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Streamline for Success: 5 Steps for Taming Clergy Clutter

Streamline for Success: 5 Steps for Taming Clergy Clutter

By Carolyn Campbell - Your ChurchDecember 1st 2008

After 10 years as an ordained minister, Sharon Turner realized her traditional file system could not keep up with her rapidly growing collection of paper. "My files and stacks kept growing," she says. In those stacks were letters and notes on everything from future plans for the church to personal studies. "As ministers, we collect many kinds of information because we undertake so many tasks. My files were filled with stuff I planned to refer to later."


 Filing those notes and letters was only one part of Turner's problem. The other part was finding the information when that "later" date arrived.


For example, Turner occasionally needed information relating to the charitable organization Heifer International. Her traditional system filed information alphabetically. "You would think that I would place information about Heifer International under H," she says. "But information about Heifer International pertained to our church, to our school, to charitable gift applications, to an Advent project, and to a sermon. It could be filed under C, S, A, or H—or somewhere else. The day came when I couldn't remember where I filed it—it wasn't where I thought it would be."


Turner was embarrassed when visitors stopped by her office. "I had stacks of stuff, while other clergy had super-neat offices," she says. A friend told Turner she had a problem and a gift. "Your enthusiasm is going all the time," the friend told her. "You are interested in so many things that you are overwhelmed." Turner agrees. "There was nothing I was uninterested in," she says, admitting that she could not bring herself to throw anything away.


Turner's story is a common one. Fortunately, even the most disorganized individuals can easily find help from one of the many organizational specialists available across the country.


A Transforming Question


Another minister friend, who had the same problem of too many papers in too many places, told Turner about Barry Izsak, founder of Arranging It All professional organizing services in Austin, Texas. Izsak discussed disorganization with Turner and her assistant. "Everything he said applied to me," Turner recalls.


Izsak, who specializes in working with the clergy and helping them get organized, guides his clients to ask themselves if they really need to keep a piece of paper: Could I find this information elsewhere if I needed it? Turner says Izsak's question was a turning point. "More and more, I learned to do Web searches for information and rely on computer files. I still need files for hard copies of various kinds, but the need for paper has been reduced enormously."


Izsak then teaches organizational techniques, such as employing Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger software. "It's like having an internet search engine for your filing system," he says. After completing the process of creating a new filing system, Turner now experiences a sense of calm relief. Izsak says such a system is especially helpful for clergy "who gather a variety of information for future sermons and don't know how to chronicle it."  


Izsak explains that while it might appear harmless, disorganized clutter in a clergy office leads to wasted time and energy. "There are costs for inefficiency—emotional, energy, and time costs," he says. Clutter can even lead to financial loss when misplaced work needs to be redone or when items that can't be found need to be purchased again.


In addition, office organization promotes peace of mind because in an efficient office, a clergyman can:


--increase productivity and professionalism

--streamline paperwork

--take control of time

--respond swiftly to new developments


Izsak and other professional organizers offer the following insights for improved organization:


 Step 1: Realize that a minister's hectic life lends itself to disorganization. "Ministers live their work," says Dorothy Breininger, president and founder of the Delphi Center for Organization. "There is usually little demarcation between work and time away." She says clergy are often needed at unusual hours—at hospitals, weddings, and funerals. "When it comes to godly acts, there is no rescheduling. The minister is needed when the event takes place. It is like no other job."


She adds that while buying organizational products such as a planner or a rolling cart are helpful, carving out personal time is also vital. When she asked one minister about his agenda for the week, he recited an extensive list of commitments and appointments. She responded by telling the minister to schedule a massage for himself and two hours alone at a coffee shop.


Breininger says ministers often look at her as if to ask Are you kidding? when she makes such suggestions. "The truth is that self-care is where organization really begins," she says. "Ministers need to block out time for themselves and additional time for organizing."


 Step 2: Understand how the "terrible twos" contribute to disorganization.


Breininger's firm has trademarked the term "terrible twos" to describe the phenomenon of multiple clergy offices. "Ministers go to work at the church, then work at home in their home offices," she explains. "They get answering machine messages at both places, and e-mail on both computers. They have church 'snail mail' and home 'snail mail.' All the information gets co-mingled. They transport multiple bags and briefcases."


Because ministers have home offices, Breininger says they should treat the home office like a business office or small company. She recommends a "family message center" to facilitate communication, because clergy and their families aren't always able to sit at the dining room table together.


A family message center can be as simple and inexpensive as a cardboard sorter with one slot used like an inbox for each person. "In my family message center, one slot has my name, one has my husband's, and one even has the dog's name. One has extra blank papers and Post-Its," says Breininger.


Incoming mail, documents, and messages are sorted and placed in the proper slot in the message center. For example, a minister's spouse can leave an appointment notice or insurance paper to be signed. "There aren't as many papers left lying around," explains Breininger. "And it's possible to take action immediately on those that are pending."


Breininger also suggests that clergy consider hiring an assistant—possibly a college student—to work at the home office. Such an assistant would also have an inbox in the family message center. She explains that a college student could come in and file twice a month, or take on one-time tasks such as returning products or other errands. "It can fill two needs: give the student a job with great flexibility, and offer the minister an amazing amount of time back. While not everyone has access or money to hire a professional organizer, we all have younger folks who we can hire for varying pay rates," she says.


Step 3: Streamline your most important work area—your desk.


All of Izsak's clergy clients had desks piled with paper and unorganized files. They struggled with time management and general organization. "While most people today juggle many responsibilities, the clutter in clergy offices makes it more apparent how stretched they are in trying to handle the duties of this job," says Izsak. "In wearing so many hats, they need organizational help."


An uncluttered desktop eliminates unnecessary distractions and makes it possible to focus on tasks that require immediate attention. Izsak recommends keeping only the items on your desk that you use daily or weekly—a tape dispenser, business-card holder, pen and pencil holder, desk lamp, and phone.


Jobs become harder to complete when you have to move and search through stacks of paper for that important receipt or document. Let the mail sit in your inbox, not on your desk, until you have time to sort it. You'll find that half of it goes in the trash or recycling bin anywaysays Izsak.


Izsak has noticed that ministers' work areas are often cluttered with reading material. "It's all nice to read, but it's important to define an amount of space for that reading material," he says. "When new papers come in, a decision must be made. If the reading material exceeds available desk space, some papers need to go."


One method for managing the flow of paperwork is the standard in/out basket. The "in" basket is the place for tasks and documents a minister intends to complete by the end of the workday. It should be empty by the time she leaves the office. The "out" basket holds items ready for distribution to others. Instead of taking vital work time to return a form to someone, place it in the out basket until enough papers warrant a trip out of the office to deliver them all.


Another good method for managing paper flow is a paper-sorting system, such as a five-slot vertical organizer that is near (but not on) the desk. Label slots within the sorter as "to do," "read," "await an answer" and "file." With a clean desk and only a pile of papers to sort through, ministers can pick up one paper at a time and decide which slot to place it in. After sorting, place ongoing projects, such as a current sermon in progress, in a separate place near the work surface, such as a desk drawer. If there is time at the end of the day, then ministers, or their assistants, can file the papers in the "file" section.


Step 4: Use a filing system to manage what you have.


Professional organizer Susan Lannis of Organization Plus! has worked with several clergy in Portland, Oregon. She notes that many ministers use an alphabetical filing system. "One trouble is that your mind changes," she says. "Information you want to keep often includes more than one word association. You might file the first alphabetical piece of paper that arrives relating to your car under C. Then, when Joe's Auto works on your car, you might file the next paper under J. If information is mailed to you from Toyota, you could file it under T."


Instead, Lannis suggests using the primary reason for keeping the information as the header for filing it. Thus, sermons would comprise one drawer or file, counseling information would be a possible second drawer or file, and community issues might be a third. Within such major headings, designate secondary and tertiary levels.


For example, within the sermons drawer, secondary sections might house past sermons, as well as sermons to develop. Within the sermons-to-develop section, there could be tertiary files for topics such as greed, jealousy, or other core ideas. Another file in the sermons-to-develop section could include articles and handouts from workshops. With such a filing system, Lannis explains, "You can put information away quickly and find it when you need it."


Step 5: Consider hiring a professional organizer.


Izsak says a professional organizer can offer an objective view in helping clergy achieve order at work and home. Such an organizer can meet with clergy, staff, and family to determine organizational goals and help implement them.


An organizer often takes the stress out of home organization. "While children follow by example, they are also their own people—you really can't force them to become organized," says professional organizer Monica Friel. "As much as kids love Mom and Dad, working with a professional organizer offers families the opportunity to interact with someone who is not emotionally attached to their situation. It can feel a lot different than parents breathing down their back. Because an organizer is a professional, kids will often accept their ideas more easily. It's a way to get a little more done with a little less stress."


Organizer Kim Cosentino concludes that adding a little organization, maximizing space, containing like items together, and setting up routines for processing papers as they come in the door can be life altering. "Change is not always easy," says Cosentino, "but try it for three weeks, and it just might become a handy habit to keep you organized."


Time Management Tools


These time-management tools will help you budget precious ministry hours.



Each Monday evening, Sharon Turner plans her week using a standard-format, week-at-a-glance calendar that includes hour and half-hour spaces for each day. She writes both personal and clergy appointments on the same calendar. "It's a relief not to have to carry my schedule in my head," she says. "I plan my week and I don't forget anything important that needs to be done."



Austin professional organizer and office organization specialist, Barry Izsak recommends that ministers use a day planner. "You need one planner," he says. "You don't need three." He isn't specific about which type works best. "The important thing is to use one. Whatever system you create, stick to it."


He adds that everyone is pressed for time. "Many people who want to get things done make a to-do list, which is just a wish list until you schedule time in your planner to get something accomplished," Izsak explains. "It doesn't have much chance of happening until you schedule it. The bottom line is that time management is self-management."


To-Do Lists

After scheduling her week, Turner prepares a daily to-do list of important tasks. "You'll feel successful if you accomplish some of the jobs," she advises, "but don't feel like you've failed if you have to move some ahead to the next day. At least they will be at the top of the list tomorrow." Izsak adds, "Remember that it is possible to get three major tasks completed in one day. Prioritize. Just don't save your sermon for the last minute."

The Arranging it AllSM team is mentored and trained by a Certified Professional Organizer.

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