Understanding the Urgent and the Important

Viewing Life and Ministry Vertically

When America’s thirty-fourth president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, began his administration, he instructed his aides and his executive assistant that there should be only two stacks of papers placed on his desk in the Oval Office.

The White House
By Юкатан (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first would be a stack of those things that were urgent, and only the extremely urgent. The other was to be a stack of the important, and only the extremely important.

He said years later that it was interesting to him how rarely the two were one in the same. He was right.

The conflict between the urgent and the important is inescapable. How easy to get the two confused! Staying busy and working hard can make us feel as if we’re managing the important. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Those things most urgent rarely represent the things most important. And therein lies the reason so many people today feel such a lack of satisfaction after working hard for so many hours each day.

Not only is that frustration true in the world in which we live, it is all-the-more true in the churches you and I serve. I observe two perils we face as pastors who lead busy lives and serve thriving ministries. First, substituting the urgent for the important, and second, yielding to horizontal priorities and neglecting the vertical.

Substituting the Urgent for the Important

When we substitute the urgent for the important in our ministries, we wrongly emphasize . . .

  • Work over ministry
  • Activity over intentionality
  • Involvement over focus
  • Doing over being
  • Producing over investing
  • Impressing over serving
  • Accomplishing over loving

In other words, the “tyranny of the urgent” leaves us, as pastors, feeling flat and empty, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Exhaustion replaces satisfaction. Furthermore, that approach mirrors the values of an increasingly secularized culture.

Who knows how many people have been turned away from Christianity, longing for the true, living God but encountering at their church a secularized substitute?

I’m convinced that this explains why so many activities in so many churches have been distracted from the one essential ingredient that makes a church unique in this postmodern society: worship.

Yielding to the Horizontal

When we look at life with a horizontal perspective, the urgent takes center stage, leaving us and the ministries we lead spiritually dry.  The luring aspects of the horizontal are numerous . . .

  • It is loud and insistent
  • It is popular and trendy
  • It is product-oriented and efficiency-driven
  • It is impressive and seductive

Such fleeting values drain our time and diminish our capacity to meet the spiritual needs of God’s people. As that ever-present tyranny screams at us, the most natural reaction is to yield, giving it our first priority. After all, it’s urgent! We’re all-too familiar with its shrill and demanding voice.

The Vertical View

The important things, however, are different. They are quiet and deep. They are vertical in their perspective as they emphasize the things of God . . .

They highlight the things of God . . .

  • His Word
  • His will
  • His leading
  • His people
  • His ways and wisdom
  • God’s glory and worship

And the goal of all these? God’s worship. Listen to Solomon’s wise words to all of us:

“Guard your heart (vertical) above all else (horizontal), for everything you do (horizontal) flows from it (vertical).”  Proverbs 4:23, NLT.

Isn’t that helpful?  By focusing on the vertical, cultivating the things of God, we as pastors can be assured that everything we do on the horizontal will be honoring to Him and helpful to those we serve.

Give this some thought this week, won’t you? You’ll be so glad you did.

—Chuck

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  • Kyle

    Chuck, as a young pastor of a small church, this article is particularly challenging. I must evaluate my priorities in this new light to be sure my focus is not on the urgent but on the important. What an interesting concept!