Is It Only About Trust?

Jonathan Kiel

Recently, my friend Adam Parker wrote a helpful article reminding us that a pastor is not an hourly employee. In his article, Adam describes how the work of pastoral ministry is difficult to quantify and more time in the office does not equal a more effective ministry. He also offers a gentle and appropriate rebuke to elders or sessions who stalk pastors' hours. If you haven't read Adam's article, I commend it to you.

And yet, as I read it, it felt incomplete at points. Rather than starting a social media exchange (where I know from previous experience Adam would have gracefully listened to my concerns and responded appropriately), I thought I might add to the conversation here at reformation21. And after sending Adam this article, it turns out we agree. Consider this piece an expansion to his earlier suggestions.

My difference with the first article is the way it places all the fault for conflict over time-management on sessions; it has little to no encouragement or correction to help pastors in their portion of the struggle. While the article recognizes "lazy pastors" exists, Adam says he's not writing to them. Thus, it is written only to pastors who feel they've been wronged and also (and possibly more pointedly) to ruling elders and sessions. Indeed, the only corrections or takeaways from the article are directed toward ruling elders and sessions--mostly involving their need to trust their pastor more. Is this a one-sided issue?

I think the problem is much more likely an issue for both sessions and pastors. Rarely are relationship struggles one-sided. Why would this one be any different? Yes, there are some sessions who shoulder all the blame for conflicts. But just like the anonymous "lazy pastor" who Adam's not writing to, I am not writing to them. Instead, I would like to address the many pastors and sessions who are earnestly trying to do their job well. And in doing so, I think we find the answer is more complicated than sessions needing to trust their pastor more.

When we acknowledge that both the "lazy pastor" and the "stalker session" are in the wrong, I think we can make real progress on this issue. Indeed, this matter is one I have experienced from both "sides." I have served as a ruling elder at a PCA church, and I currently serve on full-time staff at a PCA church. Perhaps this diversity of experience has given me a broader perspective to see the challenges facing both pastors and sessions.

Here's my hunch: if a pastor feels he is being overly scrutinized, the session feels their pastor isn't doing "enough." For healthy pastors and sessions, this challenge is mostly an issue of expectations and communication. Yes, trust is involved. And yes, part of the solution might be encouraging the session to trust their pastor more, but that usually won't be the entire solution. Telling an elder who is worried about how his Pastor spends his time simply to "trust him more" is akin to telling a sad person, "Don't be sad." It doesn't reach beyond the symptom of the problem and deal with the actual issue. Assuming both parties (elders and pastors) are moderately healthy, and assuming both have at least some "fault" in the conflict, what are some of the underlying causes for this tension and how can sessions and pastors help to overcome these hurdles?

Adam already hinted at some of these, but here's my take.

1. Agree on expectations at the beginning.

First, pastors and session should come to a mutual agreement on both ministry priorities and time commitments for the role. I know Adam agrees here, but it's the only starting point for a healthy work environment. Before any pastor is hired, the session should be very clear about their expectations. Did their last pastor work 60+ hours a week? If so, is that what they expect of the next guy? I would guess in several of Adam's examples, the pastor and the session didn't ask many of these types of questions.

But more than the amount of time, sessions also needs be clear about what aspects of the ministry are most important and deserve the most time. The PCA's MDF form does a decent job of laying out these categories, but each category means different things to different people and every pastor has different strengths. These conversations should be clear at the outset. Any pastor that feels overly criticized for his use of time probably has an implicit disagreement with his session about what aspect of the job is most important. The expectations don't match. Maybe these expectations weren't set correctly at the beginning or maybe they changed over time. Either way, conversations about what is important and what that looks like at "this church" is important.

Additionally, the session and the pastor should consider the pastor's own unique work style when setting expectations. I've worked with pastors who do 90-99% of their sermon preparation at home because if they are in the office they get distracted. When I preach, I do approximately 0% of my sermon writing at home because if I'm at home I get distracted. Knowing how a pastor works best has to be part of the conversation and can help both parties come to a mutual understanding of not only what's important, but what it looks like to achieve the important goals.

2. Schedule recurring time and ways to talk about expectations.

But then, what do you do if you find yourself--as an elder or a pastor--in the position where you never set these expectations? Or, what if you feel like the expectations have changed since things started and now you (1) are being unreasonably criticized or (2) feel as though the pastor isn't pulling his weight? Thankfully, for reasonable elders and pastors, there is a way forward: pastors and sessions should schedule ongoing conversations about priorities and time commitments.

Over time, the needs of churches change. The skill-set of pastors also change. Sermons that took 30 hours to complete at the beginning of your ministry, might now only take 20 hours. What should you do with the extra 10 hours? I agree with Adam that a pastor should not think of his work as hourly, but he should still think of his work as work. Freeing up 10 hours a week doesn't give a pastor the right to not work.

Or, consider the example of a small church who needed their new pastor to spend an abundance of time helping to heal old wounds in the first years of his ministry. But after 5 years of steady growth, the church has doubled or tripled in size and few of the congregants remember the old issues. Now, most of the church wants their pastor to focus on outreach or improving Sunday services. That church probably needs their pastor around the church building a bit more, shepherding a larger organization instead of spending significant time with a small handful of families.

Call me old-school, but I don't think the pastor should make that choice by himself in a vacuum. Instead, that decision should be made in a concert of counselors, specifically, the session. Adam's article at times suggests if a session is concerned about their pastor's use of time, they simply need to give him space and trust him more. I think a more helpful solution is to schedule appropriate times to have that conversation together.

Yearly or bi-annual conversations about church ministry priorities and time commitments can be a great way for a session and pastor to come together. Not only can these meetings help set a mutually agreed upon ministry strategy, they also give the pastor an opportunity to remind the session how pastoral ministry works. I agree with Adam that many ruling elders do not understand some aspects of pastoral ministry. This type of meeting would be the perfect place to help teach the session those very lessons.

Additionally, these meetings could help list the needs of the church and give an estimate for the hours (roughly) expected to perform each task. It's not that a ministry should be measured in hours, but a rough estimate can be a helpful way to summarize the work a pastor does--even the work that is hard to quantify. Your numbers will vary, but weekly time estimates can help show a session how much goes into each task. Maybe the session wants their pastor to prepare a thoughtful sermon (25+ hours), teach Sunday School (5-10 hours), communicating with church members and leaders (10 hours), oversee Men's & Women's ministries (3 hours), visit 3 families each week (6 hours), counsel the afflicted (2-6 hours), reach out to the community (2 hours), etc. These tasks add up. Both the session and the pastor should discuss (1) what needs to be done and (2) generally how much time to spend on those categories. And while this should not lead to an hourly time sheet, setting out the expectations can go a long way in bringing the pastor and session together. I would even suggest that a pastor who isn't willing to discuss what they do and how they spend their time with the session is making the opposite, but equally grievous, mistake as the elder who wants a time-sheet.

Avoiding conversations about priorities and time only delays, or even encourages, the gap between ruling elder and pastor, and as Adam suggested, may lead to separations. Scheduling regular meetings where both parties can discuss their values and differences with the goal of mutual understanding could help avoid such dissolutions and encourage more healthy sessions and pastors.

3. When trust wavers, seek outside counsel.

But what happens when the gulf is too large? What happens when the two parties can't come to agreement on how and where the pastor should spend his time? I think Adam and I agree here as well. He mentioned trust several times. I agree that ruling elders who question how a pastor spends his time ultimately struggle with trusting their pastor. Trust between session and pastor is essential. When the pastor or the session finds himself/themselves in a position where they no longer trust the other, it's usually time to bring in outside help.

Small fissures in trust can absolutely be resolved "in house." But if you, as a session, are thinking of making your pastor fill out a time-card, you need to bring in an outside voice. Alternately, if you, as a pastor, consistently feel scrutinized and haven't made progress towards mutual understanding, you need outside counsel. This could look several ways. Maybe you find another pastor in the area who's willing to join your next session meeting to hear both sides. Maybe a nearby church can send both a teaching elder and a ruling elder to help mediate. When the rift is significant enough, however, you might need to elicit the help of a respected consultant or even Christian counselor.

The point being, if trust has been broken, you need to spend time on the repair. At that point, the time management conversation is merely a symptom. If the session and pastor are not able to mend the damage themselves, the answer isn't a simple exhortation to "trust more." Rather, pastors and sessions should heed the repeated proverb that wisdom is found in an abundance of counsel (Prov 11:14; 15:22; 24:6), and they should look for that wisdom outside their small church.

My hope is that these suggestions can help mend relationships and build healthier churches. Conflict in the church is inevitable, but it is rarely one-sided. Any church that wants to keep a pastor should absolutely trust him. But ruling elders also have a responsibility to the congregation. If a ruling elder does not understand the role or work patterns of a pastor, the two sides should do their best to come to a mutual understanding of priorities and expectations. Once those priorities and expectations are more clearly established, building trust becomes much easier.

Adam concludes his article saying, "Any church that wants to keep their pastor needs to learn to trust the man, and to trust the Spirit of God to deal with the man when he fails." I agree. I would also add: "Any pastor who wants to keep his pastorate should listen to his elders." The problem of time-management seems to be at the intersection of these two ideas. In most situations, by God's grace, humble, frequent, and patient communication is the healthy way forward.

Jonathan Kiel (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Discipleship (Elect) at Christ Church in Bellingham, WA. He is currently completing his PhD in Old Testament Studies at Southern Seminary.

Related Links

"Battered Pastors" by Todd Pruit [ Pt. 1  |  Pt. 2  |  Pt. 3 ]

"Pastor: Will You Burn Out?" by Leon Brown

Persevering in Your Church and Ministry, 2014 [ MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Persevering in Your Church and Ministry, 2016 [ MP3 Disc  |  Download ]