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.

 

How to Determine the Best Way to Do Something

the best wayWhat’s the best way to exercise?

What’s the best way to read the Bible?

What’s the best way to teach your children about Jesus?

What’s the best way to keep track of your diet?

What’s the best way to show appreciation to the volunteers in your ministry?

What’s the best way to plan your week?

What’s the best way to invest quality time with your kids?

What’s the best way to keep track of your personal budget?

What’s the best way to manage your tasks and projects?

What’s the best way to spend time in prayer?

What’s the best way to improve my effectiveness at work?

What’s the best way to measure spiritual growth in your church?

In most cases, the best way is the one you’ll actually do.

Don’t get paralyzed in trying to do something the perfect way — you’ll end up doing nothing.
Don’t let unrealistic plans keep you from doing something.

Figure out what you’ll actually do consistently over time. Then do it. That’s usually the best way.

13 Lessons I’m Bringing Home from Sabbatical

This summer, our elders graciously gave me (and my family) ten weeks off to enjoy a sabbatical. It was a life-changing experience that I’m deeply thankful for. I’ve been back now for just under a month and continue to process all that we experienced and learned.

On my first Sunday back in the pulpit, I shared eight lessons from the sabbatical. All of these remain important, lasting lessons. Nonetheless, after more reflection — and especially after returning to ministry work — more lessons have emerged.

So, below are the eight lessons I shared that Sunday, followed by five additional lessons. (I’ll be brief with the first eight, since I shared a whole sermon about it that you can watch for more thorough explanation).

1. We are amazingly loved. Our church family was remarkable and generous in both sending us away and welcoming us home. Wow.

2. Information overload is self-inflicted. When you live without social media, you’re really not missing much. Perhaps a future post will address this more.

3. It is impossible to “do it all.” We often think, I have to, It’s all important, and I can do it all. But those lies should be replaced with the truths, I choose to, Only a few things really matter, and I can do anything but not everything.

4. Great people focus on eulogy virtues, not résumé virtues. This idea comes from David Brooks and–even though we all know it’s true–it’s awfully hard to live out.

5. I’m far less important to the church and far more important to my family than I thought. Our staff and volunteers led the church amazingly well in my absence. But I realized that my family needs me more than ever.

6. The moral revolution is underway. A lot changed this summer in our culture. Are Christians ready?

7. You and I need the church. We saw how much we need the church to help us experience community, transcendence, and — most of all — Jesus.

8. The nations rage and God laughs. In our fallen world, we rage against God. He laughs and is not worried.

— 5 More —

9. “The most important gift I can give is my transformed and transforming presence.” This phrase came to me repeatedly through our time with Jim Cofield from Crosspoint Ministry as he coached and counseled us throughout the summer. It’s not something I’d never thought of, but it landed with significant impact. I can design great ministry, organize helpful sermons, and empower a strong team — but the very best thing I can give in leadership or life is my own transformed and transforming into the image of Christ presence. This requires time and space to prioritize the care of my soul and nobody will prioritize this for me.

10. Emotions are real, important, and complex. The animated film, Inside Out, was big for our family this summer. It highlighted the importance of emotions and how all the emotions work together and matter for the thriving of a person. Because of how busy, driven, and practical both me and Molly are, we have not appropriately valued our emotions or given space to identify and understand them. The movie woke us up to this reality and gave us a new dinnertime conversation game with the family where we ask everyone, “What was a time today that you felt (anger, disgust, joy, sadness, fear)?”

11. Going to church may not feel worth it if you don’t know people or have something to contribute. This summer was the first time in my life that I repeatedly went to church with my family in the same vehicle. We went to five or six different churches and — more often than not — it felt like an ordeal. The services were OK (not great), the preaching was OK (not great) and we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t already in our family. Add that up, and it showed me why even more Christians are attending church less regularly. This strengthened my convictions to (a) work hard to create excellent worship services that help people experience the majesty of God, (b) help people at our church make meaningful connections and contributions.

12. Strong preaching takes significant preparation. I was particularly mindful not to be in “evaluation” mode as we visited churches (didn’t bring my evaluation form). Nonetheless, I was struck at how “meh” the preaching was across the board. In every case it was true information, but in many cases it felt like the preacher hadn’t prepared enough. How can I tell? Well, as a preacher, I know the preparation difference between when I have worked the content into my soul and when I have just worked it into my mind. I’ve too often only done the latter. I’ve returned with a commitment to more thoroughly preparing both myself and my sermons for preaching.

13. I function much better with a meaningful routine. While I have loved the flexibility of vocational ministry, this summer showed me how much better I function with routine. When I have a solid routine, I’m more likely to prioritize what’s important over what’s urgent and I’m more likely to make good choices in the moment. Additionally, I’m learning how an easily repeatable morning routine is crucial for avoiding decision fatigue. As I’ve returned from sabbatical, I’ve formed a consistent morning routine and have also put much more firm boundaries in place for when I start and stop work every day (more on that in a future post).

Thanks for your prayers and for reading. Hope some of this serves you. If you have questions or would hope for a future post based on one of these topics, let me know by commenting below.

Headed for Sabbatical

A few months back I told my congregation that our elders have graciously given me a 10-week sabbatical this summer for the purpose of rest and recalibration. This decision was made last fall and is intentional and proactive—thankfully, it is not borne out of a crisis or difficulty.

I wanted to share a little about our plans and ask for you to pray for me and our family during this time.

THE PLAN

I will be preaching this coming Sunday (Mother’s Day) and then sabbatical begins on Monday, May 11. I will be out of the office and pulpit until July 20, and most of the time our family will be out of state.

The sabbatical will be a guided time for rest and recalibration. I’m working with an experienced coach who has guided many pastors through sabbatical experiences. He has been a tremendous resource so far.

Rest, the first component of sabbatical, often comes through retreat. This is why we’re pulling back from the typical demands of ministry and spending time in a different geographic region. It’s also why I’ll be suspending blogging, emailing, texting, social media, phone calls, and reading church-related books. As a leader and pastor, I’m used to constantly thinking, planning, connecting, strategizing, and anticipating what should be done. This season is designed to intentionally unplug from that way of thinking to experience emotional, physical, and spiritual rest.

The second aspect of the sabbatical is recalibration. I want to lead with strength and passion in the years to come, and I am confident that this sabbatical will help that happen. I will be spending extended time with God—mostly soaking in the Psalms—without the pressure of preparing anything. Additionally, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to spend good time together as a family and for a few mini-getaways with Molly.

HOW YOU CAN PRAY

Molly and I would greatly appreciate your prayers for us and our family during this time. Here are a few ways you can pray:

1. Pray for our whole family to experience rest and recalibration. Our hope is that Molly and the kids (Abby – 8, Caitlin – 6) get to experience some of the benefit of sabbatical as well. This isn’t the easiest thing with a 10-month old (Mary), but we’re looking forward to trying.

2. Pray for my time with God to be refreshing and reinvigorating. I want to lead with a full tank in the years to come, and I’m hoping God gives me some fresh perspective on my life and ministry in ways that will bless the church.

3. Pray for the opportunity to make some great memories as we drive, play, spend time with family, and see some other parts of the country.

4. Pray for the leaders of Gateway to lead with strength and conviction in my absence. I honestly don’t think it will skip a beat, but I know they would appreciate your prayers.

As I was singing during this past Sunday’s service, I was thinking about how much I love our church and how much God uses you all to bless me and my family. I do not take it for granted. I will miss our church, but I’m looking forward to this special time.

5 Steps to the Personal Retreat Day You Need

Do you ever feel like the urgent is crowding out the important? Like there’s so many things that have to be kept up with that you just can’t seem to get ahead?

I do. Everybody does.

I often talk with other pastors about how ministry is a “black hole” where there’s always more you could do. Over time, I’ve concluded that ministry isn’t unique — all kinds of people have demanding roles that seem to require being “on” all the time. Just ask a mom.

Personal Retreat Day

I’m not sure how it started but a few years ago I began a practice that has made a significant difference in helping me not just work in the ministry, but on the ministry: The Personal Retreat Day.

A Personal Retreat Day is a day set aside to recalibrate and refocus on what is important, big-picture, and vision-oriented.

Everyone needs a day like that every so often. If you’re a leader, you especially need a day like this. And it’s more doable than you think.

Over time, I’ve identified five simple steps that can help make a Personal Retreat Day a refreshing reality.

1. Put a firm day on the calendar.

This is the most important step, because without it a Personal Retreat Day will not happen. The urgent things of life will always give you a reason to do something else.

It can also be the most difficult step because you have to find a day that you can afford to be unavailable and other logistics have to be factored in. I want to schedule a day like this about every six weeks or so, but it’s hard to do it that frequently without some real intentionality.

2. Find a new location.

Personal Retreat Days happen best in a change of scenery, because it puts you in a different frame of mind that allows you to have a different focus. If you go to the typical places you work, you’ll end up doing typical work.

I typically try to get 45 minutes – 2 ½ hours away because that puts me out of my typical radius and it allows me enough time to enjoy the drive. The drive is a huge part of the experience for me, because I typically listen to something thought-provoking on the way there and then listen to my favorite playlist of worship music (while I sing along loudly) on the way back.

3. Take a personal inventory.

The first thing I do when I arrive to my destination is some kind of personal reflection. In this time, I’m asking the question, “How am I doing…really?” I cannot lead where I am not going and I can’t call people to have a thing with God that I don’t have. So reflection and inventory are crucial.

One of my favorite inventories is a series of questions I adapted from a talk I heard years ago by Bill Hybels on “The Art of Self-Leadership” (turned into an article here):

  1. Is my calling sure?
  2. Is my vision clear?
  3. Is my passion hot?
  4. Is my character submitted?
  5. Is my pride subdued?
  6. Are my fears at bay?
  7. Is my pace sustainable?
  8. Are my physical and spiritual practices healthy?
  9. Are my ears open to the whispers of the Spirit?
  10. Are my gifts developing?
  11. Is my heart for God increasing?
  12. Is my capacity for loving deepening?

Journaling through these questions has proven helpful every time.

4. Enjoy some extra time with God.

As a follower of Jesus, I love spending time with him. But the demands of life make it hard to spend generous stretches of unhurried time with God. So use a portion of the day to spend some extra time with God. For me, this often looks like taking a long prayer walk, usually related to things that emerged from taking inventory. Other times, it means studying a portion of scripture that I’ve wanted to examine, reading a book that I’ve wanted to get to, or listening to a sermon.

5. Work “on” your work.

The E-Myth Revisited helpfully explains how leaders cannot just work in their work, but must work on it too. Spend the balance of the day stepping back from the daily grind of tasks, and think about the big picture.

What is your organization’s mission? What’s your role in it? What are the top few things that you bring that nobody else can or is responsible to do? Are you doing enough of those things to keep things moving in the right direction?

Think through the next 30, 60, or 90 days and ask two questions: What is already coming that needs my attention? What can I proactively do to move the mission forward?

Consider doing a 6×6 plan, where you identify the six most important priorities over the next six weeks. If you have an annual plan, spend some time reviewing it.

This space can also be used to work on a bigger project that you’ve had a hard time getting to in the typical routine of work life. I find that I often make bigger progress in shorter time when I do it on a day like this.

It’s Worth It

This practice has been so valuable to my personal life and ministry leadership that my wife often will gently and encouragingly ask if I have a retreat day on the calendar. She’s not just trying to get rid of me for a day–in fact, it’s often a little harder on her when I take these days. But she’s seen the value so much that she encourages me to do it anyway.

Tweak Away…But Do Something

These steps are what I’ve used and enjoyed, but they surely won’t be best for everybody. So tweak them as necessary and find what works for you. But don’t let your tweaks be an excuse not to do it. The practice of getting away is so helpful that I’d hate for it to be lost in the paralysis of seeking perfection.

[A Note to Those Who Don’t Have Much Freedom]

I wrote this post primarily for the staff I lead at Redemption Gateway, for those who lead at high levels, and for many other pastors who I have relationships with. I realize that many people don’t have the kind of job with the freedom to have a day like this “count” for work. A few thoughts:

  1. The more of a leadership role you have, the more important a Personal Retreat Day is. If you’re working in a job more as a doer than a leader, you probably don’t need this kind of day as much.
  2. If you have a boss, ask about the possibility of doing a Personal Retreat Day from time to time. Explain why you think it would be valuable not just to you, but the organization. Ask to experiment with it quarterly and test the results.
  3. If you are a leader and can’t get time away from your boss, use personal time for it. Take a vacation day or set up an occasional weekend day. Sure, that can be costly, but it will probably be worth the cost.
  4. If you are a mom (household CEO), see what kind of support you can get from your husband or others in a way that would allow you to do a version of this from time to time. Just a few Personal Retreat Days per year could work wonders for your soul and your home.
  5. If you just can’t do something like a Personal Retreat Day, then don’t. This post isn’t designed to make anyone feel bad or carry extra guilt. Rather, it’s attempting to share a helpful practice for those who can benefit from it.

Have you done a Personal Retreat Day? What has been helpful for you?

 

5 Lessons From Touring the Amazon Fulfillment Center

Amazon WarehouseYesterday I took our staff to tour the Amazon Fulfillment Center (it’s named “Phoenix 6”). “Fulfillment Center” sounds like a place where all your dreams would come true, but it’s really just a giant warehouse where Amazon orders are processed and shipped (maybe the same thing if you like shopping online).

It was amazing.

The first thing you notice is the size of the place. Ginormous.

We later learned that this center is 1.2 million square feet (just over 27 acres), stocks over 19 million items and has over 8 miles of conveyor belt zipping items around to be handled by the 1,500 “associates” who work there. This is one of 50 fulfillment centers Amazon has around the world and specializes in small to medium sized items (no big appliances or electronics here).

AmazonConveyerOur team loved it and would highly recommend you schedule a tour.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Communication and good signage are crucial. A warehouse that size is complicated and dangerous. To help people, there are signs everywhere. There’s even a whole section devoted to “team development,” which is largely focused on communication and creating signage. There are signs for everything: safety reminders, cultural values, right and wrong ways to do things, and wild statistics about the company.

Keeping people on the same page requires having good communication and visual cues that remind people about what’s important.

2. Sometimes efficiency requires disorganization. Besides the scope of the building, the most jaw-dropping part of the tour was seeing how items are stored in the warehouse. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/WIREDThere is literally zero organization to it. Items are not arranged by kind, name, or category. One compartment I looked at had a chocolate fountain, a cat toy, a Minecraft board game, and a few of the same book about American history — all next to each other.

Why? Well, Amazon has realized that the time it would take to organize all their incoming products would not be worth it and would actually slow them down. So the “stockers” just put stuff wherever it fits on the shelf and their computer system tracks where it is.

I’m still processing what the implications are for leadership in the church, but I think it means that sometimes we can get paralyzed by being organized and it actually slows down our effectiveness.

3. Well-designed systems are essential for growing organizations. Our tour demonstrated a profound achievement of computer programming. These systems track items, tell “pickers” where to find them, move items to the “packers,” and ensure that items get to the right place. Without these systems, Amazon could not process a fraction of the orders they do.

Similarly, growing churches need to be able to develop intentional processes to help ministry get done more effectively by more people.

AmazonPicker4. People are always essential. The computer systems are impressive and allow many things to get done well. But the Amazon warehouse demonstrated that you can’t replace people. Even in some of the other warehouses that have robots do some of the “picking,” they need humans to make intelligent decisions about what is needed.

In the same way, churches can never rely on systems and processes entirely. People are the glue that truly make things happen.

5. Good leadership invites everyone in the organization to take ownership. Many of the company culture signs I saw related to taking ownership. From day one, every full-time Amazon employee is given stock. Through Amazon’s Kaizen program, employees at all levels are invited to make suggestions on how to improve things.

If every good idea has to come from the top, an organization will be limited. But good leadership invites input and shaping from everyone.

Which of these lessons stands out to you the most? Why?