The Problem of Re-entry

by J. Ellsworth Kalas

In the nearly forty years that I was a pastor I followed a practice that some better-preachers-than-I would frown upon.  I spent my mornings, Monday through Friday, in the church office, tending to administrative matters, correspondence, and sometimes appointments, and worked on my sermons in the bits and pieces of time between.  I accepted drop-in visitors, and telephone calls (unless someone was in my office at the time).  The church secretary didn’t try to screen calls: I reasoned that if she asked, “May I know the purpose of your call,” it would  likely discourage the persons who needed most to be listened to.

Some excellent preachers will tell you that my practice was impractical, because sermon writing is hard work (they’re right on that point) and that a preacher needs un-interrupted time if he or she is to do it well.  But somewhere I had gotten an image of what I thought a pastor should be, and I was trying to be a pastor.  I’m sure there were times when I felt sorry for myself, but in a phrase a German baker gave me years ago, those were occasions when “something was passing over my liver.”  I don’t know what that means, but I don’t really know what self-pity means, either.

But here’s the lesson I gradually learned.  The biggest hazard, time-wise, in accepting telephone calls and unscheduled visitors was not the time spent in the interruption, but in the re-entry time that followed.  The hazard of an interruption is that one extends it, voluntarily:  after the interruption you step out to talk with a staff member, or to get a coffee or a Dr. Pepper, or to re-shelve some books that caught your attention during the telephone visit — and before you know it, you’ve spent more time in re-entry than you did on the interruption.

So I learned to go back to my work immediately.  I learned, too, a writer’s secret — that it’s better to stop in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph than in a completed one, because the stream of thought is waiting for you.  I also learned that sometimes the interruption stimulated me.  It’s often up to us whether we’ll feel put upon, agitated, or pleased to get back to work.  As much as possible, we have to learn to be the boss of our own reactions.

But I learned something else that has blessed my life ever since: I learned how to write in whatever time I had.  I know of a fine preacher-writer who had a provision in his contract that he would have one day a week reserved exclusively for writing.  Many academicians count on sabbaticals to write their books.  And a great many simply dream of the day when they’ll have time to write.  I learned, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, to write in whatever time I had.  I like to have half-days, but I manage well with thirty minutes.  And sometimes, yes, with fifteen.

The muse isn’t completely under the writer, composer, or preacher’s control, but she can be taught to cooperate.  I’m grateful that difficult circumstances helped me to use the time I had rather than to wait for a perfect time.  Because, in truth, the perfect time rarely if ever comes.

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