Nothing traps you in the urgency of the moment like availability. A leader that is always available never has the time to lead. He or she simply becomes an order taker for the next person who happens to stop by. Required office hours create a cage, a punch clock prison. Or the other extreme—when all your followers are your gatekeepers, there are no fences. Your life becomes a field of chaos.
I recognize the above hyperbole. But perhaps you have felt the teeth of this trap from time to time. For introverts, constant availability is exhausting. For extroverts, it is enlivening but entirely distracting. How do leaders—especially pastors—balance a desire to be there for people without falling into the trap of endless availability?
First, most people know pastors are not always available (some might believe their pastors sit in their offices, just waiting, just hoping someone will call, but I believe this group is a small minority). Most congregants sympathize with a pastor’s busy schedule. They are also busy. They understand pastors are not always available, but they do want to feel connected to their church leaders. Congregants want to feel like their leaders are accessible to them.
Allow me to make a distinction between leadership availability and leadership accessibility.
- Leadership availability: Always on hand in one place. Nearby, in person.
- Leadership accessibility: Easily reachable with several lines of communication.
I could spout plenty of time management principles here—steps to building better boundaries. Many leadership experts give sound advice in this area. But I want to focus on how to manage the perceptions of your followers. After all, if they feel you are there, then perception becomes reality.
The available pastor sits in an office at the church for the entire work week. The accessible pastor is reachable within the community. Available pastors are in one spot, on demand and at the command of others’ schedules. Accessible pastors have a strategy to be in many places, visible yet on their own schedule. So how do you create a culture of accessibility without spiraling into one in which you must always be available? How do you manage the perceptions of followers who—rightly—desire your time? Below are a few tips I have found beneficial in my ministry. Feel free to add your own in the comment stream.
Give out your cell phone number. Many leaders make the mistake of keeping their cell phone private. Unless you lead thousands of people (i.e. the CEO of a large corporation), then you should probably give followers your cell phone number. Get a plan with unlimited texting. Allow people to text you (and respond). It sounds scary, but it’s one of the best things I’ve done as a leader. I’m easily accessible. It gives me the opportunity to respond quickly and shortly. It keeps me connected to the younger generation. By having my cell phone, people feel like I’m always accessible. (Almost) no one abuses the privilege. And you always reserve the right to block the numbers of consistent offenders.
Don’t hide in your fortress office. If you are always in the cubicle, then people will come to expect you to be there. Introverts gravitate towards the safe box, but it’s a trap… the calm and quiet you seek is not to be found there. By always being in your office, you are inviting unnecessary noise into your world.
Be active in social media. Available leaders have limited ways in which people can contact them. Accessible leaders have multiple options for communication. Social media facilitates accessibility in two ways. First, it allows people to interact with you apart from traditional lines of communication. Followers post encouragement on your Facebook wall, and they leave messages about how a sermon helped. Second, it gives people a window into your life. Believe it or not, people are nosey. They like to know what their leaders are doing. You will prevent many questions (and quell rumors) simply by creating an online journal of your activities. Social media allows me to control—to some degree—how people perceive my actions.
Embrace your public image. Pastors are public figures. If you don’t want to live in a fishbowl and under a microscope, then don’t become a pastor. You must embrace the fact that you are a figurehead—in your church and in your community. Be visible. The more visible you are, the more you are accessible, and the less you have to be available. Even if you have to set aside 1-2 hours a week just to walk around, make sure you are interacting with people. For example, our church is located in a downtown area. I often walk around and step into local stores. On campus, I love jumping into all the groups that meet throughout the week, even if it just means popping your head into a room and waving to everyone. Accessible pastors embrace their public image and use it to their advantage.
Be available to those who need you most: your family, mentees, the hurting, key leaders, and your direct reports. Availability to all, however, is a trap. But for everyone else in your flock, you must be accessible to them.