The Lazy Pastor
At the outset of a difficult topic – pastoral laziness – I want to be clear that my purpose is to encourage both pastors and their congregations. Where conflict arises over the minister’s work ethic, I believe most of the time there is a path forward to strengthen the bonds of affection that should exist between a pastor and his congregation.
That said, here are some hard words: Apart from heretical doctrine or immorality, one of the most serious charges that can be levelled against a pastor is sloth. In the judgment of his congregation, he fails to take his cues from the “hard-working farmer,” one of Paul’s models for pastoral ministry (2 Timothy 2:6), and seems unfamiliar with Solomon’s exhortation: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The evidence is not difficult to detect: poorly prepared and delivered sermons, failure to visit and care for the flock, chaotic administration, and invisibility in the community. Laziness is a serious sin. Haphazard shepherding of God’s flock is inexcusable, a dereliction of God-given duty. It also insults the congregation who provides his salary so that he might pursue the work of ministry “free from worldly cares and avocations” (Presbyterian Church in America, Book of Church Order, 20-6).
Fortunately, there are very few lazy pastors - and they should repent of their laziness or leave the ministry.
Far from lazy, most pastors I know are diligent and faithful laborers who love and care for their families and congregations. Unfortunately, even diligent pastors can be wrongly charged with laziness.
IDENTIFYING THE REAL ISSUE
How can a pastor who is not lazy find himself accused of just that? The accusation, undeserved, arises from two sources: first, from a difference of opinion about what a pastor’s workday should look like, and, second, from an unfortunate but correctable lack of self-awareness on the part the minister. Let’s take each in turn.
DIFFERING EXPECTATIONS FOR THE PASTOR’S WORKDAY
The workplace has changed dramatically since I was ordained in 1985. The idea of flexible hours and mobile offices had not made its way to the mainstream – and for those who have spent their working lives in 8-5 office environments, it can be difficult to understand.
It is not unusual for a pastor and his elders to have conflicting opinions on how to structure his day. For example, a pastor may find that working from home is more productive than studying at the church, with its many interruptions. Another may choose to do some work in coffeeshops where he can meet people. Neither choice is symptomatic of laziness.
But both choices can give the appearance of laziness, a fact that the conscientious pastor will admit. He also knows that his office brings temptations to idleness, whether he succumbs to them or not.
Here’s the crux of the matter: most pastors have freedom. Much of the time, the structure of his workday is left entirely up to him; he has flexibility in managing his calendar and ordering his work. For the minister skilled in the disciplined use of time, that freedom is a bonus: he can manage his own schedule, seeking optimal efficiency.
But freedom must be exercised cautiously to avoid conflict.
When the structure of the pastor’s workday is in dispute, the conflict is often one of expectations: the congregation expects the pastor on site, working in his office throughout the day. After all, that’s what most of them do – they leave home and go to work. Working at home or hanging out at a coffeeshop is not an option. If you’re not making a hospital visit or handling an emergency, you should be in the office, just like them. The assumption is reasonable.
Here’s my advice to pastors. When you take a new church, talk with your leaders about their expectations and listen carefully. As you begin your work, strive to meet those expectations. Work hard, earn their confidence, and gain a reputation as a diligent worker. Later, from a position of trust, begin to talk with your elders about alternative ways to structure your day. Share about your favored work routine and why you find it helpful. Don’t be in a hurry; be willing to compromise; be patient.
In due time, propose an alternative schedule. Don’t ask your elders for an immediate decision – give them time (over a series of months if necessary) to think through your proposals. Above all, don’t fight with your elders. Respect them and be sensitive to their concerns; recent history may include a painful experience with a former pastor.
From your first day on the job, keep a detailed work diary. Regular review of your use of time will promote efficiency. Another benefit is transparency. If your elders express concerns, you have a clear record of how your time has been spent. You mustn’t assume that they know the hours taken in study, or visits, or counseling. Be ready to account for your use of time and don’t be defensive about their concerns. Receive their inquiries and suggestions with appreciation.
Dear churches, you need to be fair. It’s unreasonable to expect a young minister to work with the efficiency and skill of a veteran. Some do, and if you have a young minister like that, prize him and give him room in using his time. Ask yourself: Is it possible that our expectations are hindering our minister’s effectiveness?
Wise elders talk routinely with their ministers about their workload. They don’t speculate, but take the time to know how hard he works. The pastor’s use of time is important to them – but they must also be concerned about protecting his time. They insist he take days off and use all of his vacation and study time, because these are essential to his long-term effectiveness.
Where bonds of affection are strong, pastors and elders will strive to understand each other and reach mutual agreement on the shape of the pastor’s workday.
LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS
Some pastors create a perception of laziness when they are unaware of the distractions of our culture and how they affect them. They think they are working harder than they actually do, and are confusing busyness and work.
You are working eight to ten hours a day, five to six days a week, and it’s still not enough time to get your sermons and lessons prepared, visit, counsel, and administer church affairs – much less to serve and evangelize in the community. Are you overworked?
Be honest – are you really working 8-10 hours? Or is misspent time the problem? Ask yourself:
- Do you count your personal devotions as work time? Your congregation doesn’t and neither should you.
- When preparing your sermons and lessons, are you fielding emails, responding to texts, making calls unrelated to work, checking news and sports scores, posting on Facebook, tweeting? If you are, then you are not working as much as you think. What’s more, as you respond to those distractions, you then have to take time to refocus. You need to understand how the distractions that consume your time diminish the quality of your work.
- Your congregation can see timestamps on your posts and tweets. If you’re on social media throughout the day, you’re not working as hard as you should be, and your congregation knows it.
- Careless administration will lead some to conclude (fairly or not) that you aren’t working as hard as you should. When you drop the ball, you raise questions about your competency and work ethic.
- Are you habitually late? Do you miss appointments because they weren’t entered on your calendar? These can be the behaviors of a pastor who works hard, but lacks self-management skills.
- Do you dress sloppily, showing up at work or on visits looking like an unmade bed? Whether you like it or not, neglect of self-care could communicate laziness. I am not talking about dressing formally versus informally; you need to care about your appearance. People might judge that you don’t make the effort to present well to the people you love, and are embarrassed when you represent the church in the community.
Fortunately, self-management is a skill that can be learned, and when learned, improved upon. Many good books are available, like Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. Read them. Put the authors’ practical wisdom to work for you.
Another area that demands self-awareness is your family. Consider unintended messages that you may be sending.
- Your wife tells her women’s group what a wonderful husband you are. You drop everything to run to the store for her or to babysit. The women reason – My husband’s employer would never permit that.
- During the workday, you never miss one of your children’s games or school activities. Again, this is not an option for most employees. You say, “I get up early to make up for the time at the game.” It sounds reasonable to you, but you must not presume on your church’s understanding. Appearances matter. In fact, they are critical.
Pastors and elders need to work together and reach mutual agreement about what constitutes an acceptable work schedule and ethic.
In my experience, the pastor whose sermons show the fruit of disciplined study, who are daily engaged with the lives of his members, and visible in the community are not accused of laziness. At times, elders may want their minister to reallocate his use of time or acquire additional skills. Their motivation is the glory of God and the good of the pastor and the church. Thoughtful and caring elders want their minister to reach his full potential as a servant of Christ. Thoughtful and caring pastors want to reach that potential too; they love their Savior and his church too much to settle for less.
So, pastors and elders, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work - together. Talk together, pray together, and strategize together about how pastor and elders can most effectively shepherd God’s flock. A congregation is truly blessed when the relationship between pastor and elders is distinguished by mutual esteem, encouragement, and affection, as well as by hard work.
Charles M. Wingard is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and also the author of Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry.
Help for the New Pastor by Charles Wingard
The New Pastor's Handbook by Jason Helopoulos
"The Pastor as Hourly Employee?" by Adam Parker