Tag Archives: unbusy pastor

Why Pastors Shouldn’t Work More than 40 Hours a Week – And Why Most Do

“If you want to see me on my day off, you will have to die.”

A veteran pastor shared this line with me that he uses to protect his day off. He sets the boundary that the only work he is willing to make exceptions for, on his day off, is imminent death or funerals.

Managing work time and hours as a professional in ministry is a constant struggle. I don’t know many pastors who work less than a 45 hour a week, with many working 50 or 60 hours. Being “busy” and over-worked is the norm for most in ministry (as it is for many in our busy-ness focused society).

After 7 years of being in ordained ministry, I still have difficulty understanding just why so many pastors feel the need to work more than full time. While I have never heard anyone articulate it this way, I suspect many pastors have a sense that the first 40 hours are for the salary, and the rest are for Jesus. I am sure there are a few church folks who may agree, but I think this is a sentiment that originates with pastors themselves.

Many pastors are running around going to every church event, dropping everything for every hospital call or shut-in visit, answering every phone call, arriving before every church meeting and staying for the meeting after the meeting in the parking lot. It seems like many pastors and the churches they serve are completely content with the idea that the pastor is omni-present in body… while never being able to focus well – in mind and soul – on anything in particular.

I once attended a retirement party for a pastor leaving a long time call to institutional ministry. While it was a celebratory event, there was a certain awkwardness about the whole thing. The community he served thanked him for his tremendous service, while his family made jokes about their husband and father that was never home. And when he was home, he was bringing work with him. The community that this pastor served basically thanked this pastor’s family for sacrificing quality time with their husband and father… for Jesus?

I don’t think this is a healthy way to do ministry, nor do I think that Jesus calls pastors to be work-a-holics. 

A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Eugene Peterson called, “The Un-busy Pastor.” It is an article that has resonated with me, even though it was written the year before I was born.

The idea of an “unbusy” pastor seems like a rarity: A pastor who takes the time to contemplatively read scripture so that she is drenched in the word. A pastor who prays often enough and in such a way that she exudes calmness and wisdom. A pastor who is isn’t so busy running around from function to function, that she has time to listen when real listening is needed.

I don’t know what the cultural value of being busy in 1981 was when Euguene Peterson wrote about the unbusy pastor, but certainly being busy in 2016 is sign of importance. Now pastors have no exclusive claim to being busy in today’s world, but like so many other professions and jobs out there, being busy seems to be the way pastors show we are doing our job and worth our keep.

I can’t help but think of the contrast between the omni-present, omni-doing pastor with the idea of the unbusy pastor who, according to Peterson, focuses on prayer, reading scripture, and unhurriedly listening.

Decades ago as the church in North America became heavily prescribed and institutionalized post-WWII, the role of pastor shifted from leader, expert and resident theologian of a community to the chief do-er of ministry for a community. This means the culture now is one where instead of leading communities that do ministry, pastors do ministry on behalf of churches.

However, in the past 10 or years this has started shifting back. As churches contend with the big “change” happening around them (rapid technological advancement changing the way communities organize and interact coupled with decline of institutional christianity), many are realizing that communities need to be a part of ministry again. It can’t all sit on the shoulders of the pastor. As that shift takes place and pastors start doing less so that they can provide leadership and expertise, pastors will have to better understand how to prioritize their time.

In Eugene Peterson’s article the Unbusy Pastor, he suggests that being a busy pastor (as many pastors are) is actually a sign of laziness:

“The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.”

Taking control of our own schedules and prioritizing is essential as pastors shift from chief do-ers to expert leaders, but so is understanding how a pastor’s time is valuable to a faith community.

To that end, I think there are 3 competing ways in which a pastor’s time is valuable to congregations. Balancing these three will be essential for healthy ministry in the future.

1. Quantity

Society, at least legislatively speaking, thinks that about 40 hours of work a week is enough for most full time jobs. Yet, as pastors became the chief do-ers of ministry decades ago, added responsibilities meant more time. And as pastors worked to prove their value to their congregations, they worked more and more and more.

But when quantity of ministry is the highest value, it necessitates a decline of quality. You cannot write a good sermon if they are all Saturday night specials. You cannot plan for the future, if it takes all your energy to get through the day. You cannot attend to the needs of the community as a whole, if you are running from individual to individual like a nursemaid. You cannot take the time for prayer, reading scripture or to really listen, if your calendar is full of the appointments made by others.

2. Flexibility

Churches tend to hold their functions when most people are not working, which means pastors work when most people are off. Evening and weekends. Standard eight hour work days wouldn’t work for ministry. This means that usually a pastor’s day(s) off are a weekday, and that often pastors might find themselves without something scheduled on a weekday morning or afternoon. This flexibility works well for pastors and is a benefit to congregations, as churches wouldn’t be very good places for community if they operated on bank hours.

But when pastors start to work bank hours AND evenings and weekends, the boundaries around work-life balance disappear. Pastors set an expectation that they can be anywhere, anytime. Congregations then embrace that behaviour. Then when pastors do try to have boundaries, they have to say things like, “If you want to see me on my day off, you have to die.” Flexibility is important for ministry, but not a the cost of a balance of personal time and space. Nor at the cost of a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation, but that is for another blog post.

3. Expertise

Seminary training gives pastors tools and knowledge that simply cannot be found in other ways. The training and education shapes and forms a pastor into a person who should be a scholar of the bible, a competent provider of pastoral care, a theologian and liturgist, an administrator and leader of systems, and an educator and teacher among other things. Of course not all gifts and skills are equal among pastors, but there is a certain expertise that is brought to the table with a pastor. I know that I have studied the bible in ways that my parishioners have not. I know that I have been trained to care for emotional and spiritual needs in ways that most of my parishioners have not. I know that my understanding of theology and liturgy is resource that my congregation wouldn’t have access to without me.

But expertise takes time to keep up and maintain. It takes a sharp, well-rested mind to dig back to readings and lectures buried in the recesses of the brain. It takes time to keep up on current articles and books about ministry or theology or administration. It takes intentionality to leave the mind time to ponder and reflect on the bigger picture of ministry in the parish. The expertise a pastor provides is like a that of a doctor or lawyer or other professional. It should be seen as something that church people cannot receive elsewhere or on their own. Just like Dr. Google is not a substitute for a real doctor, nor is Pastor Google a substitute (says the pastor on his blog).

The balance between quantity, flexibility and expertise has long been weighted towards quantity. The sacrifice has been quality expertise. Too many pastors boast about not reading any books since seminary, nor having the time to do continuing education.

The church for the future needs less of a chief do-er of ministry and more of an expert leader. Pastors need to re-balance. Lots of ministry can happen in 60 hours a week, but good ministry should only take 40. After that you are not likely helping your congregation in their ministry, nor providing the leadership and expertise that the church has been longing for, for some time now.

As congregations and the Church contends with a changing world, Christians need pastors who can help prioritize the mission of the gospel. A pastor cannot help people grow in relationship with Jesus if that pastor is too busy filling his or her days with un-prioritized busy work.

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Thriving, healthy, mission and Jesus minded congregations will be led and served by unbusy pastors. 


Are you a pastor who works more than 40 hours a week? Why? How much do you think pastors should work and why? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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