10 Lesser-Known Apps That Improve Productivity and Ministry

I love learning from other people, and I especially like getting behind-the-scenes looks at how they do what they do.

I have a folder on my computer where I’ve kept examples of people’s weekly schedules.
I love asking other pastors about how they do sermon prep.
It’s fascinating to ask people what their typical day is like.

We all have tools that help us be more effective at our craft, and most of my tools tend to be software apps.

There are all kinds of better-known apps I use (Evernote, Logos Bible Software, Google Apps, Dropbox, Spotify, Hootsuite, etc), but for this post I want to share 10 surprising, lesser-known apps and tools that have improved my productivity and ministry.

(For reference, my hardware is a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and a Kindle Paperwhite)

Todoist

I don’t know how well-known Todoist is, but since there are so many to-do list apps, it’s worth mentioning the one I use. I’ve struggled for years to find a productivity / to-do list app that I enjoy using. I read Do More Better around the new year, where Tim Challies suggested Todoist. It’s free, simple, and smart. For example, you can type in “Fill out: Expense report on the first Monday” and it will automatically create a recurring task called “Fill out: Expense report” that appears every first Monday of the month.

todoist

 

PrayerMate

This app is my digital prayer list. It creates sets of “prayer cards” where you can edit what you want to pray for, add photos of who you want to pray for, and much more. It costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it.

prayer-mate

 

Coffitivity

This is a funny app that plays background noise that sounds like a coffee shop. If you sometimes get distracted by too much quiet, having ambient noise like this can really help.

coffitivity

 

Overdrive

This app works with my local library to give me access to borrow their Kindle books. The highlights still get saved, and it’s wonderful to read books I don’t want to buy (especially Jack Reacher novels).

overdrive_1

 

Simple Pomodoro

The Pomodoro technique is a helpful approach to productivity: do 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 5 minute break. And keep doing it. This app provides a simple timer that leverages this technique. When I have a larger chunk of time to work on what’s important (not just urgent), it’s an extremely helpful way to stay focused.

pomodoro

 

BetterSnapTool

Oddly enough, this is a tool I can’t imagine living without. It easily helps you arrange the open windows on your laptop, ‘snapping’ them into a clean side or corner of the screen. Since I use my computer for sermon prep and often need multiple apps going at a time, this helps me quickly get setup without a cluttered ‘desktop.’

bettersnaptool

 

YouCanBook.Me

I started using this just last week, and I already love it. I use this when people request to meet with me. It integrates with my calendar, and allows people to schedule a phone or in-person meeting based on my availability.

youcanbookme

 

Doodle.com

This free tool lessens the pain of trying to schedule a group meeting. You know the kind when there are a bunch of people and there’s endless email back-and-forth about what works for everybody. Ugh. Doodle takes a poll of people’s available times and helps you more easily select what works.

doodle-online-appointment-scheduling-calendar-view-after-date-selection

 

IFTTT

IFTTT stands for If This, Then That and is a free automation tool. You can set up all sorts of “recipes” that help simplify your life. Among my favorites:

  • If rain is in tomorrow’s forecast, send me a text message notifying me
  • If I favorite a tweet, automatically save it in my Evernote “Quotes/Illustrations” notebook
  • If Tim Challies’ feed says ‘carte,’ send me the post via email (this allows me to receive Challies’ ‘A-La-Carte’ posts without subscribing to ALL the content he creates)

IFTTT

 

Scannable

Scannable is a mobile scanner that can turn your photos into PDFs. When somebody gives a paper handout, I use this to create a simple PDF and import it into Evernote.

scannable

 

Do you have a surprising app I should hear about? Let me know!

 

6 Leadership Lessons from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses

2016 IowaI can’t help it. I like politics.

I care about the issues and the future of our country, but I also like the ‘horse race’ aspect of it. Observing politics feels a bit like watching sports — there are winners, losers, those with momentum, underdogs, and so on. But, as a leader, politics also provide fascinating case studies in leadership.

So even though the 2016 Iowa Caucuses were a few days ago (making this post old news already), here are some leadership lessons I’m taking away from what we saw earlier this week.

1. Local dynamics matter.

There’s no question that media and technology have homogenized many aspects of our national culture. But local dynamics matter a lot. Not only is Iowa culture different from New Hampshire or California or Texas or Oregon, but the rules of the game in Iowa are different. I had to look up how the Iowa Caucuses work. It’s the uniqueness of the local Iowa situation that requires “a strong ground game” that isn’t as crucial in other states.

Leaders sometimes want to downplay the specifics of a local context, but that’s a mistake. It’s one of the reasons I love our multi-congregational approach to ministry rather than doing video multi-site.

2. Compelling leaders are more about “we” than “me.”

On paper, Bernie Sanders should not be able to come within a gnat’s hair of Hillary Clinton. But thousands turn out to his events a bunch of them voted for him. Why? In part, it’s because Sanders’ message isn’t about himself. He talks about issues that face “us” and what “we” can do. As Donald Miller points out in his StoryBrand framework, many organizations and leaders make the mistake of making themselves the hero in the story, when they really should be the guide. Sanders is compelling because, in a political landscape of “look at me” he’s saying “we can do better.”

3. One big personality is not enough.

Donald Trump has dominated the coverage of this campaign with the force of his personality. But in Iowa, he lacked the ground game to win. Many caucus sites reported that nobody was there to speak on behalf of Trump’s campaign when given the opportunity.

For leaders, having big personality can be helpful — Trump still came in 2nd — but a synergized, motivated team of people who can grind it out in the trenches is crucial. At our church, we know that we need a strong “air war” (preaching, Sunday service) and a strong “ground war” (small groups, counseling) to be effective.

4. Having a long tenure is a huge strength and a huge challenge.

Hillary Clinton has been in the national public eye for 25 years and has the best name recognition among the candidates. The good part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. The bad part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. Her tenure gives many of her supporters confidence in her. It also gives many of her detractors the yawns. She’s faced a tremendous enthusiasm gap, which seems an inevitable consequence of just being around for so long.

In leading a church for just 7 years, I’ve seen that some people just get bored. After a while, they feel like they’ve heard everything and seen everything and just want something new. On the other hand, long-tenured leaders often get the benefit of the doubt from loyal supporters, something which is no doubt helping Clinton maintain popularity (and navigate her email scandal).

5. Fear and guilt are effective motivators (with a long-term cost).

Ted Cruz went all in on the “fear and guilt” strategy, sending mailers that looked like official documents and said “VOTER VIOLATION” at the top. Many people, including the Iowa secretary of state, viewed this tactic as deceitful. But it worked, as voter turnout was an all-time high and many of those folks went for Cruz.

Using fear and guilt moves people — but it also wears thin over time. Time will tell whether Cruz’s strategy continues to work. I think it won’t.

That’s why, as a leader, I don’t want to lean into fear and guilt to motivate people. The short-term gain isn’t worth the long-term cost (not to mention that the gospel provides a totally different motivational structure).

6. Key moments must be seized.

There wasn’t much to see on Monday night. Until there was. Once the results actually came in, campaigns had just moments to decide how to respond. Marco Rubio, having finished surprisingly high, seized the moment by being the first candidate to come out and deliver a short, energetic speech — and in prime time.

Cruz, meanwhile, dawdled around until after many people had gone to bed and then gave a looooong victory speech. As Cruz droned on, Clinton came out to speak and two of the networks switched over to her. Cruz had a big opportunity to seize the moment, and he blew it.

In the same way, leaders occasionally have big moments that come in short windows. We’ve got to seize them well.

What’s next?

I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, so who knows. But I’ll be watching…and learning.

 

8 Lessons for Pastors on Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve is one week away. I have the privilege of coaching four of our Redemption church planters on a regular basis, and I recently shared with them some of the key lessons I’ve learned from doing Christmas Eve services. They gave encouraging feedback, so I thought I’d share it more broadly.

Christmas Eve

 

1. Evaluation. Soon after Christmas Eve, make a list of what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be adjusted next year. Make this list within a week of the services. Otherwise next year when you’re planning you won’t remember. Keep in mind everything from service times, service flow, kids, environment, etc.

2. Feel. Personally, I want Christmas Eve to feel special yet similar enough to what we do that guests get a flavor of the church.

3. Preaching. Preach a simple gospel message. I’ve often been frustrated by Christmas Eve because, as a teacher, I’m always looking for people to have an ‘aha’ moment and I often try to get too clever on Christmas Eve. But the environment of Christmas Eve isn’t really designed for this. It’s more designed for inspiration, motivation, and something simple. Think about your sermon more like a YoungLife talk than normal.

4. Guests. Thank guests for coming and invite them to come back. Communicate when your normal Sunday services are. Have the graphic for your next series ready so that you can invite people to it.

5. Offering. Don’t apologize for taking the Christmas Offering. Instead say something like, “We have a generous church and we care about a number of needs in our church and community. If you’re a guest, feel free to participate or don’t, but know that this is a beautiful picture of what our church is about.”

6. Kids. Having kids under 5 years-old in the service is really difficult because they are not used to sitting still — even for just an hour. If you can have childcare up to age 5, people will enjoy it a lot more. (Though this is tough with only one service). OrientalTrading.com also has some good, inexpensive kids give-away stuff that can keep them occupied a bit (coloring, bendables, etc)

7. Touch. Work the room like crazy. It’s a great opportunity before the service to visit with people. They come early and you can make a big impact by working the room and meeting people’s families and friends.

8. Planning. By the end of January, make a Christmas checklist for next year that details what needs to be done and when next year. It’s a bit of work, but you’ll be happy you did. Here’s an example from ours this year, and it made a big difference in reducing our overall stress this year.

MTC Reflections – 9/29/15

I’m part of the second year cohort in the Missional Training Center, a paradigm-shifting experiment in theological education that will–God willing–result in me having a Master’s Degree a few years from now. Here are some reflections from last week.

Interpreting the Prophets — Mike Goheen

This week we continued to explore the Old Testament prophets. Our class time was valuable and contained a number of helpful things, but one stood out above the others. Mike shared a diagram that helps make sense of what it looks like to live in covenant with God.

covenant perspective

1. God speaks his word to his people. This word contains promises, commands, and warnings. All of these express God’s heart, will, and character. And all are important for God’s people to hear.

2. God’s people have to choose whether to trust and obey God. Upon hearing the word of God, Israel had a choice. Would they trust God (leaning into his promises) and obey him (heeding his commands and warnings) or would they distrust God and disobey him?

3. God’s people experience either the blessing or cursing that accompanies their choice. If God’s people trust and obey, they will experience life, prosperity, and blessing. If they distrust and disobey, they will experience death, destruction, and curse.

Simple and Powerful

This doesn’t seem like rocket science to anybody who has studied the Bible for a meaningful period of time. Yet this diagram was immensely helpful for me. I shared it with our pastors a few days later and they also were helped by it. Here’s why I found it so valuable:

1. It reminds me that God speaks to his people with a multi-faceted approach. Sometimes gospel-centered people talk as though God only gives promises. But he also gives commands and warnings. These commands and warnings are not heeded in order to achieve relationship with God — we are already his covenant people by grace. Rather, these commands and warnings are good words that our Heavenly Father gives us in order to guide us into blessing and protect us from harm.

2. It links faith and obedience. When we hear God’s word, we will trust and obey or distrust and disobey. Either way, our trust and our obedience are linked. This strikes me as remarkably biblical. If we trust God, we obey him. To think that we can trust God while walking in disobedience is folly (1 John 1:6). While I rejoice that justification by faith alone has been so strongly recovered in what’s known as the gospel-centered movement, I often wonder if we under-emphasize how obedience must flow from genuine faith. One of the best articles I’ve read on how these are linked is “Pleasing God by Our Obedience: A Neglected New Testament Teaching” by Dr. Wayne Grudem.

3. It’s simple and easy to share. As a pastor, I’m continually looking for simple, effective ways to communicate with people. The best tools are sticky. This diagram is. I can imagine myself in a counseling or discipleship setting pulling out a sheet of paper and drawing this picture. I trust that many people will be helped.

I don’t know what God has for you or me today — but I know he wants us to hear his word and respond with trust and obedience. It will surely lead to blessing and life.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

 

MTC Reflections – 9/24/15

I’m part of the second year cohort in the Missional Training Center, a paradigm-shifting experiment in theological education that will–God willing–result in me having a Master’s Degree a few years from now. Here are some reflections from last week.

MTC

The Prophets — Heath Thomas

Last week’s classes were taught by Heath Thomas, visiting professor from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. We focused on the Prophets, and it was outstanding. I came away with a four key things I want to remember.

1. A prophet is a spokesperson for God, regardless of class or gender. The main job of a prophet is to speak “the word of the Lord.” This is what they are constrained to speak, as anything else could result in a heap of trouble (Deut 13:1-5). What is beautiful, however, is that God did not only speak through one type of prophet. There was significant diversity among the backgrounds of the people God spoke through.

2. God’s word was and is present in both Evernote Snapshot 20150915 072833the speaking of the prophet and the composition of the book. Many of the prophecies we have recorded in Scripture were spoken (preached) beforehand and then compiled into a book. While that may seem like our version of podcasting or transcribing, they key difference is that the prophecies were not necessarily compiled in the order they were spoken. Often the prophet or editors arranged material in thematic or other ways. Nonetheless, both the spoken oracles of the prophet and the final composition of the book are the word of the Lord. As Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16).

3. The Prophets show us a God who is both Covenant Lord and Cosmic King. God has authority over his people and over the nations. The Prophets show God in covenant with his people, offering salvation and warning against judgment. At the same time, however, the Prophets show that God is reigning over the nations and over all of creation. He is not simply the God of Israel, but the one true God over all. Micah 4:1-5 provides a beautiful picture of how these relate to one another, showing that the nations are blessed as God’s people are faithful to him.

4. Reading commentaries early in the study process is good. I have often felt bad that I consult commentaries rather early in my study, since you’re typically told to only do that after you’ve already come up with all your conclusions (as a kind of check/balance). A side discussion in class, however, showed me how this typical approach is overly individualistic and disregards the many wise insights that the body of Christ brings to understanding the Scriptures. We are arrogant and overly influenced by Enlightenment thinking if we imagine that we can come to all the best conclusions (mostly) on our own.

 

Surprises of Perfection

I was listening yesterday to Tim Keller’s final lecture in Questioning Christianity, a mid-week teaching series designed to show skeptics that Christianity makes sense emotionally, culturally, and intellectually. It’s outstanding.

jesus

As he spoke about the uniqueness of Jesus, Keller read the following quote. As best I can tell, it’s a quote from 19th century Scottish minister John Watson that Keller has updated. Either way, it’s spectacular.

Despite his high claims, he is never pompous. You never see him standing on his own dignity. He is tenderness without weakness, strength without harshness, humility without the slightest lack of confidence, unhesitating authority with a complete lack of self-absorption, unbending convictions without the slightest lack of approachability, power without insensitivity, enthusiasm without fanaticism, holiness without Pharisaism, passion without prejudice. Nothing he does falls short. In fact, he’s always surprising you and taking your breath away because he’s so incomparably better than you could imagine for yourself. Why? The surprises you get when you read the life of Jesus are the surprises of perfection. There’s never a false step, never a jarring movement. This is life at the highest.

Amen. I love Jesus.

 

MTC Reflections – 9/14/15

Last week began my second year in the Missional Training Center, a paradigm-shifting experiment in theological education that will–God willing–result in me having a Master’s Degree a few years from now. Each week we are expected to journal about what we’re learning in class and the readings, and I intend to use my blog as a place to fulfill this assignment.

MTC

As this second year begins, I’m mindful of three significant things:

1. Who you learn with is as important as what you learn.

It was wonderful to be back with some of the dear friends that are part of my cohort. Last year there were two different cohorts, but this year remaining students have combined. It’s a great group of pastors and leaders from all over the state. I can already see how God will use these brothers and sisters to grow me.

I completed almost half of a degree through Reformed Theological Seminary’s Virtual campus and, while I appreciated the flexibility of being able to “attend” lectures and do work on my schedule, I sorely lacked the relationships that make learning so valuable and fun.

Not only are my classmates a tremendous blessing, but I’m deeply thankful for our faculty. In particular, getting to know Mike Goheen and his wife, Marnie, has been incredible. As they spend more time in Phoenix this year, I’m hoping to lean into them even more for wisdom and modeling a life of humility and boldness in the name of Jesus.

2. I don’t mind being a guinea pig. 

Everyone in high-level theological education knows that the current system has many flaws (too expensive, disconnected from the local church, trains academics more than pastors, too much busy work, hard to do while actively engaged in ministry, etc.). It’s one thing to observe these shortcomings and another to critique them. But it’s something totally different to forge a new path.

Forging a new path is exactly what Mike Goheen is doing. Though many significant people are participating and watching this experiment, it’s not a sure thing. Tradition is powerful and hard to change.

It may lead to an accredited degree, and it may not (but I think it will). Either way, I’m excited to be part of something that’s innovative and gutsy–makes for a lot of fun.

3. There’s a difference between the unchanging gospel truth and our theological reflections on it.

We had a great discussion last week about “doing theology.” Mike described it as reflection on the gospel and God’s word in particular contexts to equip the church, for the sake of the nations.

This highlights a few aspects of theology that are easy to forget:

“Reflection on the gospel and God’s word…” – Any time I begin to reflect on the gospel and God’s word, I should be open to correction. The gospel is like a vein of beautiful rock that runs deep below the earth. I can go down to mine it, but as soon as I come to the surface to describe it to somebody else, I need to see my reflections as what they are — imperfect reflections.

“…in particular contexts to equip the church…” – Theology isn’t done in a vacuum. It’s always done in a particular context and driven by contextual concerns. Consider for example how we might consider it essential to teach that the Bible is authoritative. This concern would not have existed 500 years ago, but is crucial today. The truth of the gospel doesn’t change, but the questions we ask as we approach it do.

“…for the sake of the nations” – Our goal in understanding the gospel is to equip the church for the sake of the nations. We never seek theological understanding for its own sake, but that we might be a more faithful people who can be used by God to declare his glory among the nations.

As I approach this year, I want to keep this approach to theology on my mind. I want to be open to learn so that I can effectively equip the church to bless the world.