The Vanity and Laziness of Busy People

This book changed the way I think about being a dad. It hooked me first with the title that I thought was pithy and cheesy, but I realized it referred to the time spent reading the book, that it’s a quick 60-minute read that would change your child’s life.

Well, perhaps it has changed my childrens’ lives–that is a more difficult thing for me to say, but I can say it changed my life and the way I think about being a dad. I read this book nearly every year since my Mom gave it to me nearly two decades ago when I first became a dad. The insights are not groundshakingly new, but as one wise person said, “We don’t need to be instructed as much as we need to be reminded.” And this is a reminder that no one ever had written on their tombstone, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

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Like Coach Tony Dungy, this book encourages men to get off their butts and get their work done efficiently and quickly, not to postpone and procrastinate work then make excuses at the end of the day that we had so much work, honey, that I’m just going to have to stay late today. When the fact for many men is that they went on a leisurely lunch, wasted time on the internet checking ESPN, let others waste their time, and didn’t take charge of their day.

Pastor Eugene Peterson and time management guru David Allen agree that people who do not manage their time well do this out of laziness and lack of vision for what they are doing. So they let others “tell” them what to do by checking email endlessly for some fire to put out or way to take their time rather than getting busy on the initiatives that move an organization forward or simply getting the job done or tasks a supervisor has already asked you to do.

I’ll close with this searing quote from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor, who repudiates the idea of “the busy pastor” and even titles the chapter this quote is drawn from as “The Unbusy Pastor:

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the “busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.

“The poor man,” we say. “He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as irreligiosa soicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both are ignoble.

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice—that I am important. If I go into a doctor’s office and find there’s no one waiting, and I see through a half-open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he’s any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book. Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor’s office, I am also impressed with his importance.

Such experiences affect me. I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and my vanity is fed.

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. The pastor is a shadow figure in these people’s minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.