A story in First Things First (Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill) describes a lesson about the use of time. The instructor fills a large jar with big rocks until he cannot possibly add another rock. He asks the audience if the jar is full. Everyone agrees that there is no more room for more rocks. Then he lifts a container of pebbles, and pours them into the same jar. The pebbles tumble loosely between the spaces left by the rocks, settling into place. Again, he asks if the jar is full. People are now wise to his ploy and are less willing to agree. Next, he lifts a container of sand and pours it into the jar, and people watch as the sand cascades through all the loose spaces between the rocks and pebbles. “Now, is the jar full?” The audience agrees that the jar is completely filled and has no room for anything else. Then he pours a glass of water into the jar, and the water trickles from top to bottom, saturating the sand and pebbles and rocks.
“What have we learned about the use of time?” he asks. Someone says, “You can always squeeze one more thing into an already crowded schedule!” “No,” the instructor answers, “we’ve learned that if we don’t place the big rocks in first, we can never squeeze them in later.” The story is about priority (88–89).
I’ve discovered the truth of this for shaping my personal and professional time, and also for leading an organization and establishing agendas. Keeping the main thing the main thing requires intentionality.
What’s the one activity or practice of yours that done consistently (and consistently well!) would have the greatest positive impact on your ministry? One pastor thought about this question and began to invite one person who had recently visited worship to lunch each week. The result was so positive and immediate in helping people assimilate into the congregation that he continued the practice for years. A layperson committed to holding one conversation each Sunday with one of the youth of the church, and another committed to taking a new person each month to coffee to explore their interests in serving in outreach projects of the church. These are a few of the Big Rocks of forming community in Christ.
I wrote Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations to answer the question, “What are the most important things for congregations to focus our work on to fulfill the mission of Christ?” Church councils spend inordinate amounts of time debating facilities, budgets, schedules, and planning more meetings. These are important, but we dare not focus on them to the exclusion of what is essential. If we do not repeat, deepen, and improve upon the basic fundamental practices of ministry—Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity—then our mission weakens a little more each year. The Five Practices are the fundamental activities that are so critical to the mission of the church that failure to perform them in an exemplary way leads to diminishing ministry. They are the Big Rocks of congregational ministry.
Our Missouri Conference leadership teams spent considerable time thinking about the purpose of the conference. What are the fundamental activities that are so critical to our mission as a conference that failure to perform them with excellence leads to decline? In our context, we focus on two critical functions: Congregational Excellence and Pastoral Excellence. Congregational Excellence means we focus on starting new congregations, exploring alternative forms of faith communities for college-age adults, and strengthening existing congregations. If we fail to start and strengthen congregations consistently, there will be no conference in the future. Pastoral Excellence involves systems for recruiting, developing, educating, training, supporting, and evaluating gifted clergy who are spiritually grounded, emotionally healthy, effective and fruitful leaders. Again, if we fail at this task, or fail to do it with excellence, there will be no conference in the future. These are the Big Rocks of conference ministry.
What about finances, pensions, insurance, boards, councils, meetings? What about missions, laity, social witness, youth, camping? All these are important, and in fact we have nationally-recognized mission initiatives as well as robust and effective ministries for laity and youth. Thousands of our laity and clergy participate in these each year. But they are directed at strengthening the ministries of our congregations because congregations are the most significant arena for making disciples, reaching youth, serving the world, and offering our social witness. The conference leads congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ.
General Conference will overwhelm delegates with thousands of petitions and bundles of legislation. Committees will meet from early morning until late night. Various constituencies and caucuses and causes will provide breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Thousands of pages of paper will be handed to us as we arrive and placed on the tables when we sit down. Screens will light up with videos, charts, statistics, and reports. General Conference is sensory overload. The huge majority of things demanding our attention are good ministries, genuinely grounded in motivations to serve Christ.
But what are the Big Rocks in our life together as a denomination, the most essential work for fulfilling the mission of Christ? The Call to Action suggests a few: increasing the number of vital congregations, clergy development systems that foster excellence, reaching young people, sustainable financial systems, organizational structures that are conducive to our mission. What are the things we absolutely must do consistently well to have the greatest impact for the purposes of Christ now and into the future? I pray for discerning hearts to sift through all that is good for the things that matter most.
What are the activities that are so critical to our congregation’s mission that failure to perform them with excellence leads to decline? What about our conference’s mission?
For engaging Scripture, think about the word first in the stories of Jesus: “first be reconciled to your brother” . . . “strive first for the kingdom of God” . . . “first take the log out of your own eye” . . . “first let me go and bury my father” . . . “first sit down and estimate the cost” . . . “the greatest and first commandment” . . . “whoever wishes to be first among you” (Matthew 5:24; 6:33; 7:5; 8:21; Luke 14:28; Matthew 22:38; Matthew 20:27 or Mark 10:44 NRSV). What do we learn about priorities for our life and ministry from these references?;
For more about priorities, you may enjoy reviewing the classics by Stephen Covey, including Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First. For help refining vision and purpose, consider Andy Stanley’s Visioneering.