Prince Raney Rivers: Leadership and the cluttered desk

‘Empty desk, empty mind?’ Or does clutter keep us from innovation?

Pastoral leadership requires a multitude of priestly duties.  We hold the hands of the dying.  We baptize the living.  We marry loving couples and preach the good news of Jesus Christ.    

While seminary prepared me well for many of the tasks I perform weekly, there is one task that I have had to learn on the job.  It is mundane, but when it is done poorly it only makes the work we do that much harder.  

I used to believe that the paper on my desk wasn’t a problem.  I remember childhood visits to my dad’s office seeing paper stacked three to four inches high on his desk.  My teasing him about his piles of paper never motivated him to change. 

I have heard people talk about losing weight and slowly regaining the weight.  I completely understand.  I have experienced both success and failure in this area of pastoral administration. The thought once occurred to me that my paper piling habits were determined in the womb by some complex genetic code. 

Then I read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.

Allen argues that we often struggle to maintain a clutter free workspace not because we are “pilers” rather than “filers,” or because we don’t have a system in place.  Rather, we have systems, but we never use them, because we know subconsciously that they don’t work.  We tolerate the unpleasant conditions instead of changing them.

We know the file cabinet is a mess before we open it, so we just leave the paper on the corner of the desk.  We don’t have blank file folders on hand so we toss a letter in our “to be filed” pile.  Repeat that habit enough times over the course of the day and a new pile is conceived.  By the end of the month, the pile mutates into a feng shui-altering mass.  Clutter is born. 

Recently, I’ve wondered if the state of a pastor’s desk has anything to do with leadership.  I think it does.

 If we develop organizational systems, personal or institutional, around our inefficient idiosyncrasies, aren’t we missing an opportunity to collaborate more fully with those who work alongside us?  If clutter increases our level of anxiety, and I think it does, how can we create the kind of space where the mind can be free to innovate and imagine new possibilities? 

I think there are pastoral implications, as well.  Doesn’t a cluttered work area make it harder to offer genuine hospitality to those who visit our offices for consolation and encouragement?  Do we want guests feeling like their visit is an interruption of the far more important work staring impatiently at them from the corner of our desk?

My high school chemistry teacher was a brilliant instructor who made us love science.  Whenever someone inquired about the state of his unkempt desk, he always said, “A cluttered desk may be a cluttered mind, but an empty desk is an empty mind.” 

I’d like to catch up with him after all these years and see if he’s changed his mind about that.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.