I’ve always been curious of how other pastors and church leaders work. So I shamelessly ripped of Lifehacker.com’s How I Work series and began to ask other church leaders questions about their work.
Benjamin A. Simpson
Ben Simpson’s family dynamic makes his ministry unconventional. His wife, Molly, is an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church. He is ordained in the Baptist tradition. Ben left University Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas in the summer of 2016 when Molly was invited to join the staff of First Methodist Church of Waco, Texas. Ben now teaches a young adult Sunday school class at First, coaches and consults ministry leaders, helps lead midweek Bible studies, meets with individuals as a certified spiritual director, and writes. Ben and Molly have been married for fourteen years and together they have responded to God’s call to complement and encourage one another in their respective ministry settings.
Location (city/state): Waco, Texas
Your Ministry (position/title): Writer, Spiritual Director, and Sunday School Teacher
One word that describes how you work: Contemplative.
Current mobile device: iPhone 6S (16 GB)
I use an iPad Mini 2 (16GB) or a 4th Generation iPad (32GB) when I’m mobile, but when I’m at home I work on a 20” iMac. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and an Anker stand with my iPad devices that are both fantastic. All of my computing devices were purchased “certified refurbished.”
Describe a recent work day:
I stick to a ritual. I start with a cup of coffee, eggs, and the newspaper. Then, I read the Psalms, work on Scripture memorization, and pray. Once Molly leaves the house for work and the kids have been dropped at school, I settle in at my desk, first to write, and then later to read. I write at least 500 words per day to refine my craft (morning pages) before moving on to my projects, and I read voraciously, keeping a log of the books I complete each year. When I get stuck in a rut I’ll walk our dog, Hondo, around the block, tackle the dishes, or pick up the house. Or, I might clear my blog reader or check in on social media.
When I hit my writing targets, complete my chores, or grow tired of reading, I work on correspondence, cleaning out my email inbox and keeping the clutter to a minimum. I have a system for staying on top of my email, sticking to the “one touch rule,” replying, archiving, deleting, or flagging emails “follow up” or “hold” accordingly. Over the years I’ve managed to come up with a system for email that works for me. I’ve read a ton of stuff on productivity and pieced together my own approach. I think it is wise to either pick a proven method, or design your own, so long as you have some kind of system.
Once I finish my work at home I’ll pick the kids up from school and we’ll head to the gym. My kids and I play a variation of soccer inside one of the racquetball courts that we came up with(it’s a version of tag), and then I check them in to the kids’ area so I can exercise. Our family has a strong commitment to fitness and health.
We also eat together each night for dinner. Molly comes home from church, she prepares a meal, and we gather around our table. We routinely ask one another the best part of our day, and we take turns saying grace.
Once the meal concludes I help with the dishes and we relax. I may read, watch movies or television, or tinker online.
Gadgets/apps/tools that you cannot live without:
Pen and paper. I build my own notebooks, and after being inspired by Austin Kleon I plan to keep a log this year. I’ve toyed around with a ton of different notebook brands; EcoSystem and Moleskine are my favorites. I use notebooks to journal, record ideas, quotes, keep a record of goals, make random notes, and as scrapbooks for ticket stubs, art, tokens and mementoes, fortune cookie sayings, vinyl stickers, and cartoons. My favorite mechanical pencil is the Paper Mate Apex (0.5), though I recently received a Pentel Graph Gear 1000, which I really like the feel of so far. My preferred pen, for now, is a Sharpie, but I’m experimenting and looking for something else that works a little better with my log.
As for apps, Google Drive is at the top, and as you can imagine Google Docs gets a ton of use for someone in my line of work. I also use Evernote to capture ideas, articles, research, and stuff to read, and I’ve set up IFTTT to archive my Instagram photos, tweets, and favorites to Evernote and Google Drive. Google Calendar and Gmail also get a lot of use, though I use Moleskine’s Timepage to track my appointments on my phone and tablet, since I prefer the aesthetics. I use the Lose It! app to track my nutrition and Garmin Connect to log my exercise. My Garmin Forerunner 235 was a major help last year when I trained for a half marathon and a sprint triathlon.
What’s your workspace set up like? (Do you do majority of work from office or do you work remotely):
I have a huge writer’s desk at home that is from another era. I picked it up from a church rummage sale at First Congregational in Fort Worth. I was told by the ladies managing the sale that it resided in the pastor’s office for many years until it fell out of fashion. When I spotted it, electronics and old televisions were stacked all over it. I asked if they were selling the desk, and I was told I could have it if I could get it out of there. I love it. I have art from my kids underneath the glass top and a print from Hieronymus Bosch of Christ carrying his cross. My desk has everything I need. In addition to my iMac, I have a secondary monitor that is elevated and linked to my main desktop, a pencil sharpener, a printer, books, and plenty of space to lay out my notebooks or books I am actively referencing. To my right I have a framed one page document hanging on the wall that lists our family’s values. I have bookshelves above my desk filled with theological works by Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Augustine, Brueggemann, Barth, and other scholars, pastors, and writers who have meant a great deal to me.
Among my collection I have several books of sermons by Paul W. Powell, who was my first pastor. I have another landing to my left where I keep items that are inspirational to me, gifts given from different congregants from my ministry through the years, a cross made of railroad spikes with a barbed wire crown at the top, Star Wars LEGOs that my son and I built together. I also have speakers and a sound system on a nearby surface so I can listen to music while I write. I prefer listening to jazz, like Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane, while I work.
But I don’t do all my work at home. I also work from coffee shops, especially when a project deadline draws near. I need to get out of the house, and the hustle and bustle of a public place helps me focus. I have a Timbuktu shoulder bag that I toss an iPad, stand, keyboard, and notebook into, and off I go. I also take a coffee mug, since Starbucks offers a cup discount when you bring your own.
Best short-cut; life hack you use:
Automation and routinization of tasks. The house has to get cleaned, the laundry has to get done, and that weekly or monthly newsletter has to ship. When I served in ministry as my “job,” I had a day each week when I issued a note to congregants, and I never missed a week. I had time blocked for sermon and teaching preparation, and I took a day every six months to do long range planning. Now, the same practice helps me manage our household. There are tasks I do daily, weekly, quarterly, and annually. I manage all this stuff with my to-do app.
I also use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method to write each day. I create a page in one of my notebooks and each day I put an “X” over a square once I’ve written my words. It keeps me disciplined.
How do you keep track of what you have to do:
I write down my goals and automate monthly and quarterly reviews. That way I can see how I’m tracking throughout the year. Like many people I set goals at the beginning of each year. I don’t make resolutions, even though I love this list by Jonathan Edwards.
But my most valuable tool for keeping track of tasks is Wunderlist. I love it. I have lists for Writing, Personal Goals, Someday/Maybe, Blog Ideas, Home Related Projects, Books to Read, Family, Music to Check Out, Groceries, and a Wish List. And I put deadlines on the important stuff. I then use the “Today” or “Week” list to see what I need to do and structure my time accordingly. If I have to put off a project, that’s OK. If I find myself with some free time, I knock out items on my list and work ahead.
What’s one of the least favorite aspects of what you have to do:
There is a sentiment expressed by various authors and writers that writing itself is loathsome, but having written is a delight. I’ve found that to be true. I once heard Daniel Pink compare writing to digging ditches. It can really be a grind. Sometimes the hardest part is sitting down, and being in a chair too long can be hard on the eyes, back, and body. Sometimes I have to make myself get up and walk around.
Passion/Side project of yours?
I’ve mentioned fitness. I also enjoy sketching and photography. But I’d say that one of my passions is the natural world, the outdoors. I like being in the woods, hiking, seeing state and national parks. One of my favorite spiritual disciplines is creation awareness. I’m not the most adept survivalist or outdoorsman, but I greatly enjoy time in the creation.
What gives you joy about your work:
There is an Estonian proverb that says, “The work will teach the worker.” My favorite thing about writing is discovery. I find out what I know, or what is known, or I work out what I think can be known, and pass it on.
But outside of writing, I find joy in teaching. In spiritual direction I find joy in praying for people, and in seeing them make connections between their everyday life and the activity of God.
Currently reading/ or anything you’d recommend one to read:
In 2017 my favorite books were Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Alan Jacobs’ How to Think. I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire at the moment, which is a brilliant collection of sermons. I recommend that everyone read Karl Barth’s Prayer. If you are a pastor or organizational leader, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, and if you’ve ever struggled with a life transition, I recommend Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings. I’ve read everything by Stanley Hauerwas, all the Wendell Berry I’ve been able to get my hands on, and I really enjoy the writing of James Bryan Smith. My favorite novel of all time is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Our world needs more ministers like Prior Phillip.