Never Ourselves Alone: Distinguishing 'important' from 'urgent'
Written by J. Bennett Guess
October - November 2006
November 1, 2006

What really makes for visible change rarely tops our agendas

How's that Great American Novel coming along, the book you've always planned to write?

Or the 20 pounds you said you're going to lose before the next class reunion? Or the launching of that new career?

Of course, you don't have to take care of it today - just someday - and therein lies the problem: You don't have time or energy to do it now - at this moment - so it never gets done. The demands of what's "urgent" always seem to trump what's "important," as those professional development gurus tell us.

It seems that life's biggest dreams or challenges - starting a business, overcoming an addiction, or forming a rock band - most likely whither away while we mow the yard instead. We forget that big steps are merely a series of steady, smaller ones.

Ask any big-time author how they manage to churn out a new book every year, and they'll talk of "three hours at the computer every morning." Ask any late-in-life college grad how they did it, and they'll speak of last semester's "Tuesday-Thursday schedule." Ask any marathoner about the daunting "26.2," and they'll talk of the four miles they ran this morning.

Setting aside some time for "important," when "urgent" is breathing down your neck, there's the predicament. It's true at a personal level, but it speaks to group life as well, especially the church.

Naively, I once thought the problem was just symptomatic of the small-time circles from whence I hail. I can recall spending endless nights at board meetings where the most constructive thing we accomplished was calendaring who would bring the Pepsi and Oreos to the next month's meeting.

Unfortunately, I've since found a similar psychosis exists within some of the national boards to which I've belonged.

After we spend time perusing last month's minutes, approving financial statements, receiving and giving reports, and then fretting over the organization's most-visible crumbling place, we have little time or energy for advancing what the group says it's there to do, for scheming about ways to move our mission forward.

"What if?" - that's the part we rarely, if ever, get to. And when the agenda finally calls for it, we're generally too exhausted, too spent. It's never the top item.

I've become a firm believer that the world is suffering from too little brainstorming, and too few of us have been mentored in how to do it well.

People hate meetings, I think, not because they hate the organizations they're charged to serve, but rather because so little time is actually devoted to driving and dreaming the organization's growth and vitality. Instead, "we're gagging on gnats," as one friend describes it.

New ideas often sound like more work, and given the membership losses, budget cutbacks and staff downsizing that mainline churches have experienced, "more work" is the last thing we're looking for.

But perhaps it's because we've become so focused on "urgent" - uh, survival -that we've forgotten "important." Yet "important" is the only thing that will take us to that next big place.

That doesn't mean we can ignore "urgent" - after all, everyone needs clean underwear - but it does mean that we need to rearrange agendas and set aside time for some whacky, creative solutions-driven conversation, even though "urgent" will always try to convince us otherwise.

We've all learned to accommodate "urgent" quite well, but I know fewer that entertain "important" to the same degree. Maybe that's because these kinds of long-term-focused conversations require a base recognition that where we're at (or heading) is not where we'd like to be.

The place to begin is by establishing a level of trust and safety where each can throw out ideas and suggestions - tempered by reality, to be sure, but not doused by it. 


Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115