Good Leaders Need a “To-Don’t” List


I recently attended a three-day training on community organizing and congregational leadership. There were many great insights that I’ll be chewing on for a while, but one hit me right away.

Our trainer quoted Jim Collins’s book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. According to Collins, all leaders have to-do lists, but great leaders also have stop-doing lists. These are tasks that someone else should be doing, and/or tasks that don’t have much impact in the long run but that keep us busy and make us feel useful. They take up our time to the point that we have no energy or mental bandwidth for the deep thinking or creative work that is essential to move an organization forward.

There was a definite buzz in the room when the trainer dropped this tidbit on us. One pastor couldn’t contain herself; she stood up and said, “My name is [Kate], and I’m going to stop photocopying the bulletins!” We all erupted in cheers, applause and nods of recognition. (We also recognized that she has some calling/training/equipping work to do before she gets to that point.)

As a Sabbath-minded gal, I am totally on board with leaving stuff undone—but I’m mainly good in the short term. When break’s over I try and pick everything up again. I’ve been complaining for several days about my kids’ crazy camp and swim schedules and having no time to think. But the truth is, I bear some responsibility for that. I’ve been holding on to (and committing to) too many things.

The training gave me permission to be more intentional about letting stuff go, not because I’m a slacker or unconscientious, but because there’s a bigger goal in mind. Granted, you’ve gotta be smart about what gets delegated to another person or to the floor. But there’s something liberating about saying, “I’m gonna get to that thing… never.”

Following the training, I had a great week eliminating the low-hanging fruit. Now I feel called deeper into this practice, which is going to be tough. It’s going to mean some agonizing decisions. When you stop doing, you disappoint people. (Ugh. UGH.)

Case in point: what about newsletter articles? Virtually every pastor I know detests writing them. Most people don’t read them, and it’s a chore to come up with compelling content each month. (If only there were a lectionary for newsletter articles!) But just enough people read them that we keep on doing this thing that saps our energy.

Of course, not everything we do is going to be fun. And Jesus does call us to care for the one wandering sheep over the 99 safe in the pen. But sometimes our time and energy gets held hostage by 2-3 people.

In fact, when we’re trying to decide what to stop doing, the question isn’t whether people benefit from the activity. The question is whether the activity is central to our mission as an organization, and whether the benefit is worth the cost to us personally, given other creative options we have for our time. Remember my theology of call lately, a la Howard Thurman: the world needs people who have come alive.

And in the case of newsletter articles: could these people’s needs be served in a different way that doesn’t drain us?

What do you need to stop doing? Maybe these sticky notes can help.

photo credit: Afroswede via photopin cc

11 thoughts on “Good Leaders Need a “To-Don’t” List

  1. Kathrynzj

    As you know, I’ve been trying to make the leap to ‘no newsletter articles’. I’m wondering if my ‘stop doing’ in regards to them may need to be – stop writing articles that look like the days of yore. I get a page in the newsletter to do stuff with every month. The only one that put the ‘it must be an essay’ parameter on it is me.

    Maybe the way you converted your ‘dining room’ to the blue room is what I need to do with my newsletter space.

    Thanks for coming back to this…

  2. Teri

    I confess that I stopped writing newsletter articles about 5 years ago. best idea ever. Seriously. Not one person ever mentioned that there was no longer a pastor’s column. NOT. ONE.
    Now I need something else to stop doing. hmm…

  3. Traci M Smith

    So… interestingly, I took over the entire newsletter at my new call, along with weekly e-notes. I find that LOTS of people read the e-notes but the Newsletter is read by a very VERY few die-hard readers. I’m considering DRASTICALLY reducing the length of the newsletter. Love this post.

  4. Bob Braxton

    upkeep, maintenance, repair, rejeuvenation, restoration of the physical church building – probably not a good idea – unless it is going to be a tear-down – in which case …

  5. Deb

    Even better – we don’t DO a newsletter. There is a weekly email with prayer requests and calendar reminders. Those who don’t have email sign up for a print of the email, which they can pick up on Sunday. (No. We don’t mail them.)

    The ONLY thing we mail are quarterly giving statements. Those are sent by the Church Treasurer who prints, stuffs and mails them.

    No. More. Newsletters.

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