Simon McLeay LIVING WITH MARGIN 5
I want to suggest that most of us in our professional and personal lives are juggling too many balls. And that it is not good. v17 “what you are doing is not good.” We have been talking about Margin in our lives over the last few weeks. About the idea that God designed us to live with some Margin between our normal and our limit, that we shouldn’t be always living at the limit. We talked about that with Time and with Money, and today I want to talk about Professional Margin – or activities Margin. We live best when there is a margin between our commitments and our full capacity, and I want to suggest today that often we try to live beyond our capacity.
I’ve got three things to say. Focus on what you are good at. Put down the extra balls. Make space for an emergency.
Do you know the story of Moses? He’s one of the Bible’s great hero’s. He led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, he was sent by God to tell Pharoah, “Let my people go”. He called down 10 plagues on Egypt. And after instituting the Passover, he led a slave nation to freedom. As if that wasn’t enough, he then parted the Red Sea and destroyed Pharoah’s armies. He was a great leader in anyone’s book. But in Chapter 18 we find him exhausted. The bible doesn’t say this, but it implies it. Moses has been taking on job after job, and then he starts to get overwhelmed by it all. His Father in law, Jethro, visits and gives him some great advice. Jethro looks, he observes, he analyses and then he gives advice. Jethro sees that Moses is sitting all day answering the people’s disputes. He observes that Moses is the only one doing this, he analyses that it is wearing Moses out and that he is starting to frustrate the people.
Jethro advises him to make the main thing the main thing, represent the people before God, choose good people and delegate to them, and then Moderate things by dealing with the hard cases. Pass on Authority but don’t give away Responsibility. And Moses takes the advice.
I don’t think that it is a co-incidence that in the very next chapter we see Moses at the peak of his work. He’s made time for the main thing, for listening to God, and the hero becomes the law giver. He goes up the mountain and comes down with Laws that will change the world forevermore.
I remember a number of years ago watching a video by a chap called Marcus Buckingham, about building on our strengths. Marcus had done some research and had found (along with others), that often the most effective thing that we can do in our working life is to find the thing we are good at and do it better. Overall, getting really good at a few things often makes more of a difference then spending lots of energy on things that we are never going to be that good at. Marcus acknowledges that we must still ensure that the other things are done, but often by delegating or being part of a team where someone else does what we are not so good at. There are some things you can’t delegate but he found that by doing the thing we are best at even better, often made the greatest difference in productivity.
How do you react when I say that? ‘Take the thing that you are good at and do it better.’ I’m sure that you are having a mixed reaction. Some of you are saying ‘yes’. Some of you are saying ‘that’s unrealistic’. Some of you are critically uncertain.
So let’s do a reality check. I know there is some truth in this. I’m no good as a proof reader, so I get Gill to do that. One less ball for me to try and juggle. I believe that I make more difference to this church by preaching better sermons than anything else I do. Prayerful sermons, pastoral sermons, evangelistic sermons. And I’m better to use my energy to extend these through things like notes, than to do a pile of other things. What do you do well you could do better?
BUT, and it’s a helpful but, there are something you cannot ignore even if you are not very good at them. Moral fibre, being present as a dad, and a healthy diet. These are the sort of things that you can’t ignore and cannot delegate.
And HOWEVER. For people in the ‘second half’ or ‘third half’ of life, getting better at what you do well might be broadening out a specialization you have. So it might be a sign writer learning more about marketing generally, an English teacher learning some Latin or Greek.
Doing better what you already do well – is the key to professional margin. And actually, this is a very biblical idea, God has made us as different members of his body, and we do best when we do our part best. You can read about this in1 Corinthians 12.
Let me say the same thing in a different way. I’ll talk about someone in the middle of their working life, but this is true in retirement and home life also. To some extent this is true for students, but you don’t want to narrow your focus too soon. At some point in Bob’s professional life he’s been getting better in a lot of areas, and then suddenly he seems to be doing too much, he’s juggling too many balls. He’s a doctor with too many patients, a teacher with too many classes, a Rotarian with too many projects, a cleaner with too many customers, a parent taking children to too many activities. And wisdom comes to him and says, ‘you need to change’, maybe not immediately, but over the next year or two you need to change your work pattern so that you are not doing so many things. Rather than chairing five committees you only chair three. Rather than coaching four sports you are only coaching two. Rather than operating three days a week, you do two and a half. If you were Bob what would that look like for you?
What are the three most important things you do in your professional life? Focus on them.
Because that is exactly what Jethro told Moses. (1) Represent the people before God. Stop the busyness. (2) Teach the people God’s laws and decrees. (3) Delegate, select some good people and train them up. Oh, and it’s OK for you to moderate the difficult cases. But do those three things and the burden will lift.
Does that sound reasonable? One book I read said, ‘Find the one thing that you were put on earth to do’. It’s like the pearl of great price(Matthew 13:45). Find the thing that God has equipped you to do, and you will find your form of service in his kingdom.
If we are going to build professional margin we are going to have to learn to put some things down. I think that is the real challenge. And a lot of that is to do with planning, and a sub-conscious belief that we have to do it. Serving God (discipleship) is also about saying no, and putting things down gently. If you are juggling too many balls – you will drop some. The question I,s will you choose which ones to put down, or will you just drop some?
Let me give you 4 categories that might be helpful in planning to put things down.
Let me walk you backwards through this list. And I want to suggest that things in any of these categories can be put down.
First of all ‘only I can do this’. But does it matter – immediately and ultimately. Being a father to my children is in category 4 and it does matter, and so it must trump everything else. But there are some thing we might do professionally that only we can do – but do they really need to be done? If you’re the only one who knows how to use the Gestetner, maybe it’s time to get rid of it?
Second question,‘I’m the best at this’ might be one of those strengths to grow, or does it need to be done that well, and is it the best thing for me to be doing? Would someone else learn by doing this?
Third question. ‘I can do this well’ but should I be doing it?
‘I can do it’. I think this is the biggest category of things to reduce in life, things we do just because we can. And I’m not talking about taking a turn at the dishes. I’m talking about not filling our lives up with activity just because we can.
I wonder whether Moses had started to resent all the people. I wonder whether he had got trapped into a cycle, I’ve just got to see one more person. If I don’t – who will?
Moses reduced by delegating - delegating authority, but not responsibility. I was talking with Ro, our youth worker, about this. In churches years ago the youth worker was responsible for a great deal, the spiritual development of the kids. But often had little authority – they couldn’t make decisions, they couldn’t spend $10.
Moses practiced good delegation – he selected carefully, he trained and he monitored. The difficult cases they brought to Moses. I have a friend who is was really good at delegation, he gets people to watch him do it, then you help him do it, then he’ll help you do it, then he’ll watch you do it.
Finally, making professional margin also gives you some space, some head space, some time space, some energy so that if you face a sudden emergency you have got some extra capacity to cope. It might be an unexpected opportunity that if you have some head space you can pursue. It might be an unexpected crisis that you need to respond to. In either case if you were so busy with the ordinary you might not have time to respond. Think of Moses and the invitation to go up the mountain with God.
Professional Margin. Are you doing too many things? Juggling too many balls, or just the right number?
As a church, this might sound dangerous as you might all decide you are doing too many things and drop out of some service for church. We’ll run that risk, because life is about doing the right things. And God might want you to do some less of something because the important thing for you to do is serve here?
What do you need to do less of, and what do you need to prioritise?
* These sermons are based on a series called “Take it to the Limit” by Andy Stanley from North Point.