As I work on organizing my home office space, I think about my church offices I have had over the last ten years and how I started out–unorganized, cluttered, and a mess. I remember letting someone use my computer in my first church office and they remarked that I must like Diet Dr. Pepper because I had Diet Dr. Pepper cans (empty) all over the place, because I had all intentions of recycling but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

My office, in general has been a place I just didn’t get to yet. But over the years I have gotten better about organization and decluttering, and I have learned some helpful tips that I will pass on here, so that you might have not only a better organized office, but a sense of direction and purpose in your time in the office. For many pastors, a day in the office is a day of interruptions. You go in planning to work on your sermon and immediately the phone rings and someone is having a hard time, or a loved one has died and you now need to plan a funeral, or someone is in need of help–the list goes on and on. Unopened mail can pile up, sermon ideas can be scattered about, and you can never find a paper clip when you need one.

Taking a few moments each week to declutter and organize can go a long way in maintaining your sanity and easing the stress of a pastor’s life. Here are some helpful tips to get you started.

1. Keep a calendar online. Google Calendars is an excellent way to keep track of appointments and if you have a smartphone with Android apps it will all sync together. You can set reminders so you do not miss appointments with church members or children’s concerts, etc. This way you can access your calendar from your phone or computer. You can also have your spouse or family member share their calendar with you, so you do not forget any important family dates and you can share your calendar with them. If you do so, keep details private, such as “Meeting with MKM” by just using initials, for confidentiality.

2. Once a week, perhaps the first hour you are in the office, book it in your calendar as “Personal Time.” Have the church administrator take messages, or if you do not have a church administrator, let the phone go to voicemail just for an hour. This hour is YOUR time, and here is what I suggest for YOUR time:

A. Think about 2-3 goals (No more!) that you want to accomplish this week, such as “Write newsletter article,” “visit so-and-so” and “plan Bible study for next fall.” Write down your goals and keep them posted where you can see them.
B. Go through any unopened mail from the past week that you did not get to (see my “mail” tip below).
C. Clear off your desktop.
D. Pray. Pray about your ministry, your goals for the week, your congregation, your family, and your self.

3. Mail organization. One thing I remember from my ministry was the pileup of mail. Here is how I sorted it: Things that must be dealt with this week (important church business that required the pastor to look at it, personal correspondence, etc), things that need to be read in the next month (upcoming ministry opportunities, regional/associational correspondence, etc), and things that are of interest (other church newsletters, ministry magazines, continuing education, etc.). I had three file boxes for mail. During my personal time, I would look at the pile needing immediate attention and anything I hadn’t gotten to I made my priority for the day, even one of my goals for the week if I knew I would have a busy day. The other two piles I would monthly go through and discard/recycle what I had not gotten to. Other church newsletters, magazines and other such general correspondence, while it can be interesting, if it just sits there for a few weeks should be recycled rather than taking up space.

4. Sermon ideas. I keep a binder called “Sermon/Worship Ideas” and anytime I see an article in a magazine that catches my eye, I clip it and put it in the binder. The binder has general dividers for “Holidays” (Christmas, Easter, Lent, Advent ideas), “Illustrations” (stories I find interesting), “Biblical insight” (scholarly articles), and “Words of Wisdom” which might be quotes that I find interesting. I clear out things that I have used or that are no longer relevant. I do print out articles from the internet and put them in the binder when they strike me, such as from e-newsletters.

5. Filing. It is easy to allow things to pile up on our desk if we’re not careful. Create files for every board/committee meeting you need to attend in your congregation, and after the meeting, file the minutes/agenda and any other handouts in that file. Keep the file for the year, from the time the newly nominated board starts to the next cycle of nominations. After that, archive the file for the next year. Keep no more than two years worth of notes, because someone else in the church should be archiving the meeting minutes and notes, not you. Trust me, you will not be asked to remember what happened at a meeting more than two years before–you do not need those notes. You probably don’t need more than a year’s worth of notes but I say two just in case there are major decisions made–such as reorganizing the Christian Education program–that you may need to refer back on. You should also file personal correspondence in a confidential file with members of the congregation or community if there are conflicts, just to keep records to cover yourself. Also keep files for the community and professional organizations you are on. The first day in the office after the annual meeting, clean out files more than two years old except for personal files.

6. Sermons/bulletins. This is an area that I have discussed in a previous post. I usually file each manuscript of a sermon with the bulletin of the day I preached, writing the sermon title, date and scripture on the file folder, then filing in folders monthly, using dividers with calendar year/lectionary year. However, in this digital age, I am wondering if saving all this paper is really worth it, as the space they can take up literally piles up over time. Mainly I need the bulletin to remember the hymns that were used that day or any special notes, such as a baptism or child dedication taking place. I have started to create an Excel database that contains date, lectionary year, scripture(s), title, summary of sermon, important notes, and the hymns used. It is time-consuming. However, that way I can find the sermon by searching much easier. Almost all of my sermons are saved on my computer AND have been backed up on an exterior drive and CD. Once I have completed this database I plan on recycling most of the manuscripts of my sermons. EXCEPTIONS: I always keep a file for every wedding/funeral I have done, with the homily, bulletin, obituary or wedding announcement, and any other notes I have from meeting with the couple or family. I don’t plan on changing that anytime soon.

7. Time management: Besides the personal hour at the beginning of the week, block out some time every day–I used to block out lunch unless I had a meeting–for some “mindless” time such as Facebook, email, playing Solitare or Bejeweled Blitz, etc. Pastors can work themselves to death. On the other hand, all of us in the digital age can be distracted by emails, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging. Leave some time during the day to do this, where it won’t interfere with other things you need to do, like sermon planning or worship planning. It’s also very relaxing to do this. I would block out a half-hour or two fifteen minute sessions for this–or even an hour. Especially after a vacation or time away from the office, block out an hour to go through emails and Facebook and other things that, while tools of ministry, can also be distracting. Spend your time on it, then move on. Many smartphones have apps with timers that can be used for keeping track.

8. Voicemail and Email–this is another place where things can pile up, even if not physically on your desk. Most phone systems erase voicemail messages older than 28 days. Except for personal calls, most people/organizations that need you will call you back, so after a week, clear out your voicemail. Same with email. Email tools offer folders for organization, so when you get that e-newsletter you know you will want to read, file it out of your inbox. I like to keep a fairly empty inbox when possible. All personal emails from members of the congregation I would respond to that day if not that week, and I would leave them in my inbox until I had answered them, and then I would file them into a file titled “Church Member Correspondence” or “Board/Committee Meetings” if it pertained to a church meeting. Use file folders to sort your emails and keep your inbox relatively empty, along with your voicemail box.

9. Pens, paperclips, tape, etc–make sure your top drawer of your desk has the essential items you need. Invest in a good stapler and don’t let it out of your office! Make sure you have the tools you need for the everyday office life.

10. Things ON your desk should be limited, but this is my list:
A. A picture or two of your family, your pets, or whoever you are closest to, to remind you that you have a life outside of the office.
B. Your favorite Scripture quote to remind you of your call to ministry.
C. A lectionary or denominational calendar resource, separate from your online calendar, but that reminds you of what day it is when you need to remember right then, plus you will have access to the lectionary for working on your sermon as well as reminders of denominational resources or special holy days (there are online versions of these as well–I used Vanderbilt Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resource for planning on this website, but I also like to have a printed version when I’m not online, just brainstorming).
D. A pen, post-it notes, and a phone log–this can be a notebook, but keep a phone log of who called and when. Post-it notes are for quick notes and should not remain on your desk for more than a week.
E. Your goals for the week–this can be on a post-it as long as it remains prominent, or on a larger piece of paper, perhaps on a bulletin board that you can see–but a reminder of what you have set out to do.
F. If not on your desk, then on the wall, you need a clock. Make sure it is running on time. Remind yourself not only of your commitments to the church, but your commitments to yourself, and to leave the office when you say you will.

These are just a handful of tips, things I have found helpful in my ministry. I am still not perfect–my home office at this point is a disaster, but I am in the process of organizing and preparing as I turn more to this online ministry resource and my writing. In many ways, the organizational tools I need for the home office are very similar.

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One Response to Top Ten Organizational Tips for Pastors

  1. Rev. Bob Baril says:

    Mindi,

    That’s a very good post! I always kept an “old fashioned calendar”. (I guess it’s the fact that I’m 56 and everything was done the old fashioned way when I started out in ministyr.) I’ve had too many friends lose all their information from their Palm Pilots, etc. I used to have a calendar in my desk and a smaller one in my brief case. I would carefully copy info. from each to the other, and do a thorough “workup” of the calendars to make sure all was in sync about every ten days or so.

    One of the most difficult parts of the denomination closing the church I pastored (and of being “out of the ministry” for an extended period) has been “mothballing” my office. I have no room to have it at home. I have over 20 years of sermons in manuscript form in a filing cabinet in storage. I had scores and scores of sermons on (circa 1990s and early 2000s) floppy discs which were lost in the church closing and moving. My library is all packed up in storage. I am grateful that I can find resources on-line when in preparing sermons for when I “guest preach”. SOME have called me “O.C.D.” and a “neat freak” but EVEN I had a fair amount of clutter in my small church office, and I always had more piles on my desk than I would have preferred. From time to time, I used to have to declutter the desk and the office. When I HAD to pack up the office for storage, I probably threw away or recycled 25% of all that was in there!

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