Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.

washing_feet_01Christians are called to self sacrifice and to give of themselves, their time, talents, energy, finances, commitment and heart to churches and other ministries.

As Pastors, we are called upon to be the ones who lead the way, who exhort our people to give and to model a self-giving, self-sacrificing lifestyle. What this ends up looking is like is pastors working 60-70 hours a week, trying to get to every meeting, trying to make every visit, preach the perfect sermon, lead the best bible studies and have office hours for drop in visits… not to mention counselling appointments, sweeping up the kitchen after youth and taking that extra half hour to deal with parking lot concern in the “meeting after the meeting”.

And I regularly hear the statement, “How can I ask my people to give if I am not leading the way”.

This style of ministry is very well intentioned. But it is utterly wrong headed and counter productive. Yes… I know that my colleagues and friends might disagree.

So let me start by making a confession:

I can count on one hand the number of weeks I have worked more than 40 hours in nearly 5 years in the parish.

I have lost count of the number of 35 hour weeks I have worked in the same period.

And guess what, not a single parishioner has ever asked about my hours. In fact most assume I am very busy (which I never say that I am), and most are very surprised when I can make time for them.

A part of this is that I am a fast writer. I can write sermons, reports, newsletter articles, blog posts in just a few minutes or short hours. I also very rarely have writers block. Now I know this might give me a good 5-15 hour a week head start on many of my colleagues. But now that I am done humble bragging, I think there is a much more important issue in regards to those other 20 hours that so many pastors are working over 40. And that issue is feelings.

Yup, feelings.

As pastors we encourage our members to give of themselves for many reasons. Because the hungry need to be fed, committees need members, Sunday school students need teachers, choirs need singers, sick and lonely people need visits, buildings need maintenance, etc…

But we also know that giving of ourselves is a very important part of our relationship with God and with our community. It feels good. And not in the self satisfying way, but in the soul- transforming-I-genuinely-know-the-other-and-God kind of way. So we encourage our people to give of themselves because we know that self-sacrifice is part of that soul changing work. 0511-1009-1319-0462_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Stressed_Out_Guy_with_the_Word_Overload_clipart_image

And because we know this as pastors, we often get ourselves into way too much of it and suddenly we are working 70 hours a week in a not so soul transforming way. I think there a few reasons for this:

  1. Pastors have hard time defining what our work is.
  2. It is an easy way to feel good when you are constantly on the front line of ministry.
  3. It feels really good to feel needed, and it is an easy way to be appreciated when we are praised for our busy-ness.
  4. Being busy is measure of value, specifically justification for our salaries.
  5. Many pastors lack the confidence to believe that our training gives us skills and knowledge that our people need. It just isn’t as evident to us as it is to doctors or lawyers or teachers who know very well that the people they work with need their expertise.

So here is the thing. We know that self-sacrifice and giving of ourselves feels good, and it is an easy way to justify our jobs.

But that stuff is in fact what we have been called out of and set apart from as those who fill the “office” of ministry in our congregations.

I went to a retirement party for a much beloved pastor. There were hundreds of people there, people from across the country. There were skits, songs, speeches, videos and many, many tears. And all night long there was this awkwardness because it was clear this pastor had sacrificed his family life… even brought home work for his family to do… The pastor’s family even gave speeches themselves saying their husband and father was never home and always working… but it was for Jesus.

I have heard colleagues tell me that their spouses won’t commit them to anything, or even tell them about kid’s concerts, sporting events or family functions because they know their pastor spouse will be absent.

This is more the sad norm than the exception.

Being a pastor changes the way we get to do that soul-changing work. We are set-apart from the normal stuff that everyone else gets to do and it is really hard, especially when you consider that most pastors were sent to seminary because they love and were good at that the stuff we call and exhort our parishioners to do. It is hard because the self-giving stuff that we encourage our people to do is above and beyond the 40+ hours they spend at their work, and we should be there too. It is hard because it is a powerful example to be leading the way in self-giving and sacrifice.

However, it always ends up messy. It is so easy for congregations to begin expecting 70 hour weeks, rather than seeing that those 30 hours as “extra”. Thom Rainer conducted an experiment to see what his council of deacons (or church council) expected him to be doing and how many hours a week he should spend doing it. The result, a 114 hour work week. And this was what the informed leadership expected of the pastor.

What begins as well intentioned modelling of self-sacrifice, morphs into congregations paying the pastor (and staff) to do most of the ministry of the laity or congregation. And a lot of my colleagues express this frustration, but don’t know any other way of doing things.

The answer is simple. The execution is hard. Stop giving 30+ hours of extra, dare I even say, “lay ministry” to your church.

This is extra hard for most pastors because leading the way in giving time and energy to the church is where that calling to ministry first grew.

This is what I know: My most important jobs are first and foremost Preaching the gospel and Presiding at worship. Doing those things with integrity takes 40% to 50% of my time. The rest is devoted to teaching, visiting the sick and dying, preparing people for baptism, marriage and funerals for another 20% to 30% and the last 20-30% is devoted to visioning, planing, getting everyone on the same page of mission and purpose.

What does that last piece look like? It is helping people to understand that the highest value and goal of being a church is to be a good worshipping community. A community that loves, respects and cares for each other, and a community that gathers and is formed first and foremost in worship.   When a congregation’s purpose is to be a good community formed in worship, the responsibility of the leaders becomes to name the destination and point the way. And it stops being getting all the jobs done… which is the goal of a church that is paying it’s pastor for 70 hours a week of ministry.

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One thought on “Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.”

  1. Interesting perspective Erik and has a lot of truth. When I was at VST, I asked for a time management class. The funny thing was that no one else in my class wanted one. “They were too busy”. It didn’t happen. Now in my last few visits with other clergy, all we talk about is how busy they are and time management. It seems to always come back to a poor time utilization and lack of tracking to see what you are doing and how much you are doing; All parts of time management. When you know you are at that 45 hour mark, will you take on that “extra” project? When you are booking a meeting do, you book on the week when you are all ready full? Sure I work 40+ hour weeks! But when you manage your time you use it more effectively, you don’t go into 70 hour territory. You may not have that perfect sermon. So what? And the most important lesson in that one is that it is ok. Good blog. Hope lots read it. M

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