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!

 

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.

What I Learned From Teaching VBS

Last week our church hosted 150 kids from 5-10 years old for Vacation Bible School. This was our third year of VBS and I volunteered to teach. I was assigned to a group of 8 year-olds and it was a fun, tiring week.

shine

Here’s what I learned:

1. Leaders must bring energy. It’s not a secret that kids have energy. Lots of it. So if you want to connect with them relationally, you better bring some energy. Additionally, they respond to and feed off your excitement. This is true in all leadership. Followers feed off the leaders’ energy. It’s why leaders must manage their energy as much as they manage their time. (Here’s a great book on this)

2. Teachers must be engaging. One of the reasons I volunteered was to stretch myself as a communicator. You may ask, “How is teaching kids stretching yourself?” Well, adults are at least polite and self-controlled enough to pretend to listen even when they’re not. But with kids, you can tell instantly whether they’re following you or in la-la land.

Therefore, it’s not enough to teach the material. You have to teach it in an engaging way. You have to ask good questions. You have to use examples they understand and get excited about. You have to adjust your voice inflection to draw them in. You have to tell interesting stories. Otherwise, you might as well not teach it because they won’t get it. Again, this is true in all teaching, just more obvious with kids.

3. Everything’s better with fun. Almost everyone I know likes to have fun, especially kids. When experiences are fun, it makes for better learning and stronger relationships. Sometimes leaders avoid fun because we are so focused on the task at hand or because it feels like a waste of time or money. But I’m leaving this VBS even more committed to making fun part of our leadership culture.

4. Kids know their stuff. It was encouraging to see the kids in my class engage with the story of the gospel. On our last day, we were talking about the crown of righteousness that the Lord will award to those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8). I asked the kids, “What are some things you would want to do if you thought there was a decent chance Jesus was coming back this afternoon?” Below are their answers.

Honestly, I’m pretty wiped after last week. It was a great experience. Not sure yet whether I’ll do it again next year, but if you’re a leader it’s worth having some experience teaching kids. You’ll grow from it and so will they.

3 Resources to Help You Get Better

Summer is often a retooling time for churches. Many ministries slow down and it’s an opportunity to adjust before the fall. At Redemption Gateway, we’re in a season where we’re working hard to “get better before bigger.” This phrase comes from Truett Cathy (via Andy Stanley’s podcast) and resonates deeply with us right now.

get-better

Along these lines, I wanted to share a few articles that have challenged me lately and could help any ministry get better.

5 Keys of Effective Leadership Development by Brent Dolfo. Any church that is trying to get better needs to focus on developing more leaders. I think we currently have about 1.5 of these 5 Keys, and we’re kind of known as a church that develops leaders. Still room to grow.

Changing the Real Reason You Don’t Get More Volunteers by Jeff Brodie. We need to get better at recruiting and retaining volunteers. As the church has gotten bigger, this is much harder. This article has an important paradigm shift.

7 Leadership Tensions in Growing Churches by Rich Birch. We read this article together as a staff recently and a lot of it resonated. How you navigate these tensions is crucial.

If you have any resources to share, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you as I’m always on the lookout for good resources and articles that will help us get better.

 

Think-Pair-Share: How to Lead Engaging Discussions

think pair shareLeaders must lead engaging discussions. Rallying people always involves conversations that elicit their feedback and encourage their participation. Whether you’re a pastor, a kids ministry teacher or a small group leader, you must lead engaging discussions. One of the most helpful tools for this is “think-pair-share.”

First a story…

About 11 years ago I was helping lead a college ministry and throughout the summer we had a number of events called “summer gatherings” (creative, huh?). Our topic related to Christian Hedonism and the glory of God and I was in charge of leading one of the first gatherings.

We were talking about some BIG things. Deep things. And I just dove in, asking the group of 30-40 collegians right off the bat what they thought about why God created everything, where we find our greatest joy and a bunch of other stuff.

Crickets. Nobody spoke. Well, except for one guy who was the smartest in the room, had been high school valedictorian and went on to earn a theological degree. He was happy to participate, but his participation only made everyone else feel stupid and they withdrew even more. It was a rough night.

Fortunately, my mom was visiting and was in attendance. She’s an experienced school teacher and trainer with The Write Tools, and she said, “I think I have something that will help you: think-pair-share.”

She was right. We used think-pair-share the next week and it was shockingly different. Everyone engaged. Even the timid folks got involved. It was a game-changer. I’ve used it ever since.

How does think-pair-share work?

1. Think. The leader asks a question and gives everyone a few moments to quietly think about their answer. They may even want to write some thoughts down. Few people are instant processors, so this gives them time to gather their thoughts. This is crucial because often the leader has spent hours, days or weeks thinking of an answer to the question and then expects people to engage after thinking about it for two seconds. This stage also gets everyone involved rather than people disengaging because they know the over-eager person in the group will do the thinking for them.

2. Pair. The leader then instructs everyone to turn to a partner and share their thoughts. Sharing with one person is a much easier first step than sharing with the group. This gives them a chance to compare ideas as well as builds confidence that their thoughts are not crazy.

3. Share. Now the leader invites the entire group to share their answers. By this time, everyone has had multiple opportunities to process and confidence is strong. Many good ideas emerge rather than just one quick-thinking person dominating the conversation.

I have found think-pair-share to be crazy simple and shockingly effective. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

 

What I Learned from a Weekend with Ex-Cons

This past weekend I spoke at a men’s retreat for Desert View Bible Church. There were about 140 men, mostly guys who attend the church. One of the men works with Alongside Ministries, a ministry that provides Christ-centered mentoring to the incarcerated community. He brought about 15 men who have been released from prison in the last year and now live in a transitional discipleship home, where they are learning to walk with Christ “on the outside.”

Alongside Ministries

The retreat was a blessing for many reasons. But one of the highlights was spending time with these ex-cons. They all thought I was the teacher for the weekend, but I think I learned a lot more from them:

1. Realizing the depth of your sin makes you more grateful to God. These men were grateful. Thankfulness oozed out of them everywhere. They loved singing praise songs and jumped right in, even if they didn’t already know the songs. They loved walking outside in the cool mountain air. They loved the camp food. They loved all the fellowship. There was an appreciation of the small things that was convicting and refreshing for me. And it comes from knowing, with clarity, what they’ve been saved from.

2. Broken people are accepting people. At meal time, it was open seating and I moved around to a bunch of tables to meet different guys. The most friendly and accepting guys were the ex-cons. They know what it’s like to be looked down on and avoided, and they go out of their way to make sure others don’t feel that way.

3. Jesus truly makes people new. A number of these guys had been in prison 20+ years, but they were new men in Christ. Except for their passion for Jesus and gratitude for everything, you wouldn’t have even realized they were ex-cons.

4. The Bible is a rich well for those who will take the time to drink from it. Many of these men knew the Bible really well. I think that’s partly because they didn’t have a lot else to do, but it’s mostly because the depth of their salvation makes them hungry for God’s word. One guy practically recited my sermon notes to me before I spoke just because he knew the Bible so well. I said, “Maybe you should teach this.” How much spiritual richness do we forfeit because we are too lazy or too busy to soak up Scripture?

5. What man intends for evil, God intends for good. The theme of the weekend was “Faithful,” as we looked at the faithfulness of God in the story of Joseph and Judah (Genesis 37-50). The key verse is Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” One of the men told me he shared the gospel with 14 cell mates and 6 came to faith in Christ. He started praying, “God, I’ll gladly stay in prison if it means you’ll use me to win more people to Christ.” At the end of the story he said, God meant it all for good. I don’t know the specifics of the crime that landed this man in prison. But what he intended for evil, God intended for good.

6. It’s really fun to preach and lead when people are fired up. I already knew this, but what a great reminder. What a blessing to teach people who are eager to learn and hungry for God. May we give this gift to those who lead us.

7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past. Many of these men are now struggling to figure out how to have their identity be in Christ, rather than what it used to be in — their crime(s). They are no longer inmates, but this identity clings nearby. Ironically, it reminded me of the many former athletes I know who struggle to integrate into normal life after being set apart for so long. Just goes to show that all of us struggle to find our identity in Christ instead of what we do or have done.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I saw this weekend.

 

How Special Should Easter Services Be?

Easter is just days away and, by now, most church leaders are pretty squared away on what their Easter services will look like. At least I would hope so.

Easter Services

Though Easter is undoubtedly special, as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, churches should beware of making their Easter services too special — or more specifically — too different.

My philosophy is that the Easter service should be a very good version of what you normally do.

If Easter really goes well, then many of the guests who came will come back the next week. But what if they did? Would they recognize the church?

  • If they really liked the 10 minute sermon, how will they feel about the 35 minute one?
  • If they really liked the 30-person chorale, how will they feel about the 5 piece band?
  • If they really liked all the extra fun for kids, how will they feel about it going away?

This is also why I don’t think it’s wise for churches to meet at another location on Easter, renting out an amphitheater or a hotel. It’s just too foreign of an experience from what you typically do to make it very enticing for guests to return.

Additionally, some churches spend so much energy on Easter that they’re out of gas the next week.

Now, to be honest, I probably broke this rule last year I did a 25-minute sermon that was only memorized Scripture. It was more of a dramatic presentation with art work displayed on the screens. The next week was surely a letdown. At the same time, I felt comfortable doing it because I thought it would communicate our commitment to God’s word, one of our values.

Easter is a special day, but it’s got to move the ball down the field for the church. And making it too special will actually be counter-productive.