I’m still thinking about the parable of the dishonest/shrewd/clever manager (Luke 16:1-3) that I preached on recently. It is a confusing story (and even offensive to some Christians) and hard to understand how Jesus could be advocating that “children of the light” model anything after those of the world. The often-quoted words “work smarter … not harder” come from Allen F. Morgenstern, an industrial engineer, who created the work simplification program in an effort to increase efficiency.
When I was a student at Denver Seminary, it seemed like the opposite of efficiency was often heralded. As students worked to come up with individualized learning goals, quite often mentors encouraged the process of “slowing” — purposefully slowing down one’s life in order to cultivate patience (one of the fruits of the Spirit) and to notice and pay more attention to God along the way.
So as Christians, are we supposed to be efficient or slow down? Which is it?
Of course, there does not have to be one right answer.
Quite often in Scripture, we find that both things can be true in life, depending on our own nature, where God is leading us or our season of life. Moreover, I think there is more to this adjective of shrewd or clever and more behind the concept of “work smarter, not harder” than simply pace. Behind the adjective of clever and working smarter (not harder) is purposeful pursuit. There are so many missions and ministries that are worth saying yes to. There are many people and even work that is worthy of our time. The easy things to say no to are the concrete pieces of this world that do not line up with the kingdom of God. Yet, truthfully, there are a lot more difficult noes.
We all know someone who has trouble saying no; often this person is a saint — someone who desires to love others and serve God with everything in them. And yet, they often give all who they are and manage to take others down with them in the name of Christ. They say yes to too many good things, and they lose themselves and their ability to truly serve God in the process; sometimes we call this burnout. The advice for pastors in this area is to do only those kingdom things that no one else in your church can do. Perhaps churches need to take this same advice.
Churches in a community with a known identity take root and persist to spread the love of Christ: “the church with the thrift store,” “the church with the food pantry,” “the church with the Upward Sports program,” “the church with the coffee shop that hires people with criminal records.” These churches focus on one thing the community needs and put all or most of their effort, work and time towards one ministry that meets a community need and their area of expertise. These churches not only have an easy tagline, but they just might be onto Jesus’ message in the story of the dishonest manager. We don’t have to do everything well if we can just do one thing well together that meets a need in our community.
I have often served churches that were sufficient in many community services and extraordinary at none. It is so scary to say no to so many things in pursuit of only what God is calling us to do. If our church just focuses on one need, what if we don’t meet it? If we focus on just one need, aren’t we neglecting the rest? If we work smarter, will we not be working hard enough for the kingdom?
The parable of the shrewd manager combined with the diversity of gifts makes me wonder how much more our churches could do in our communities, our cities, our state and our nation if we said no more, and found one thing to say yes to. If we supported what is already being done well by another church and looked to meet a need with our true gifts. If we slowed down long enough to discern what God wants us to say yes to, and all the other things God needs us to say no to, in order to do one thing well. If we worked together to solve problems as the community of Christ rather than competing to do each thing better than the other.
This concept of “work harder, not smarter” could be applied to many areas of our spiritual life, but it might have the biggest impact applied to how churches serve their communities. What is your church known for in the community? If it is known for being too many things, is it really known at all? Finally, if I am the one in need in the community, how can I get help if I don’t know where help comes from?
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.