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The art of being interruptible in 8 steps


Modern life seems to have turned into a dichotomy between being busy (generally, “too busy”) and being bored (or at best idle). An empty slot on the schedule needs to be filled, and everything needs to be timetabled.

That means, generally, that genuine interruptions are not welcome. I’m guilty of this: there are many times I have turned someone away, saying “I’m busy”. But there have also been a few times where I haven’t, and they have on occasion proved to be life-changing, both for me and for the person who was interrupting.


Illustration: Sir John Tenniel, in the public domain

Being interruptible is good – I am utterly convinced of that. But it’s not easy when you live in a culture of strivers and achievers. It’s not easy to stop seeking busyness; and that means it’s not easy to be interrupted. So here are 8 things you can do to become interruptible.

1. Build interruptibility into your entire day. Keeping specific hours clear for any interruptions is not sufficient: you don’t know in advance when you’re going to be interrupted. Otherwise, you could have scheduled it!

2. Don’t compensate for interruptions by working longer.  If you do, all those little interruptions are going to nibble away at what you think you can do without. Prayer. Personal time. Family time. Entertainment. Ultimately, you’re going to hate all the interruptions because they mean losing out on what you enjoy. But in order to not have to compensate, you will have to anticipate that some tasks will take longer, or that you will need longer to recharge your batteries than you think. Ultimately, it might mean taking on less than what you could take on. Be happy with mediocrity: not because it’s good in itself, but because it allows you to welcome interruptions.

3. Be sensible about it. If you’re teaching, or leading a study, or in a meeting, the interruption is going to affect more people than you. In those cases where other people directly suffer from the interruption (and there’s no helping it), don’t allow interruptions. But if you’re planning a lesson, or writing a financial report, or a thesis, or carrying out any form of solitary work, you can finish that later – as long as you had planned extra time for it during the day/week.

4. Appear to be interruptible. There’s a massive difference between someone frenetically typing away at his computer, chain-drinking coffee, with headphones on; and someone who frequently moves and offers to make cups of tea for others, and engages in conversation. Keep your door open or ajar if you have your own office. If people think you’re never doing any work, or don’t know what that work entails even though they spend a significant amount of time with you, it’s working. It isn’t that pleasant when people joke about your apparent idleness, but it’s worth it.

5. Know when to cut the interruption short. There are at least two reasons to stop the person who’s interrupting you. One of them is inevitable work or personal commitments. The other is where you find you’re not helping the person who’s interrupting you: either you’ve been going in circles for a long time, or the issue requires your full attention and should really be scheduled. The issue with apparent idleness is that your interrupters think you have an infinite amount of time to offer them; so it becomes difficult to do stop the interruption graciously. The “I’m working” line gets dismissed, so I find I have to say it with a bit more anger than I would like to. If you have any pointers on that, please leave them in a comment.

6. Prioritise. Some people are more prone to interrupt you than others. It may be down to the seriousness of the issue, but it may also be that you’re going around in circles. Or the interrupter may be using your conversation as a way to avoid their own work, or for other secondary purposes, where there is no serious issue to be dealt with. Being interrupted for a friendly chat or a cup of tea is fine, but if it happens too often, others won’t be able to interrupt you when they need to.

7. Have backup plans for emergencies. There will be times when you won’t be able to deal with the interruption. It could be that you just don’t have the time, or that you find it too emotionally straining. Have a network of people who are ready to take over from you.

8. Don’t use interruptions as an excuse. Don’t seek out interruptions as a way to avoid doing the work you’re meant to be doing and still feel good about yourself.

Come as you are: the issue of church garb


The church is known to be a liminal experience. Whether we like it or not, there is an “inside” and an “outside” of the church. Now this is something I think should be combated, for two reasons. Firstly, because it means that for some people, what happens in the church stays in the church. Secondly, because it means that some people will just not feel like they can come into church.

On top of the literal threshold of the church, there are many elements which can contribute to this liminal aspect. One of these is what to wear to church. The phrase “Sunday best” has come into standard vocabulary: some people dress up for church. Thankfully, people have also realised that this dressing up often is a barrier to others, and dress code in modern churches has been relaxed. The “Come as you are“, unconditional acceptance of others when they come in, has been taken in by many; and you will now see in many churches people wearing a T-Shirt and shorts, sometimes even with inappropriate flip-flops.


Photo: Francis Bijl, reused under CC license

Casually dressed people are less and less likely to feel out of place in churches: that’s good. Some people are making a conscious effort to dress down and be more welcoming to newcomers and to allow them to come as they are. That’s very good. Some people are starting to internally rebuke those who are still putting on their Sunday best for not understanding the Gospel of free, unconditional grace: that’s less good. Far less good.

Acceptance of others wherever they are does not automatically mean going for whichever attire requires the least effort. It does not mean deliberately going for the most visibly permissive choice, whether it is in terms of worship style, church garb, or even issues of behaviour.

It is usually the case that such an attitude is positive: churches, historically, have been bastions of proper, decent behaviour; and the perspective associated with that adds to the liminal experience of people going to church. But we must be careful that in doing so, we do not increase the liminal experience for those who are used to what might once have been termed decent behaviour.

People who like wearing a tie (or, if they’re cool, a bow tie) may feel out of place in a church where such efforts have been made that everyone wears shorts and T-Shirts. People who are ill at ease with homosexuality may feel out of place in a church where a liberal discourse has dominated all the discussions. In short, the informal crew does not have a monopoly on finding there is a threshold to cross to come into church, and the more traditional people must not be forgotten in our efforts to make the church a place where people are welcome to come as they are.

Of course, this must not come in the way of truth. If people feel that showing up in posh attire makes them better than the informal people, or that it is somehow effective to their salvation; they must be gently reminded of the Gospel of grace. But that can only happen if they can show up in church in that posh attire, or with this mindset, in the first place. Otherwise, they’re just going to discard whatever is told them or go somewhere else.

So, look around you in church. See how much of a mix it is. If you find nobody is wearing formal attire, do it for a while – not for the sake of being different; but for the sake of allowing others to bring themselves more fully into church. If you find nobody is wearing casual clothes, do it for a while. For the same reasons.

The awkward middle


Churches have to cater for, roughly speaking, two populations: the newcomers, people who have never been to this particular church before; and the established congregaion, who need perhaps more challenging than welcoming. Of course, the picture painted here is very sketchy: it doesn’t consider the nuances of visitors or occasional worshippers. But even taking these into account, there are roughly two groups: the new faces and the familiar faces.

All the churches I’ve been to embrace their mission to welcome all. I remember walking alone into church many times (as a visitor in many cases, but also as a first-time visitor) and every single time, I was introduced to many people, including more often than not the pastor, and feeling that people were taking a genuine interest in me. Tea and coffee after the service was also always appreciated. Especially with biscuits.

All the churches I’ve been to also have a lot of activities going on for their members: lots of ways to serve, midweek groups, community action, etc.: the church is not a continually repeated welcome. A good church spurs individual spiritual growth, and does not start over from scratch every week.

Of course, there is a tension for church leaders between serving newcomers and serving regular faces: how much should they explain, say, the structure of the service? Plug mid-week groups? There’s a danger of boring the regulars with the same information every week, and a danger of newcomers not knowing what to do. There are many practical ways of solving this: print the information – and, first and foremost, encourage the congregation itself to be welcoming to new faces, etc. It shouldn’t all come from the top!

So far, so good: we have churches that manage to cater for two distinct populations fairly well. The problem is: you don’t suddenly change from new face into regular face. There is an awkward middle: one where you haven’t, for instance, decided to get stuck in in that particular church, but no longer get the welcome you did as a “new face”. One where you’re neither an old face nor a new face. My experience is that most churches are in denial about this awkward middle, probably because they don’t know how to address it.

There are churches that outright try to skip the awkward middle by making newcomers sign up to a wealth of activities on their first day. Or at least to the mailing list, which then gets indiscriminately used. For all intents and purposes, once you’re on that list, you are no longer seen as a newcomer. This strategy works with a very limited population: those who (a) know they won’t be going to a different church, and (b) have a passion for church life that is burning enough for them to unreservedly sign up when offered. But there will be a large-ish number who will not want to sign up straight away. I tend to fall in that category. And for us, it is damaging, because we feel a certain guilt at not having signed up when it was first offered, imagine we have missed the train, and end up disengaged with church activities.

There are churches that fall on the other end of the spectrum. The awkward middle is simply an extended newcomer phase, and there is a definite shyness in sharing either opportunities for service or mid-week groups. Transitioning from newcomer to known face becomes, then, frustrating.

As far as I can tell, there is no magic formula that will sort out the issue of the awkward middle for everyone at once – simply because when that awkward middle happens is very much dependent on the individual. But here are a few ideas:

  • most importantly, know and care for all individuals coming to your church. Remember what they tell you, but don’t let that stop you from going and talking to them – there is always more to say! Only ever offer further involvement in the framework of that caring relationship. This means that you should know at least a few things about whom you’re inviting.
  • as a church member, be transparent about your extra activities. Invite newcomers to non-threatening, one-off (even if repeated one-offs!) events: do not call them “small group”, or anything that would suggest that once you go there, you must continue to do so.
  • remember that small groups, or whatever other activity you get involved in, is not an end in itself: community and growth tend to be the purpose. If that is clear,
  • as a church/team leader, make it easy for people to help out “on the day”, without commiting to further service on further weeks. This could be a slot on the rota that is deliberately left empty (help with tea, or with welcome, etc.)
  • periodically ask for help in various specific teams. Do not limit the notices to the “big jobs” held by one person only, and that feel out of reach!

Any other ideas?

Are you a shoes off church?


The other day, a friend came over to watch a film. As he got in, he saw a shoe rack, and naturally took off his shoes. Our house doesn’t operate a shoes off policy, but seeing all these led him to, naturally, take his shoes off.

Every place has its own set of rules as to what is acceptable or not. And that’s fine – Biblical, even. But if we’re trying to be welcoming to people wherever they are, we have to also let them feel that they can be themselves. That they can, if they wish to, keep their shoes on – within the limitations we have had to put in place for everyone to be able to enjoy church and fellowship. To do that, we need to make sure that we don’t look like a sanitised, sterile place, where mud is to be kept out at all cost.

That means that churches and chaplaincies alike have to be places where people are comfortable with the more personal aspects of sin, and visibly so. And for that to happen, it means that those at the top should show themselves as people who sometimes struggle (without, of course, exalting sin!) and that the congregation should do the same (without, of course, turning the competition for who’s the holiest into a competition for who’s the most sinful!)

That is important in order to be welcoming – in order to offer people a place where they can embark on their own process of sanctification from the place that they are at, rather than having to double their own efforts to catch up with the rest of the congregation in order to come fully into the church. In order for their whole persons, sins, warts and all, to embark on that process of sanctification, rather than leaving that muddy shoe on the doorstep.

It is also important even for someone like me who already feels welcome in the church or the chaplaincy, because if I leave that muddy shoe on the doorstep and then pray for forgiveness, am washed clean, and then go back out the doors of the church, I will put that muddy shoe back on. Only by taking full stock of my own sin can I feel the liberation of redemption. And I can’t do that if I’ve left my sin at the door of the church – whether willingly or not.

But it feels like, although we know we can come with our muddy shoes, and that anyone is welcome to come and worship, regardless of where they’re at – although we know this really well, we are complacent in how we make that known to others. Our first message should not be “You are forgiven”; it should be “Come as you are.” The exhilarating feeling of forgiveness can only come afterwards.

What are you doing to reassure people they can keep their shoes on, regardless of how muddy they are?