An Interview With Carey Nieuwhof on ‘At Your Best’
In my first decade of ministry, we had a fast-growing church an hour north of Toronto, but I had a terrible formula for growth: More people equals more hours. The problem with that is that time is a fixed commodity. Every time we had more people, I was struggling to keep up. When we passed about 500, my brain started to melt down, and I couldn’t remember who all the new people were. When we passed 1,000, I was like, Oh my goodness, we are not programmed to scale at this level. And there’s a certain sense in which we are not.
Listen, I am a fan of growing churches of large churches, of small churches, of midsize churches. The more churches reaching more people, the better we all are. But I also realized there was something inherently difficult for those of us who would lead larger organizations. Sociologist Robin Dunbar wrote a book called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? He makes a really interesting argument that we are wired to operate in groups of 150 or fewer. If you think about it, that’s one of the tensions for many leaders reading this issue. Many of us are beyond that circle of 150. So I had to create a new formula for how to get time, energy and priorities working in my favor.
I am really excited to see leaders get out of the cycle of overwhelmed, overcommitted and overworked. I fight that battle every day. That’s just where life is going to go. That’s the gravitational pull, because everybody wants a piece of you. If you can get into what I call the Thrive Cycle, where you live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow, then you start focusing your time, leveraging your energy and realizing your priorities. You’ll be astounded at how much you can accomplish in a really healthy way, both at work and at home.
My first approach was to work on time management, and I got better at it. I had to admit that I have the same amount of time as anyone else in this world. I had to stop saying I didn’t have the time and start admitting I didn’t make it. That was sobering, and it really made me stack up my priorities. But here is the problem: Over time it brings diminishing returns, because you only have so many hours in a day.
Energy management started the exponential return. I began to realize that we have 24 equal hours in a day, but they just don’t feel equal. For example, I am a morning person, and by noon, my battery is drained a little bit. All of us have three zones every day: the green zone, the yellow zone and the red zone. The green zone is when you’re at your best. You’re thinking creatively, you’re firing on all cylinders, you’re approachable. Experts have done quite a bit of research into this, and they say we have about three to five peak hours where we’re really at our best. In the red zone you’re propping your eyes open just to stay awake. You have a couple of those hours every day. And then you have the middle, which is what I call the yellow zone. You’re not at your best, but you’re not at your worst.
The secret for me, in addition to good time management, was learning how to do what I was best at when I was at my best. I think that is just the way God designed us. We are not robots. And that has been true to my life. Before I made the switch to the Thrive Strategy, I would spend those hours randomly. So I said, What am I best at? I am probably best at communication. I am probably best at leading with vision. I am probably best at keeping my team aligned. And if I do that, our church grows and gets healthy. I started to leverage my gifting when I was at my best and my productivity exploded. So identify your peak hours and work on your most important stuff during that time. This is so paradoxical to me, but fast-forward 15 years on the other side of burnout, and I am doing easily more than what I used to do before I burned out, but I am doing it in fewer hours.
We convince ourselves that putting in more hours makes you more faithful. But it just doesn’t. And I had to really wrestle that down. I still have to wrestle that down. Yet what you realize is that when you are exhausted, you have got nothing to offer. When you’re burned out, the enemy Enemy starts to use that space for evil. A healthy me is a much better me. I am better at work, and I am better at home. To make that happen, I have had to develop spiritual margin, emotional margin, relational margin, physical margin (taking good care of my body) and also financial margin—not (not making a boatload of money, but just being a good steward of what you have).
The other trap I see pastors falling into is when they run really hard and tell themselves, It’s just a season. But seasons have beginnings and ends. If your season has no end, it is not a busy season—it is your life. If you can’t put a date on your calendar and say, It’s going to slow down after this, then you have a problem, because you are at an unsustainable pace. We need to figure out how to live today in a way that will help us thrive tomorrow. I have been trying to work that for the last 15 years, and when I get it right, it’s magic. When I miss it, it’s like, I have got to get back to that right away. We just fall into this idea that we’re machines.
I am old enough to remember leaders who said, “You’ve got to burn out for Jesus.” But wouldn’t it be better if you served a little bit longer and did it from a healthy place? I think so.