve what they need without pestering you.

    * Set up office hours. Professors do. If people want you, then steer them toward times that make sense.

    * Evaluate your interruptions. Keep a log of your interruptions for two weeks. If you see, as I suspect you will, that 80 percent of your interruptions are caused by about four people, then you can take them aside and say, "I’m really trying to protect my study time. Could you help me out by not interrupting me between 9 a.m. and lunch?"


    Paper clutter means postponed decisions and paper management is decision-making. Here are my suggestions:

    * Stop it before it arrives. Cancel subscriptions to magazines you don’t read, have junk mail thrown out before it reaches your desk, and ask to be removed from routing lists you don’t profit from. Be brutal. Then do your part to cut down the flow of paper traffic. Whenever possible, go electronic. When you have to write, keep it short and make it a big deal to send a copy to anyone. It takes less time and no file cabinets to talk rather than write, so talk when you can. The only items you want to consistently cut down a tree for are those that will keep you out of court—legal documents, the flow of large sums of money, and performance appraisals, for example.

    * Make decisions. Don’t pick up a piece of paper until you’re ready to act on it. When you’re ready to act, you have several options.

    * Sort—We all need one "sort" pile—an in-basket, a tray, or even a corner of your desk. Papers land here when they enter your office or when you don’t know what to do with them. The one rule is that they can’t stay. Every one needs a permanent resting place, and this pile isn’t that. In fact, you’re not allowed more than one sort pile, and no piece of paper can park there overnight.

    * Recycle—When in doubt, throw it out. Keep a large recycle bin by your desk, and feed it more often than you feed yourself.

    * Refer—If the letter you’re reading would interest Billy Bob, then write his name on it and send it his way. Do not set it down on your desk again.

    * Record—Most of what we have on little sheets of paper would be of more value recorded in our calendars, so make sure you have enough room in whatever system you use to write both your appointments and your action list. After you have transferred the relevant information, deep-six the paper.

    * Act—Better yet, don’t record it anywhere. Just do it. When First United Church writes to ask if their youth group can sleep at your church on their way to Mexico, either pick up the phone and give them an answer or write your reply right on their letter and send it back. Don’t waste your time writing them a separate letter; that could take awhile, so you may put it off.

    * File—At the risk of sounding like a social zero, I will go on record as saying you should spend some serious time with your filing system. If, as I suspect, we’re not just spiritual developers but also information brokers, then we need to be able to access information. We need a streamlined, functional system.


    Mike Woodruff is a veteran youth leader and management consultant in Washington state. He’s also founder of The Ivy Jungle, a ministry to college ministers. This article is adapted from his new book Managing Youth Ministry Chaos, copyright © 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.


    Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright March/April, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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