Essentialism | Greg McKeown

The cover of McKeown's EssentialismWhen I first arrived at a new staff position in a former church, one of the well-meaning members caught up with me and asked me to participate in her project. It would only take an hour or so once every week. Under pressure to make a good impression I said yes. It didn’t take me long to realize my mistake. The opportunity was fine, but it was not what I was brought in to do.

Pastors in multi-staff or small churches are pulled in hundreds of directions every week. Greg McKeown’s book on Essentialism caught my eye. While he wrote the book for a business audience, I wondered how it could apply to pastoral leadership.

The Book In Brief

We have a limited amount of energy to spend in life. We can move an inch in thousands of directions, or a mile in one. The undisciplined pursuit of more is our default mode. In order to break out of it we need to learn three skills:

  1. Explore: Rather than jump on opportunities and say, “yes,” to everyone who asks, essentialists explore all their options and choose carefully where to apply their energy. We need space in order to make these decisions so time to retreat and reflect is critical.
  2. Eliminate: Once we have clarified our purpose, we need to remove the other good but unessential tasks from our lives. McKeown uses the analogy of cleaning out a closet. Resist the temptation to hold on to those items that you think you might wear some day. We need to get rid of everything that does not align with our key purpose in life.
  3. Execute: Once we know what to do and have eliminated the competing options from our life, it’s time to make the execution of our main goal effortless. We remove obstacles and leverage the power of small wins and habits to achieve our goals.

McKeown’s book is simple and direct. The value comes not so much in the ideas he presents, but in their application.

Pastoral Application

Pastoring is (or at least should be) different from corporate achievement. Our “success” is measured not by the goals we attain but by faithfulness to the Spirit of God. I think of God’s commissioning of Ezekiel:

But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:27)

Ezekiel’s success was not measured by the people’s response to his message but by his faithfulness to deliver God’s message.

Here is where essentialism comes into play for the Pastor: our most essential task is to be faithful to God. The exploration comes when we take times of regular retreat from the world to reflect on our main goal. This helps us to see the things (even the good things) that crowd their way into our pursuit of God allowing us to eliminate them. As for execution, we put habits into place: regular attention to spiritual disciplines that enable us to hear more clearly the Spirit’s voice.

Ironically, being a godly “essentialist” might mean not pursuing one earthly goal at the expense of all others. Earlier this week, for example, God has interrupted my pursuit of preparation and teaching to help a woman find rent money so her and her children would evade eviction. The same day I prayed with a person in distress. If I were a business-style essentialist, I might be tempted to see those events as intrusions against my main calling. As a pastor, I need to constantly remember that my goal is to remain faithful to my Creator. This is essentialism at its finest.

—Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014).

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