Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently,
lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen,
and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.
—Deuteronomy 4:9 (RSV)
Every Christian has a way of being and living, whether it is an intentionally developed ‘Rule of Life’ or an unstated set of values and practices, like praying before meals and going to church twice a month. But many of us are not as deliberate with our own spiritual development as we are with our time and priority management at work, and our inmost beings suffer as a result.
In the midst of our busy schedules, we are constantly juggling relationships and responsibilities and often feel like we’re dropping more balls than we’re keeping in motion. When a Christian fails to develop a consistent and thoughtful way of doing life well, he or she will end up distracted and overwhelmed by life, and his or her spiritual and emotional maturity will become stunted.
It follows that when an entire community fails to practice intentional centering on God and his Word, it becomes stagnant, unfruitful and even hazardous to its members. And surely if an entire movement of Christianity, such as the evangelical church in America, were to fail to maintain an anchor of spiritual depth and rhythm, it would not outlast any other ‘movement’ in church history. Imagine what that would look like: a large collection of God’s children who are almost utterly indistinguishable from the pagan world around them! Hmm…
I doubt many believers wake up in the morning and decide to enter their days with a scattered approach and unnecessary hurry, but it just happens. I know it all too well. So often, I lie down at night wondering what in the world just happened in the last 24 hours. My personal belief is that most of us evangelicals won’t be undone by poor theology or a lack of biblical information; instead, we’ll fail to progress spiritually because we lack the proper planning to give birth to a deep and abiding fellowship with God.
The lack of spiritual planning may be rooted in lukewarm heart toward Christ, but at many other times, we genuinely want to go deeper with God yet don’t know how to make time and space in our busy lives to simply be with him and gain spiritual resources from him. What are we to do?
“Begin with the end in mind.”
—Stephen S. Covey
For the last four years, I have been reviewing what you could either call a ‘Rule of Life’ or a ‘Life Plan’ on a weekly basis. Every three to six months, I take a day away, usually at an out-of-town retreat center or an in-town coffeeshop or library, to re-write and re-focus on this essential document. It has gone through a number of developmental phases and countless editions, but every single week, it has served as a simple, centering set of Bible verses, vision statements and action steps that guide my life and spiritual formation.
I was first introduced to the life plan by the master coach Brian Howard, who is counted among the disciples of gedi coach Daniel Harkavy, who has also trained Patrick Lencioni and Michael Hyatt. When I have introduced the idea of ‘life planning’ to many of my friends and coachees, the phrase typically conjures up detailed to-do lists that rigidly determine the next few decades of life. But nothing could be further from the truth. The life plan exists to center an individual, especially one who is managing a large number of relationships and responsibilities, on a few central truths and practices that are to be remembered and practiced regardless of life stage, current employment and goal setting. Because of this confusion, I’m finding it helpful to use the old phrase ‘rule of life’ instead.
‘The Rule,’ as its often called, has a rich history in Christian tradition. The early monastic movement, where Christians retreated to the deserts of Egypt and Arabia to be with God, gave birth to the Rule of Life. Pachomius’s rule is the oldest known document, written in the early fourth century, and John Cassian was the first high-profile leader in the Western church to develop a rule. The most well known and widely practice rule of life was written by Benedict in the sixth century. The Rule of Saint Benedict has influenced Eastern and Western Christians for roughly 1500 years, and many Reformers and evangelical patriarchs have practiced similar spiritual routines without the title.
It shouldn’t be surprising for contemporary evangelicals to discover that ancient Christian practices are also immensely practical and life-giving for our busiest and most productive CEO’s, authors and pastors. But what exactly is a Rule of Life and how do we write and practice it?
One contemporary author writes: “A Rule of Life, very simply, is an intentional, conscious plan to keep God at the center of everything we do… The starting point and foundation of any Rule is a desire to be with God and to love him” (Scazzero, EHS, 196). The goal of our lives is to live in deep communion with Christ and to be firmly anchored in our union with him. But how and when and where we practice these blessed realities will depend greatly on a number of factors, including our life stage, work and physical capacity. (Namely, if you have small children, you’re going to need to pace yourself for about a decade.) The following elements should be considered when developing a rule of life.
Fellowship with God
Silence and solitude
Soul exploration (or ‘examen’)
Personal health and fitness
Simplicity (toward finances and possessions)
Children and parenting
Ministry and Work
Church participation and liturgy
Service and mission
Education and development
Typically, I keep these same four over-arching categories the same, and the first two sets—fellowship with God and human flourishing—almost exactly the same year to year. But the final two categories, though I always keep them in my rule of life, contain a number of elements that change and need to be adjusted on a monthly or quarterly basis.
I have also added to my rule of life document a number of additional pages that address very specific things, such as vision statements and plans for the ministries I oversee, particular plans and goals for my hobbies and recreation, and planning documents for my professional development as a pastor, coach and writer—so that my entire rule of life document is currently eight pages and over 3000 words, but the essential stuff is only two pages and about 700 words.
“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
—Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry
Now, when writing a rule of life or a life plan for the first time, I recommend a certain way of doing things, as passed down to me by a number of others who are much wiser than me.
You absolutely must, and there is no room for discussion here, plan an entire eight to ten hours to focus entirely on this one task. The best thing you can do right now, if you’re interested in writing a rule of life, is to get out your calendar and pick an entire day away for this. If you’re so important and constantly needed that you can’t get away for eight hours, consider starting at 3:00am and going till 11:00am on a Sunday or going from 5:00pm to 1:00am on a work night if you’re an evening person.
Go to a retreat center (if you’re in Louisville, call the Abbey of Gethsemane or Country Lake Retreat Center) or, if you don’t have ridiculous allergies, find a quiet and beautiful park (such as Olmstead’s Cherokee or Iroquois Parks or Mount Saint Francis).
Don’t bring this essay or any other life planning document to fill out. Read through all this the night before, and bring only a Bible and a blank notebook.
Don’t bring your iPhone or anything else with music on it, and if you’re driving to a retreat center, make the drive in silence and use the time to say simple prayers aloud for the day ahead.
Start with God’s Word
I typically spend the first three to six hours of my day away reading through passages of Scripture that help quiet and center my soul. The goal is not reading a ton of Bible, but slowing down your mind, so consider meditating on only a handful of verses or a few Psalms. I also find that slowly reading through an entire book of Scripture, such as Exodus or Mark, is time well spent prior to any writing.
Pray Through Your Key Areas
Of the 17 areas above, pick maybe 8-12 that you want to focus on, write them down and begin to pray through them. You’ll get a good sense of which areas of your life need your attention first. It’s incredibly easy to rule out the area of your life that needs the most attention. Often, our family finances are the last thing I want to spend time thinking and praying about, but it’s an area where my heart is easily moved to sin and I need to practice regular submission to God with our money and possessions.
Pick a Key Verse for Each Category
So for the four major categories of life—not the 8-12 smaller elements you’ve just picked above—find and write out a verse or two to memorize and meditate on weekly. Also consider writing out a vision statement for that realm of life in the present tense (something you want to be true of you) and commit it to memory as well. I have also identified seven core values to guide and direct my life: Scripture, Space, Sabbath, Simplicity, Sacrifice, Celebration and Shepherding. These seven values are organized into the four key categories, and I’ll develop these further in the fall.
Lastly, Write Out Action Steps
Remember the difference between goals and action steps. A goal is something you want to achieve (like running a marathon) and an action step is a rhythm of life that puts you in a place to get there (running for an hour five days a week or something—I hate running so I’m not really sure). But be careful not to write out a thousand steps you need to take to achieve a single goal—you can do that any day of the week. The goal here is to focus on action steps that you will take every single day or week, regardless of life stage, employment and current goals/plans. So I don’t recommend having more than a total of about 15 action steps. But be as absolutely concrete, measurable and tangible as possible with your steps. You should be able to directly translate your rule of life into a calendar when you get home. So your rule of life will state “pray for ten minutes each morning at home at 7:30am” and then your calendar will have a ten minute time slot for this activity. If you can’t put the action step into a calendar, you’re not there yet.
“A good plan violently executed now
is better than a perfect plan next week.”
—General George S. Patton
Here, at long last, is my own personal rule of life, open to your criticism and ridicule.
Communion with God
Verse: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD… How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:1,9).
Vision: I am a man of deep fellowship and communion with God. I enjoy daily time in Bible reading and prayer, and see all of life—my family, my ministry, my suffering and so on—as opportunities to reflect on God’s Word and will for my life. As a result of my intimacy with the Father, I am a man of peace, self-control, compassion, rest and hope.
Space (to be present with God)
I read short portions of the Bible daily and engage in prayer for 30 min daily in my office before work
I take two hours on Friday morning for extended Bible reading and prayer
I actively participate in worship and liturgy with my church family on Sunday mornings
I take the first Friday for a full retreat day for extended contemplative reading and prayer
I review my rule of life every Friday morning after reading and prayer
Verse: “Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.” (Deut. 4:9).
Vision: I am a human being, created in the image of God, with limits and need as part of my humanity. I am a steward of the health and fitness God has given me, and I continually refresh myself spiritually, physically and emotionally by engaging in vigorous exercise. As a result, I have energy and stability despite my chronic illness, and I have relational space for my family and church members.
Simplicity (toward money and possessions)
I sleep an average of 9 hours every night (10pm-7am)
I work an average of 50 hours weekly, including only two evenings weekly
I exercise daily (walking and pushups) and go the rec center on Tue, Thu, Sat afternoons
I play at least one round of golf or go to the driving range weekly on Monday
I track our expenses, prioritize simplicity in our money and possessions, and talk weekly with Jessie about our spending and saving
I do a weekly review of my work, pacing and exercise on Sunday afternoon or Monday evening
Verse: “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Vision: I am a loving, present husband to Jessie and father to Joseph and Jude. They delight to be with me because I am fully engaged at home. I surprise Jessie with my love, vision, sacrifice and prayerfulness for her. I lead my boys toward holiness through instruction and discipline. I maintain a small, deep set of friendships, seek out spiritual mentors and am present and engaged with my extended family across the country. As a result, I am thriving in my identity as a person-in-community—made in the image of a gloriously triune God.
I engage Jessie in conversation, focusing on listening rather than speaking every evening
I pray for Joseph and Jude—for their salvation, health and maturity at their bedtimes each night
I take Jessie out for a coffee or dinner date without the kids twice monthly
I watch the boys every Saturday morning for 3-4 hours so Jessie can get time out
I am actively engaged in the life of my community group, including the weekly evening meeting
I hang out with guys one night a week, preferably on a back porch with good food and drink
I call my parents and Drew & Sarah twice monthly
I meet with a spiritual mentor (Tim Beltz or Rich Plass) at least monthly for mentoring and soul care
Calling & Vocation
Verse: “I proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29).
Vision: I am a pastor, called by God and biblically qualified by my conversion, maturity and giftedness, and affirmed by the elders of Sojourn. As the executive pastor of Sojourn East, I prioritize pastoral presence, teaching, community life and leadership development. As a result of my intentionality and purposefulness in ministry, people around me and behind me are thriving in Christ and full of vision and love.
I review my ministry vision and plan and ideal week on Sunday afternoons
I prioritize pastoral presence with our leaders and members
I limit “people time” including services and meetings to 25 hours weekly
I plan my top priority and daily goals each work morning before checking email
I carefully prepare and rehearse for every bit of public teaching and communication
I spend Friday afternoons on vision projects, planning and personal development
I check in with each of my eight key people at least by phone/text at least once weekly
You’ll notice I have about 25 action steps total, but I’ve been doing this every week for four years, so consider starting with 8-12 and work up from there. Some of these are far more challenging for me than others, and you want to strike a balance between challenging yourself and being helpful and realistic with your way of being and life planning.
In a later essay, maybe I’ll tell you what pages 3-8 of my rule of life document look like. But that may be a few months, so get started on all this and let me know when you’re ready for step two.
In everything, remember the purpose of the rule of life: To intentionally create time and space to enjoy deep fellowship with God, so that he can reorient and direct your days to increasingly glorify him along the way.
Be easy, folks.
For more on the historical development of the Rule of Life, see Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. For more on life planning, see Daniel Harkavy’s Becoming a Coaching Leader and Michael Hyatt’s forthcoming book with Harkavy, The Life Plan Manifesto. For the best resource on time and priority management, check out Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.