Thursday, August 27, 2009

Making school, family and ministry work

After recently posting about my studies at Rockbridge Seminary on my blog and over at the Swerve blog at, I got an excellent question from Jonathan H - "How have you handled scheduling time around family, work, and ministry?" It's so important to think about that when considering any kind of back-to-school situation, so I thought I would share how that's been working for me so far.

Obviously, before going back to school I wasn't sitting around with an excess of free time, looking around for something to fill it. Instead, I was sensing in my heart that there was so much more God wanted to teach me, and in particular wanted my life to be less about me and more about others. I was involved in a lot of little things, all seemingly disconnected, without having much of an impact in any one area. So I needed to get a better handle on why I am here, get training on how to be a better leader, and get a deeper understanding of God's mission in this world. Together, those pointed me to considering seminary. Practically speaking, my job, marriage, four young kids, and a desire to stay active in the church and community where I'm located but some extreme restrictions on what that education would have to look like. I was so glad to find out about Rockbridge right at that point, as it was everything I was looking for. (Others with different needs or priorities may well find other choices more suited for them; I'm not trying to over emphasize one school :)

The program there is really meant to integrate closely with your existing life and schedule. Here's basically how things have played out for me, and how I've made things work...

  • I'm a night owl. Instead of goofing off and watching TV from 11pm to 2am while the family is asleep, I now "go to class" without taking away from family time.
  • I was already a heavy reader. Now instead of picking up random books that strike my fancy I have a well thought out reading and learning plan and get to discuss and internalize what I read.
  • I love to discuss things, both theory and practice, so the chance to have deep interaction with other students online via forums was something I loved. It's so enjoyable for me it's just not a burden.
  • At lunch time I'll now often stay in and heat up a frozen healthy choice meal and work on my written assignments / papers.
  • Each class requires time with a mentor. Usually that's with my pastor or other ministry leader, and the class provides focus and a number of interesting things to discuss. Again, it's not taking more time, it's providing focus. My pastor has been hugely supportive of this, which is very important.
  • A key thing I happen to like about Rockbridge's Master of Ministry Leadership Program is it's practical emphasis on ministry. There are a number of projects you need to do for the course, and they highly encourage when possible to do things that are actual value in your church or ministry. This is a huge time-saver (avoiding doing double the work) and applies what I'm learning to what I'm doing - win-win!
  • I have had to push myself to learn better time management skills. I've found some ideas in Getting Things Done, Michael Hyatt's blog, and an app called Toodledo to be extremely helpful. This has really helped me to stop dropping the ball in important but not urgent areas of life and ministry.
  • I've dropped out of a few activities that I didn't need to be doing. Not much, but a few. Getting to play the "I'm enrolled in an online Master's program and need to pull back a bit" can be nice.
  • To some degree I can adjust the overall pace and how much I'm spending per year by whether I take classes back-to-back or with a break in between. I'm mostly plowing ahead, but other classmates are taking advantage of that flexibility.
  • The kids think it's kind of cool that dad at his age is going back to school and has to do homework. Sometimes on Saturday morning we let mom go and play tennis, and all hang out on the coach and read our school books. It's fun to answer questions like "what are you learning?" with something like "Right now I'm learning how to talk about problems when we feel hurt rather than ignore them. Do you ever feel better by talking through problems you're facing?"  When an adults asks that question they get a much more boring "We're doing a TKI assessment for conflict resolution styles."
  • Work has been a challenge at times. I'm fortunate to be at a place that is very flexible. I've not been able to put in as long hours as last year, but I'm more focused on getting the most important things done and keeping clients happy. For better or worse the economic downturn has given us a few less projects. While I hope that turns around soon, I'm making the best of that situation right now.

In a nutshell, it's taken a huge increase in focus and paying close attention to not let school interfere with work or family, and making sure it integrates with ministry rather than competes with it. How about you readers who are going back to school? How are you making it work?

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