The Ministry of Availability

I am now in my sixth year of full-time ministry, and one of the lessons that I've slowly been learning is the importance of wasting time well.

This is very contrary to my natural tendency.  I haven't always been this way, but at some point in my life I suddenly realized I was a productivity addict.  I am very uncomfortable with unproductive time, and this leads me not only to fill up my calendar but to regularly over-commit myself.

So it was a strange feeling when I decided NOT to schedule myself to lead any topics for our weekly guys' small group this winter.  On one level it felt selfish to pass those duties to my team of volunteers, but even more it felt like self-denial because I really love preparing and leading these topics.  Still, this was the decision that God seemed to be prompting me to make, though it wasn't clear to me exactly why.

And then a phone call came.  It was a parent who was worried about his son and wanted to see how he could get involved in our youth ministry activities.  I listened as he explained their situation and how the family hadn't been to church in a while.  After describing what our youth ministry program looked like and ways that his son could get involved, I asked, "Would you like to talk with someone about coming back to church?"

If my schedule had been completely filled up, I would have been much more hesitant to offer myself in this way. But because the time slot when I normally would have been preparing a small group topic was now empty, I had the freedom to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.


Anyone who is a ministry professional will naturally desire to be a good steward of their time. After all, we're being paid for 40 hours a week, and so we need to make sure that we are actually doing 40 hours of work, right?  We feel a need to fill up those hours to justify our salary.

But the work of evangelization isn't always something that can be scheduled.  God allows a hurting or hungry soul to cross our paths out of the blue.  And so part of being a good steward of our time intentionally building availability into our schedules.  Another way of saying it is that we need to learn to waste time well.

Let me say up front that I'm no expert at how to do this!  But I think the key to wasting time well begins with limiting our commitments. In other words, our 40 hour work week should not be completely filled with hard-and-fast commitments. There needs to be flex-time, time where we are free to act on spontaneous opportunities for ministry without the risk of breaking promises or coming up short on our commitments.


I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, wherein he described a fascinating study based on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel. The study asked ministry students at a particular university to prepare a lecture on various topics.  The topics ranged from very practical how-to lectures to sermons, including, for some, a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Once the student had finished preparing his lecture, he was then asked to walk to another part of campus where he would deliver the lecture and be critiqued.  But somewhere along the path, those who were conducting the study planted someone who would pretend to be sick.  This sick person would be doubled-over on the ground, coughing very audibly, and very obviously acting as someone in need of assistance.  The test, of course, was to see how many students would stop to help and what were the determining factors.

The results of the test were shockingly consistent.  Factors that had very little influence on whether the student stopped were things like their stated motivation for pursuing a ministry career.  Even those who were asked to prepare a sermon on the Good Samaritan were not significantly more likely to stop to help.

So what was the most significant determining factor?  Some of the students were told that they had "plenty of time" to make their way to the other building, while for others the testers looked at their watch and said, "Oh no!  They were expecting you there five minutes ago - you need to hurry over!"  Those who were told they had plenty of time stopped 63% of the time, while those who were told they were late stopped to help only 10% of the time!


Being available is critical to a ministry professional, but this necessarily requires wasting time.  Of course, I don't mean simply wasting time - there are ways of wasting time well.  For instance, you could specify some time in your schedule for reading.  When that time is actually used for reading, you are growing personally and professionally.  But reading can also easily give way to being available when that hungry soul comes along.

This article demonstrates another great example of exercising a ministry of availability (aka, wasting time well). Fr. James Searby of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, VA regularly spends time at local restaurants and coffee shops and Tweets his availability to anyone who wants to come talk.  Undoubtedly, there are times when nobody shows up, but the time that is "wasted" is worth it for those opportunities to reach someone who would likely not otherwise have the opportunity to talk to a priest.

For practical advice on how to build productive availability into your schedule, check out the book Margin by Richard Swenson.  While it does not talk specifically about availability in a ministry context, I think the lessons it teaches can be applied very well in this area.

What about you?  Do you have any ways that you intentionally build availability into your schedule?  What are the ways that God has thrown unexpected ministry opportunities into your path?