by Lance Witt
I love going into model homes. But not for the reason you might think. I like them because they’re a clutter-free zone. No trash, no piles, no stacks. The kitchen counters aren’t littered with small appliances and week-old bananas. For neat freaks, model homes are utopia.
The problem with a model home is that it’s an illusion. Families create messes. Model homes aren’t real life. That’s the way I often feel about the topic of simplicity. The image of an uncluttered, ordered life sounds great, but it just doesn’t seem like real life.
Let’s face it. Life—and ministry—feels anything but simple these days.
Maybe you can resonate with these words of Charles Wagner: “Amid the confused restlessness of modern life, our wearied minds dream of simplicity.” It is mind-boggling that he wrote these words in Paris in 1895, before the invention of the car, the airplane, the TV, the computer, or the internet.
The world is not going to slow down. Technology is not going away; 24/7 access to everything is here to stay. Life and ministry are more complex and challenging than ever.
Yet inside me is a quiet longing for something simpler.
For most of my life, simplicity has felt illusive. In fact, it’s rarely been on my radar. If I’m honest, I thought simplicity and margin were for navel-gazers and underachievers. There was a badge of honor in taking on too much, living too fast, and working unreasonable hours.
When I was exhausted and stressed, I’d often deceive myself with, “It’ll get better. This is only for a season.” But it didn’t get better. And when one season of ministry was finished, it was simply replaced with a new season of demands and pressures.
At least for me, the first step toward simplicity was taking full responsibility. I had to own my stuff and admit that when it comes to simplicity I am my own worst enemy. Most of the complexity and clutter was my own doing—saying yes to too many requests, not having healthy boundaries, not knowing my limits, and always trying to please everyone contributed to a cluttered life.
I was not the victim, I was the perpetrator. No elder board or deacon group or staff member or spouse or friend was going to simplify my life for me.
I also have to realize I will never drift toward simplicity. The drift is always toward complexity and clutter. Take your garage, for example. If you neglect it, it will naturally drift toward disorder.
Pursuing simplicity is like trying to keep barnacles off a ship. These unseen, unwanted passengers clandestinely attach themselves to the hull and cause significant drag. Did you know barnacles cost the US Navy about a billion dollars a year in extra fuel and maintenance?
We must be proactive and preemptive in guarding our lives from complexity.
So, how do you do this, practically? You get crystal clear about your values and priorities.
Mindy Caliguire writes, “Simplicity means taking action to align one’s exterior world with one’s interior values and commitment to God.” When my values get clear, decisions get simple. Not easy, but simple. Simplicity is not necessarily about doing less. It’s about using your priorities to filter opportunities and options.
One of my biggest challenges is learning to say no. I love ministry, and I love serving churches. So when opportunities come along, my default response is yes. I think to myself, I really don’t have the bandwidth for this, but I’ll figure out a way to get it done. This mindset has added complexity to my life and stress to my marriage.
Because this is such an ongoing struggle for me, it’s important for me to step back regularly and evaluate my activity in light of my priorities. Just this week I had two men I respect speak into my life about this issue. Their observation was that my focus was diffused and fragmented, and they challenged me to simplify. They were right, and their candid feedback was a gift. I am learning that a diffused life is a confused life.
As the German artist Hans Hofmann eloquently said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” That’s exactly what my friends were telling me to do. By removing those things that really aren’t a priority in my life, I will create space for the “necessary” to speak. I must trim the excess so there is room for the essential.
• Own your life. Take responsibility, and don’t play the victim card. The problem is internal, not environmental.
• Get alone and determine your values and priorities. Write them down and regularly review them.
• Make the hard decisions. The hardest part is having the courage to carry out the necessary decisions that will help you simplify.
• Perform regular maintenance. Practice the discipline of planned neglect.
I’ve devised a formula that helps me in my pursuit of simplicity: Clarity + Courage = Simplicity.
First, I must get clarity around what’s really important in my life. Because of our drift toward clutter and complexity, this must be revisited on a regular basis.
But it’s not enough to simply have clarity. I must also have the courage to execute based on clarity. I can have clarity around my priorities, but without the courage to make the necessary changes, I will not move toward simplicity.
Five Guys, the famous east coast hamburger chain, understands simplicity. On their website is the question, “Does Five Guys plan to add any menu items (i.e., milkshakes, chili, etc.)?”
Their answer: “Five Guys does not currently have plans to add any items to our menu. We follow the philosophy of focusing on a few items, and serving them to the best of our ability. If we were to add to our menu, then you can guarantee that we would only do so if we could serve the highest quality product possible. For example, there are a lot of great milkshakes out there, and at this point we think that others are doing it better than we could!”
They are clear about who they are and clear about who they aren’t. They’ve resisted chasing after ever opportunity. The result is focus, simplicity, and a really great burger.
Lance Witt is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. replenish.net