5 Quick Tips for Building Margin

Sitting in my home office, I can hear the clock ticking. The voice in my head is saying, “Get to work… Sunday’s coming… check the in-box… write the message… call those leaders…” In ministry, it never stops. It seems we’re always pushing the edge of the envelope with our schedule, our priorities and our time. Living a margin-less existence is just part of the job description for most pastors. Margin is one of the most important and, unfortunately, one of the most overlooked ideas in ministry today.

Definition: Margin – (n) The distance between us and our limits.

When we were kids, the paper manufacturers gave us little red lines near the edge of our paper to let us know when we were reaching our limits. Little red lines that silently screamed:

“Hey kid, you’re about to write on your desk and then your teacher is gonna yell at you and all your friends will make fun of you and you’ll feel like an idiot, so STOP!”
Unfortunately, we don’t have little red lines anymore to warn us that we’re pushing our limits. Consequently, we pastors plunge ahead with commitments, deadlines, endless to-do lists and little sleep. And more times than we’d like to admit, we end up writing on the desk somewhere: our marriage breaks down, our kids rebel, we compromise morally, or we have a financial break down. Here’s the truth for most pastors:

A Lack of Margin is doing more damage than we want to admit.

* It’s affecting you.  What we don’t want to admit in ministry is that living without margin IS affecting us. When we’re living a margin-less existence, we’re not getting our best thoughts & productivity. In the book, The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz lays out scientific proof that when we’re not rested and renewed, we’re not capable of our most creative and best thoughts for our organizations.

* It’s affecting your church. When we live beyond the limits, our church doesn’t get our best. And more importantly, we’re inadvertently teaching them an unhealthy pattern of behavior. Our goal in ministry should be for any person to pattern any area of their life after the model of our church and it’s leaders and be successful. In other words, if someone in your church handled their finances the way the church does, would they be more or less prosperous a year from now? The same is true with time. Our aim should be to live our lives with margin so that people in our churches can take their example from us and be better off for it.

* It’s affecting your family. The truth is your family will fake being okay for a long time, because they love you and want you to be happy. They want your church to succeed. So they’ll smile and support and cheer you on while you’re walking out to another meeting. But inside, they’re dying for you to take control of your schedule. Our family takes their spiritual cues from us. We set the spiritual tone in our home by the schedule we keep.

I don’t know you, but I know enough about you to know that the goal of your life is NOT to be a success after 3 years and a statistic after 10. That means this margin thing is a huge deal. So what do we do if we find ourselves living a margin-less existence?


5 Quick Tips for Building Margin:

(Think of these as 5 little red lines for restoring margin to your reality.)

1) Think of your Schedule in Large Blocks of Time.
Creativity flows in uninterrupted blocks of time. Dare to turn off the cell phone and e-mail during times when it really matters. For me, it’s Mondays. I write and create on Mondays and when I do, I can’t be interrupted by texts and twitter. I’ve got to know that my best thoughts have the time and space to flow freely. When you have a large segment of time for creating, come in prepared. I’m a huge lists guy. I make lists constantly. They keep me focused and they give me a sense of accomplishment when I’m finished. It’s not uncommon for me to write 3 messages in one morning’s time. It’s possible, but not without large, uninterrupted blocks of time.

2) Get ahead on Message Preparation.
I like to call the pressure of delivering a life-giving, fresh, creative, relevant, spiritual, funny and engaging message every seven days, The Monster of Sunday. Unfortunately for many of us, it will nip at our heels if we don’t learn how to get ahead of it. I am consistently 4 to 6 weeks ahead in the messages I teach on the weekends at our church. Give yourself permission to believe you can get ahead. The same God who inspires you the week-of, can inspire you 4 weeks before. Nothing gives me peace and makes margin possible in my life like being and staying ahead. When I fall behind, I violate my margin.

3) Protect your Sabbath.
One of the biggest violations of margin in ministry is the Sabbath. Pastors are notorious for not taking a day off. Even though Scripture puts it on the same list as murder and adultery. Somehow, we think we’re exempt. Stop making excuses. It’s not just ‘one meeting.’ The Sabbath is not only a command from God to teach us to trust Him, it’s His gift to us, so we don’t feel like slaves.

4) Fight for your Schedule, because no one else will.
If you don’t control your schedule, someone else ALWAYS will. The essence of ministry is people needing and wanting something from us. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a reality. The danger there is for someone else to control our schedule, instead of us.  We are the only one who can fight for our time. We’re the captain of our ship. If we don’t take control of our schedule, we risk being tossed and beaten by the wind of someone else’s urgency.

5) Refuse to feel guilty.
Ministry is not like any other profession. The demands we face are different than any other profession. Don’t apologize for resting and building margin into your week. Figure out what refreshes you and learn how to lean into it more frequently! Unapologetically throw yourself into a hobby. Take a nap during the work day. Do what you need to do to stay healthy long-term. Ministry is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and you have permission to stay healthy for the long-haul.

I heard Craig Groeschel say once, “We highly overestimate what God wants to do through us in the short-term & highly underestimate what God wants to do IN us in the long-term.” Remember, the goal is not to be a success after 3 years and a statistic after 10 years. The goal of ministry is to spend our entire lives making a difference in the lives of others.

Without margin, that is impossible.

-Matt Keller


Matt Keller is the founder and lead pastor of Next Level Church in Fort Myers, FL. Matt is passionate about investing in other churches, and has helped hundreds of pastors and church planters around the country take their leadership and churches to the next level. He is the author of The Up the Middle Church, a great tool for pastors and leaders to use as they journey through ministry and life. His next book, The God of the Underdogs, is due for release in Fall 2013.

4 thoughts on “5 Quick Tips for Building Margin

  1. Great insights! Taking extended time apart for creative thought and taking a whole, complete, restorative Sabbath. Lord help me with both.

  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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