Tag Archives: busy

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

Why Pastors Suck at Self-Care

Shoddy self-care seems to be an epidemic among pastors these days.

Almost as often as I meet with professional ministry colleagues, I have conversations about how difficult it is to take time off and to regularly practice self-care. Pastors bemoan the fact that we cannot seem to find time away from the parish. Working on days off is the norm instead of the exception. Forty hour work weeks are fanciful ideas, whereas 50 hours is considered a slow week. Families that never see a pastor spouse /parent is the common narrative among pastors’ families.

Somewhere along the way in Christianity – mainline, conservative, evangelical, liberal, orthodox – it has become acceptable to expect that pastors will drop everything, including sleeping or eating, to be at the beck and call of their congregations God.

I have been asked what seminaries teach now about self-care, having only graduated 5 years ago. Self-care was one of most common mantras of my seminary education, and it seems obvious to me that you can’t really care for others, or fulfill your vocation with integrity, if you are a burned out wreck… yet so many pastors obviously feel the opposite.

For so many professional ministers, a well rested, healthy pastor is a pastor failing at ministry. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative study on self-care among pastors, suggests that many ministers think self-care is selfish. My colleagues have told me that there was a day in seminary education when the message to students was that being a pastor meant giving your life to Jesus (or in other words, to your congregation 24/7). There is no room for self-care in ministry.

I have three things to say to that idea.

  1. What??!?
  2. Wait… what??!!?
  3. Bullshit.

Given our propensity for being bad at self-care, I think it behooves pastors to reflect on just why so many of us think that well-rested, healthy pastors are failing at ministry.

Of course, I have a few ideas about this:

Being crazy busy is the social norm.

The clergy is by no means the only profession where people are expected to over-work and over-function. Being crazy busy is a badge of honour in our culture. Bragging about the lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of leisure is just part of everyday conversation. Busy is normal, burnout nearly expected.

Working for Jesus lets us put our families and ourselves second.

While being busy is a cultural norm, there is the counter-narrative out there that putting family and a personal life ahead of work is important. But working for God is a holy calling, and so if the property committee schedules a meeting at 7am on our day off, Jesus will be mad if we don’t show up. Right?

Many pastors think our vocational goal is to care for everyone.

credit: http://salesjournal.com/2014/06/06/the-tyranny-of-the-urgent/

I think a lot of pastors and congregations see the primary job of  pastors to be care givers. Like a nurse or counsellor, we often see ourselves as someone whose job it is to help people feel better or feel good. Most care-givers go home at the end of a shift and are no longer on call, but many pastors feel responsible for their communities 24/7.  Often we see this to mean jumping at the drop of a hat to address a parishioner’s need, whether truly urgent or not. Life and death is urgent. Gossip, scheduling issues, complaints or other mundane things are not. The care that we offer as pastors is not the end in itself, but rather a tool to help our people see God in their lives.

Trying to prove our worth to our congregations

A lot of what pastors do is hard to quantitatively measure. Sermons are not measured by their word count. Bible studies are not measured by verses studied. But pastoral presence can be measured and tracked. I think many of us know that our jobs are provided for based on the generosity of others. Being omni-present and available is a way to justify our worth. Working 60 hours a week makes us believe that the church can’t survive without us. And being omni-present in order to justify our worth means those hard to quantify duties suffer, like planning worship, preparing sermons (including down time for creativity to seep in) and teaching the bible with intention and purpose.

Congregations fall in to cycles of consuming faith

We consume everything in our society. Church and pastors are just another thing to consume. Worship has become entertainment. The Bible is information to bolster our already established world views. Pastoral care is just another service we receive. No wonder pastors burnout if they are being consumed by those they serve.

Being a quivering mass of availability precludes other transformational work

It is impossible to be available 24/7, yet many pastors try. When pastors try to be present for every meeting, every event, every person in need, every time the church door needs to be unlocked, we are over-functioning for the community we serve. But being-omni present also means that consideration about what it means to be a community that cares for each other is lost too. Taking on all the responsibility to care for each member of the community means that care for the community as a whole is missed. It also absolves people of sharing in the caring work. Caring for each member is draining work, but caring for a community as a whole and its behavioural systems is also hard work. It is nearly impossible to do the whole community work when a pastor is emotionally drained on caring for individuals.

Pastors have become something between a paid friend and counselling professional.

Sometime in the 1960s, as Clinical Pastoral Education and counselling began to enter into ministry, pastors moved from being community leaders, teachers, prophets, moral authorities, to travelling visitors and caregivers, who also provided free quasi-professional counselling. There is nothing that will suck your time away like having to add “being a friend / providing free on call counselling for anywhere from 100 to 1000 people” to your job description, not to mention keeping up with all the other duties of a pastor. As the role of pastor shifts and changes, like the moral authority aspect of the role that has been largely dropped, so to will the paid friend aspect have to go.

Pastors find their roles hard to define.

Another result from the Duke Clergy Health Initiative was that pastors often feel like congregational members don’t understand the breadth of clergy duties. Many feel like parishioners only see the one hour of work on Sundays. While this may be true of parishioners, I think that clergy are also guilty of not understanding the breadth of our own duties.

Poor self-care is ultimately a problem of priorities. I suspect that, with so much to do in most parishes, and all the reasons I stated above, pastors have a hard time prioritizing. And this is because priorities mean disappointing someone, because not all duties are equal and not all issues need the same attention. When everything becomes urgent, keeping everyone happy and cared for is the goal. Time off, family time and self-care are bumped to the bottom of the list.

But when pastors take the time to ask themselves, what are the most important things for me to do each week and what can be left undone, the tyranny of the urgent and the need to be busy, busy, busy melts away. All of sudden that property committee at 7AM on a day off is not more important than sleep. Those late night emails can wait until office hours. The time to care for those in crisis ceases to be immediate, and instead becomes when time allows. Writing and preaching half-decent sermons, instead of Saturday night specials becomes a weekly occurrence. Leading worship like you know what is happening before it happens becomes the norm.

And most importantly, care for the whole community instead of the collection of individuals becomes important.  Pastors can teach people how to care for each other, how to participate in community instead of consuming church, how to become disciples rather than passive observers of church.

Self-care is not just an issue of burning out pastors. Reducing the work load or adding more members to the pastoral team aren’t solutions. Prioritizing ministry is the only way to really practice self-care. This means taking a deep look at what ministry is all about. What is a pastor really called to do and be?

And in the end, practicing self-care means preparing yourself to disappoint those who expect your omni-presence. They might not like it to begin with, but they will eventually they will begin to appreciate it as we become better pastors by doing what is important instead of doing everything.


What obstacles stand in the way of your self-care? How can congregations and colleagues support over worked, burring out pastors? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

And thanks to my wife, Courtenay for her insights and editorial support. Look for a post from her about self-care, coming soon. Follow her on Twitter @ReedmanParker

Cover photo credit: http://um-insight.net/blogs/dan-r-dick/too-busy-to-learn/