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Put Your Hand Up When You're Drowning!

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent
Baptist Union Of Victoria

Number 127

We've all met the hyperactive pastor who claims to read three books a week minimum (why get out of bed in the morning?), listens to half a dozen cassettes every other day (do they ever talk to their partner or kids?), reads all their magazines (I don't open all of mine let alone read them), and spends a daily happy hour on the word processor refining three or four sermons simultaneously. In their spare time, of course, they are answering their E-mail or surfing the Internet.
 
The Addicted Resource Gatherer

Resources. Information. Must-read titles. We are drowning in them and awed by those who claim to be keeping up. As it is most of us have libraries filled with books we have not read. Well, may be a chapter or two here and there.

This humungous overload, however, does not curb compulsive book buying behaviour in our favourite store. We are worse than drunks on a late night binge: addicted, hooked, hunting with glazed eyes as we pile up another stack on the counter and reach for the credit card. We plan to read them just as soon as we have some spare time (may be when people stop getting married, or fighting with their spouses, or dying).

We may well pause to ponder why it is so very important to go on these resource acquisition binges where we gather much more than can be reasonably consumed. What are we lusting after? To have the latest word on everything? Or be an authority on every conceivable aspect of ministry? Or know fresh angles from the latest guru?

For most of us it is the struggle to stay in touch in a world where there is an uncontrollable avalanche of information from every direction. We still cherish the notion that somehow, some day we will be able to absorb all the distilled wisdom which hangs temptingly in the ether. One day soon we will get to read that book, ponder that article, be inspired by that cassette, or be enlightened by that computer program. No matter that our track record to date is one of bolting possession rather than galloping consumption.

The High Price of Information Overload

Well, the cat is out of the bag. No one much is keeping up it seems. According to recent reports in the press based on an international survey, people in leadership are cracking up under the strain of information overload.

Reuters' Dying For Information study showed that the daily flow of information is so constant that managers are suffering ill health and wrecked social lives. Around two thirds of the 1,300 managers studied indicated strained relationships, health problems, the cancellation of social activities and such extreme weariness that there was none left for pleasure. This new ailment is called the Information Fatigue Syndrome.

Further, E-mail is causing more trouble than it may be worth. Increasing numbers of companies are switching off their E-mail facilities so people can get on with their work. The Internet is adding to the overload. Many hold the view that precious time is being wasted in gathering information instead of attending to what is at hand.

A Growing Fear

There is a prevailing fear on the part of managers that a key piece of information may be missed so the overload problem continues. But information overload is leading to delays in making important decisions. One can only guess at the frustration and stressed relationships spawned in the office as a result.

All this is happening at a time when 1,000 books are being published every day and where printed information is doubling every five years. The five to air TV channels we already receive have now been multiplied many times by cable with the possibility of yet more in the future.

The underlying issue is that the information we need is not necessarily easy to find. In the present overload--coupled with the sheer trauma of realising that there is no way known that anybody can keep up with this torrent of detail--it is an uncontrollable information glut. There is a pressing need now to filter out information rather than simply acquiring more uncritically.

Overload And The Pastor
 
Now, what does all this mean for pastors? There may be a few lessons. Try these:
  • We will not be able to keep up with all the reading and other resource material which floats across our desk so there's no point getting too worried about this.

  • There is a danger that we may be spending too much time in the wrong place i.e. in the study-- instead of around our people.

  • We should not be spooked by those who claim to read everything in sight.

  • Instead of trying to keep up with all the resources recommended to us, we will do better to identify some specific areas of personal interest and attempt to monitor developments in these. If something pops up elsewhere, we can always check it out.

  • It is also important to include material which makes us uncomfortable, even unsettled. We are then forced to think about our views and perspectives afresh and that is a bonus.

  • While we cannot read everything, there is a need to do more than focus on the "how-to" books, the technology of ministry variety. The "why" of ministry reading is essential also, the underlying theology of church and gospel.

  • Perhaps we should be helping each other by reviewing the books we read and sharing these when we get together with other pastors rather than trying to do all the reading ourselves

  • We need to look for the warning signs of overload. If time with partner, family and friends is being jeopardised, we need to correct the balance. The same is true with the onset of health problems.

It is simply not practical or possible to know every last detail before decisions are made. It is better to press on with as much insight as can be gathered now and make course corrections as we go. We have been offered a bountiful supply of wisdom. Let's rely on this when it comes to the decision making crunch.

The Danger of Not Being Serious

None of this should be advanced as an excuse for putting reading and learning off to one side. Sadly, some pastors are not keen learners and are not making any serious attempt to stay in touch with all that the Lord is doing in the lives of thinkers, teachers, researchers and fellow spiritual travellers around the world.

There is no excuse for a unchallenged mind in pastoral leadership. Sheer laziness and lack of discipline will quickly produce an atrophied thinking capacity. This is not the mark of called leadership. There is also the very distinct reality that lay people in the congregation will outclass their pastor because of their own active reading and researching in Christian thought and ministry. We would do well to swap notes regularly with our people and listen and learn from them too.

Some pastors who need to drive long distances make good use of their car cassette player. This is creative stewardship of time and has much going for it. Not all like to do this though and value the same opportunity for reflection and thought. So be it. But it is the use of time generally which is the key. If we are not reading with a measure of system, we should be.

There is still a very strong case for the early morning or late night reading time, the day of retreat, whatever enriches us in our understanding of faith and service. These are not the days for relying solely on books read years ago, or a few ideas snared by accident. We may not be speed readers and able to soak up endless piles of reading matter. But that is no excuse for doing little or nothing.

The Resources Tidal Wave

So, if you are drowning in the tidal wave of resources, learn a few new strokes. There is no need to be unceremoniously dumped on the shore. Rather than going under, try some creative strategies. If you have endless piles of unread magazines underneath your desk or hidden away in the wardrobe or garage, haul them out for recycling.

If you have not read them yet, there is a very good chance that you will do no better in the future. Additionally, think about all the untapped books on your shelves. Are they any use to you now? Once again, a clean out might be a good way to deal with the information overload head on. A pastor setting out on ministry might like the right of first refusal of those titles which have either served you well or which you simply do not see yourself using well.

So, do not be depressed by what you cannot get to. Enjoy what you do read and allow yourself to be stretched by it. Above all, do not be paralysed by information overload. You'll be relieved to know Omniscience is not a prerequisite for effective ministry

Rev. John Simpson

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:32 PM