A reminder about this series: We are seeking to always cultivate leadership that is effective and displays the compassion of our Lord. We asked pastors to choose a book that has influenced their leadership and tell us how they use it. These are not book reviews, and therefore the men will not qualify what is wrong or what they didn’t like in the book. We are making the disclaimer up front that some of these books are from non-Reformed and unbelieving authors. There are things in the books that wouldn’t apply to church life. That disclaimer now taken care of, the men share how the books have helped them.
(You can find the other posts in this series here: “Lessons in Leadership”)
Here is our fifth installment, from Jonathan Landry Cruse, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI.
I know, you have far more books on your “to read” list than books on your “have read” list, but I’m going to give you another one anyway: The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Earley (IVP, 2019). I think you will find it to be a refreshing break from some of the theological tomes you’ve been slogging through—it’s a brief book and readily applicable in all of life.
At first blush, The Common Rule could seem to be nothing more than a sanctified self-help title. It certainly has overlap with books like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life or the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here the author shares habits that have shaped his life for the better in hopes that they would do the same for the reader. I suppose what makes Earley’s book slightly different is his insightful take on the theology behind the decisions we make and the habits we form. He addresses the underlying heart issues behind the most common, and yet also most damaging, practices we imbibe—things that seem inconsequential to us, like texting, checking email on our phone, or our use of social media. In this regard the book follows in the steps of the work of James K. A. Smith or Michael Horton and the topic of “cultural liturgies.” But Earley doesn’t simply decry and denounce these 21st-century cultural concerns. From experience he is equipped to address both their blessing and their danger, and he sets out to offer a helpful way to navigate the world we live in.
Earley is not a pastor (a lawyer, actually) and his book is not written specifically for pastors, but nonetheless I found it to be extremely relevant to the work of pastoral ministry, and even more specifically the duty of leadership. I think it could be a useful tool in helping you refine your leadership skills and chart a course forward for sustainable and successful ministry. Earley’s insights touch upon topics that all, in some way or another, tie into the work of leadership in ministry: prioritization, motivation, time management, and the like. He writes, “Habits are how we stand up and get our hands on time. And because time is the currency of our purpose, habits are how we get our hands on purpose” (15).
Earley offers eight habits in the book, four daily and four weekly. These are further divided into habits that embrace something or habits that refrain from something, either in the express interest of loving God or loving neighbor. Some of the practices I had already been implementing, some I had tried before but they never stuck, and others still had never crossed my mind. I will let you read the book to discover what all encompasses The Common Rule, for now let me simply share two major takeaways from the book and how they pertain to leadership.
I was most convicted by the insights the book shared regarding our use of technology—smart phones in particular. As a successful businessman, Earley knew the demand of deadlines and instant responses to co-workers or bosses. His phone went everywhere with him (as does yours, I imagine), replying to texts and emails right before bed and also first thing in morning. Earley realized how this habit of checking his phone first thing in the morning was forming something awful in him. “Over the course of many months, my head was asking my phone a very practical question: What do I need to do today? But in the same moments, under the radar, my heart was asking my phone a much more profound question: Who do I need to become today?” (80).
When we start our day with the world and work (i.e., our phones) we teach ourselves to find our value in what the world and work can offer. We will fall into the trap of works righteousness. The trap of doing rather than the delight of done which the gospel affords. As men who are charged to lead people into that Great News, must we not do everything in our power to ensure we are living it out ourselves?
I also often check my phone first thing in the morning, looking for texts from congregants or emails from presbytery, whatever it might be (okay, and also to see if there is anything noteworthy on social media—hey, after all, that’s where most of my congregants live). I can often excuse this since ministry is “the Lord’s work”—but it’s scary how the Lord’s work can quickly become an idol. Earley’s suggested habit is to read Scripture before you read your phone. The key to successful leadership is often found in small things, like how one starts their morning. It sets the course for the rest of their day. Diving into Scripture first sets us on a course where we know who we are in Christ and what it is we are to do for Him. “Daily immersion in the Scriptures resists the anxiety of emails, the anger of news, and the envy of social media” (92).
Earley offers other helpful ideas on how we can best utilize our phones. He suggests turning them off for at least one hour every day, during dinner with the family, for example. He also laments our obsession with social media, and suggests we establish guidelines for how often we check it, so that we don’t get sucked into hours of pointless scrolling. “The restless thumb often correlates to the restless heart” (89).
Last winter I found myself often distracted and wasting time during my workday with this restless thumb activity. I enacted some serious changes, which have benefitted me greatly in time management and overall spiritual and emotional health. For one thing, I leave my phone outside of the study during most hours of sermon prep. In line with the book’s suggestion, I do not bring my phone into the bedroom at night, but I leave it charging in the kitchen (taking my cue from David Murray’s tip in Reset). This frees me to start my day with God, and not Facebook. Since I am not a morning person and often have a very difficult time starting the day, I have also begun to practice another habit in the book, which is knelt morning prayer. “Often one of the only ways to take hold of the mind is to take hold of the body,” Earley writes. “If you struggle with getting out of bed on time, this helps by hurting. Mild pain is a great way to stop snoozing” (37). This book provides many helpful tips on how to control our phones, and not let them control us, which is detrimental in focus and time management, both of which are necessary in successful leadership.
Let me note one other helpful takeaway from The Common Rule in terms of leadership in ministry. Two of the habits proffered in the book focus on building interpersonal relationships. One suggestion was to have at least one meal a day with someone else. The second was to have at least one hour of conversation with a friend each week. He writes, “We were made for each other, and we can’t become lovers of God and neighbor without intimate relationships where vulnerability is sustained across time. In habitual, face-to-face conversation with each other, we find a gospel practice; we are laid bare to each other and loved anyway” (109).
These were both things I was already doing. Almost all dinners are spent with my family, and a few breakfasts or lunches each week are with friends and congregants. Phone calls with ministry partners or close friends punctuate my week. So these habits were already formed in me, though certainly not with as much intentionality as the book was promoting.
But the emphasis on friendship and community is an important reminder to us in leadership that ministry is ultimately about people—living people, I might add, not the dead ones whose books line our shelves. When it comes down to it, we are not leading a campaign, or a corporation, or a caravan. We are leading souls. We can employ all the nifty tips and tricks we want in order to be more efficient and effective, but it will be meaningless if we have lost our love for the people along the way. When it comes to time management and effectiveness in ministry, nothing is more important than this: prioritize the people.