When Pentecostal Procrastination Does Not Have a Prayer

by Cal LeMon

It is Thursday evening and Sunday’s sermon is “without form and void.” A member of the congregation, who you are convinced auditioned to be one of Job’s tormentors, is in the hospital. The deacon board is waiting for your annual report they often evaluate by weight. The probationary period for a new staff person’s employment expired yesterday, but the only action you have taken so far is to research the latest rates from U-Haul.

Are you staring right now? Does cleaning out the garage with your new John Deere pressure washer seem like an inviting idea? Is it 9 a.m., and you are preoccupied with locating anything that resembles a bed?

The Private Game No One Wins

Procrastination is a game, you know. We keep playing this winless game hoping the rules have changed since the last time we lost. But the outcome is so predictable; it is no longer funny.

Procrastination has three stages.

Stage one is pain

This is really quite simple. We do not procrastinate if the task is easy or feels good. Most people do not procrastinate laughing, eating McDonald’s French fries, or taking off their shoes and walking in the warm ocean surf.

No, procrastination is a game we reserve to play only for upcoming, painful tasks. Anytime we internally sense this is not going to feel good, we delay.

The delay is a nonverbal scream between our ears, There has to be a better way because this is going to hurt.

Stage two is immobilization

This is the staring moment. We literally are stuck. The challenge is so daunting (confronting an inept staff person, preparing a well-researched lecture, meeting with members of a building committee who are not committed to building anything) we cannot seem to move forward or backward. Our minds are frozen in place and lifelessly swinging in some intellectual meat locker.

Stage three is justification

We break out of immobilization and start talking. The talk is self-talk when we begin to construct elaborate arguments to maintain an avoidance of the task.

Statements like, “This will exhaust me,” “I already have too much on my plate,” “No one would understand,” and my favorite for folks-of-faith, “I am not sure which way the Lord wants me to go with this.”

Let me deal with this last one. Our faith informs, instructs, and illuminates, but it does not excuse us from the pursuit of spiritual and professional excellence. The ultimate trump card for a spiritual leader, when there is pain in the immediate area, is, “God did not tell me what to do so I am waiting.”

Waiting is a defined spiritual discipline; procrastination is a game that has no end or reward. Moses waited, Habakkuk waited, Simeon waited, and the 120 in the Upper Room waited, but when God came through loud and clear, they immediately responded.

A Practical Prescription for Procrastination

Have you seen yourself in the opening words of this article? If so, read on. Here are 10 practical disciplines to finally end this debilitating practice.

First, when tasks are too difficult, convoluted, or personally demanding, the first few minutes of starting the project are the most difficult. If you can get started, you will dissipate the numbing sense of intimidation.

Try this. Work on the delayed project for just 8 minutes.

The average attention span of the contemporary American is just 8 minutes. If you are wondering why after 8 minutes you want to move to another scene, turn on your television. Here is the bad news: we do not watch television any longer than 8 minutes before a commercial break blinks on the screen or there is a radical change of action.

So, use this factoid and work on that sermon for just 8 minutes and then move to something else on your desk for 8 minutes, then come back to the sermon.

You will discover the second 8-minute segment will comfortably go for 10 or 12 minutes. When the commentaries, interlinear Greek New Testament, and The New Bible Dictionary are strewn over your desk and you can see you are making progress, you will get engaged and procrastination will be a memory.

Second, ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could happen if I started on this task right now? The answer may be, I will get exhausted. Well, a little reasoning may be helpful right now.

If you want to experience exhaustion, burn the midnight oil. Research suggests we work faster, not better, when we work right up to a deadline.

Third, physically eliminate all visual and auditory distractions. If you want to procrastinate, you will find something on or near your work area that will become an immediate to-do item. This third intervention means clear your desk, turn off your desk phone, cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone, and any other channel for people or advertisers to get to you.

Fourth, when a mental reminder of something you need to complete distracts you (this phenomenon will repeatedly happen when procrastination is alive and well), use a Post-it-Note to quickly jot down the action item and attach it to a wall or surface outside your immediate eyesight.

Fifth, if you are up to your earlobes in procrastination, do some visual reality testing by using a wide-tipped marker and write in large letters on a sheet of paper, “I am too mature and smart to play this procrastination game.” Post this where you can see it. You will get the message.

Sixth, create an impromptu chart for the next 2 hours and divide it into 15-minute segments. In each 15-minute segment, write down what you will accomplish. Make sure at least two of these boxes are filled with R&R (rest and relaxation). A walk outside, having a cup of coffee with staff, or just some prayerful meditation are great ways to revitalize your mind and spirit.

Seventh, ask yourself, Is this the way I would accomplish my ministry if I knew I had 6 months to live?

At some point in our ministry we have sat with people who suddenly discovered life has limits. We know from those quiet, introspective bedside conversations the priorities for today may change. The regrets will normally include, “I just wish I had finished. …”

You know today is God’s gift to you. If you believe those words, is procrastination worthy of a place on your calendar?

Eighth, use a physical or electronic calendar to schedule a significant amount of time to accomplish an upcoming, difficult task. The problem with this particular intervention is the tyranny of the present will often victimize your best intentions. If you do work in a multistaff setting, ask these people to keep you honest about honoring your commitment to proactively work into the future.

Ninth, at the end of every day take about 3 minutes to write a paragraph (preferably on a secure computer) about what happened in your ministry, how you feel about your interactions with people and processes, and what you have learned you need to do differently.

Keep this journal for 6 months and then print out the entire contents. Go to a park or quiet place and read your journal. If you want to know who you have become as a person, a believer, a minister, a spouse, a parent, a procrastinator, the truth will be unvarnished and clear. This intervention can be remedial and renewing.

Finally, make a written contract with someone you trust who will verbally confront you about a due date you declared for the completion of a project. Knowing this person will hold your feet to the fire may be the incentive you need to close the door and just get it done.

Prayer and Procrastination

Our ministries are built on the bedrock truth that, as followers of Christ, “all things have become new.”

We celebrate this truth but new does not always mean erase.

This theology of salvation remains intact when we openly admit to each other the vitality and reach of the kingdom of God has been compromised by our procrastination. Scripture is replete with illustrations of this biblical truth.

In Numbers 14, the Israelites did not enter the Promised Land because they procrastinated crossing over. Saul, in 1 Samuel 15, begged Samuel for forgiveness because he delayed defeating God’s enemies, but Saul never got a second chance to lead Israel. And, in Luke 13 our Lord used a mind-numbing parable about those who procrastinated entering the house before the accepted evening curfew. In spite of their repeated banging, no one opened the door to them.

Procrastination is not a joke, a bad habit, or a personal foible. For the believer, procrastination can be a fatal flaw that ends a ministry and/or permanently impedes the growth of the church in a specific community.

Therefore, the final intervention for procrastination is prayer — an honest “I-Thou” conversation that takes place today, not tomorrow.