Holy Inefficiency

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, it’s wholeheartedness.” – David Whyte.

This simple yet profound statement has captured the imaginations of The Ministry Collaborative (TMC) staff since we discovered it last spring. At that time, we were all new to pandemic life and experiencing the unending exhaustion that seemed to be synonymous with the pandemic itself. While much has changed since then, the experience of overwhelming exhaustion by clergy remains unchanged, therefore, we decided to put this declaration to the test.

We are currently wrapping up Wholehearted: Transformative Leadership in a Broken World, a successful 6-week virtual cohort of 20 pastors who took a journey of discovery focused on the themes of identity, sabbath, justice, and paradigm shifts through the lens of wholeheartedness. The time has been well spent and has served as a deep well of life-giving connection and energizing reflection.  For the next several weeks our staff will give you the “ten cent tour” as we reflect on some of the insights and voices that have guided our time together.

Where in your ministry do you need to be more inefficient?

For many of us, this is an odd question. Efficiency is, after all, a survival skill for the busy pastor. Doing more at a faster pace is often the only way we make it through our over-stuffed schedules and endless to-do lists. Efficiency is a pathway to productivity, and in the church productivity is typically celebrated as a hallmark of good and faithful leadership.

Perhaps so. But the biblical concept of sabbath invites us to look again at our obsession with efficiency.

By establishing a one-in-seven rhythm of rest, the Sabbath critiques the very reason we feel pressed into efficiency mode in the first place – that is, our tendency to define ourselves and measure our self-worth on the basis of how much we produce and how well we perform.

This is perhaps most evident in the first creation story. There we learn that humanity is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26), and then a few verses later we learn that God rests on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). The sabbath is the climax of creation, and it might even be that the whole creation story originally functioned as an etiology for why Israel keeps sabbath.

But perhaps the most relevant question the first creation story leaves us with is this: What does it mean to be made in the image of a God who rests?

Among other things, it means that we most fully reflect God’s likeness not when we deliver our best sermon or oversee a successful stewardship campaign; rather, it’s when we come to embrace what I call holy inefficiency.

Practicing holy inefficiency isn’t just a nice way for us to take some time off on the weekends. It’s a daring, subversive protest that:

  • beckons us to say no to the Pharaohs of this world who, as they once did with Israel long ago, demand that we produce more with less.
  • calls us to resist the distorted American dream that promises happiness to those who work more in order to earn more and spend more.
  • challenges our propensity to over function in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • reminds us that neither efficiency nor productivity are listed as fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.

Not surprisingly, holy inefficiency is a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. Never do we find him scurrying about in multi-tasking mode, rushing off from his 3:00pm appointment in Capernaum to his 4:00pm small group in Magdala. Rather, at every turn we find Jesus going slow – lingering over meals, engaging in long conversations with strangers and sinners, fishing for hours with a group of disciples who are slow to learn and change, and spending great stretches of time in solitude. By contemporary measures, Jesus’ ministry was inefficient. And perhaps that’s why it was so effective.

  1. What if we embraced holy inefficiency as a means of taking sabbath seriously? Where would it lead us?
  2. What in our lives and ministries would be richer, fuller, and more transformative if done slower and less efficiently?
  3. What fruits of the spirit wither on the vine when we relentlessly push through the day at warp speed? Whose voices do we miss?
  4. What opportunities for empathy and compassion slip away in our drive to be ever more productive?
  5. What risks would we be willing to take if we gave ourselves the time to learn from failed experiments?

As an additional resource, be sure to check out our recent podcast episode, “Practicing Sabbath: A Wholehearted Leadership Round Table Conversation,” here.

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