This is the latest "PastorConnect" article.
As busy pastors, we have to sort and sift through incredible loads of information. We have books and journals to read, schedules to plan, meetings to attend, sermons to write, programs to lead, e-mails to return, phone calls to answer, and people to meet. There seems to be an endless avalanche of information coming our way-information that is useful, helpful, and important, but difficult to track.
You come across an insightful quotation in a journal article and think, "That quote really communicates an important leadership principle. I'll use that in our next board meeting." But when Tuesday evening rolls around, you can't even remember where you read the quote.
Someone hands you a scrap of an offering envelope with the phone number of someone looking for a church. You intend to follow up with a phone call, but four days later that paper is buried under a pile on your desk and is out of sight, out of mind.
You're preaching through the Gospel of John and come across a powerful anecdote in a book you're reading that well illustrates a passage you will be preaching from in six weeks. But when you sit down to prepare that sermon six weeks later, you have no idea what the story was or where you read it.
What's the problem? An inadequate system for tracking information.
I've been there; and I've discovered a few strategies that have helped me immensely. They will not all work for everyone, but perhaps they will inspire you to invest some time and attention to developing your own system of managing information.
1. Eliminate loose paper. One of the most important moves for me has been eliminating paper as soon as possible. Paper gets lost. So when someone gives me a phone number, I add it to my Outlook address book or my cell phone as soon as possible.
Whether in a conference or a meeting, I take notes on my laptop rather than on paper. (If you have a PDA, it's even easier.) If I find an illustration or quotation I want to remember, I type it (or a reference to it) into a Word document and put the book or magazine back on the shelf or in the filing cabinet. The most effective way to keep up with information is to save it on something more permanent than a sticky note or offering envelope.
2. Keep thorough notes of everything. Meetings, books, counseling appointments, and sermon preparation can cause information overload. Taking and keeping thorough notes helps me track the information. I rarely sit in a meeting or counseling session without taking notes of some sort. When I read a book, it is usually with pen in hand, and I often write some sort of review or summary of the book when I'm finished, noting pages or chapters which were especially helpful.
I am most thorough with notes in sermon preparation, because this is work I don't want to repeat later. If I find a helpful quotation or illustration or an illuminating insight in a commentary, I include all of the bibliographical information in my notes. This keeps me from having to look it up again later, should I want to turn the sermon into an article or the chapter of a book.
Of course, not all of this information makes it into my sermon. For each sermon I will usually have at least two files. One is marked "Exegesis," with all of the raw material from my study, and another contains the actual manuscript or outline I carry into the pulpit.
3. Develop a good electronic filing system. This is essential, and it's not difficult. Computers make it easier than ever. My system is not complicated and doesn't involve any special programs. I just categorize and organize everything into appropriate and very specific folders.
In my Church folder are separate folders for 35 subcategories, covering everything from Deacons and Trustees to Weddings and Funerals to Counseling notes, Letters, and Church Documents (constitution, policies, etc). Things are relatively easy to find there.
Other major folders include Sermons (divided by year, then subdivided by series), Writing, and MP3 Files (where I save downloaded sermons), along with folders of my personal information.
Perhaps the most important file for saving and retrieving information is the Future Sermon Idea and Illustration File. This is where I save anything I think may be helpful to a future sermon, even if it's not in a series I'm currently preaching. If I read a quotation that makes me think of a passage it might illustrate, I create a file for that passage and file it accordingly.
Since I preach expositionally through books of the Bible, I usually file expositionally instead of topically. If the story or quote will work for more than one passage, I create two files for it. I may not preach through Philippians for another five years, but there are already illustrations beginning to accumulate for at least five sermons.
4. Sort and file often. Sometimes people tell me that they have over 1000 e-mails in their inbox! When things get to that point, sorting becomes a nearly impossible task. It is better to sort and file often. I purge my inbox regularly, filing what I want to keep and deleting the rest. I do the same thing with my Desktop and My Documents. Keeping everything clean and uncluttered makes it much easier to track down the information I need when I need it.
Managing information may not seem overly "spiritual," but a lack of organization will have detrimental effects on other more important areas of our pastoral vocation. Some simple yet deliberate strategies for storing and retrieving important information will help us better serve the Lord and His people.
Making It Personal
*Am I a good steward of the information which people entrust to me (phone numbers, prayer requests, contacts for outreach, etc.)?
*Does my personal workspace (desk, file cabinet, computer) reflect a disciplined and well-organized mind?
*Do I make the most of my reading and study by taking and storing notes for future use?
*What is one simple strategy I could implement to help me more effectively manage information?