The Pastor as Hourly Employee?

One of my favorite things is getting together with other pastors and asking them how their ministry is going. Most of the time a pastor will say that things are going great, and then he will share some of the joys of his ministry. However, occasionally a pastor will sigh deeply and tell me that things are getting difficult... and on more than one occasion, that the pastor goes on to tell me that he has a particular elder who demands to know how he spends his time.

There are few things that elicit a deeper groan of sympathy from my own heart than a fellow pastor of a smaller church who tells me that his elders are suspicious enough to resort to tracking how much time he spends "in the office." To me, it is an immediate sign of an unhealthy session that distrusts the pastor when the elders want a man to keep track of his hours or when they take it upon themselves to do so. I once knew a fellow minister who had an elder who would drive past the church and take note of what time he arrived each day and when he left each day. If he wasn't keeping the same hours as the elder did before he was retired, he was reprimanded at the next session meeting. Being treated like this makes the pastor feel like a pack animal or Ben-Hur rowing in the slave galleys, rather than what he is - a trustworthy minister and pastor.

I hear enough of these stories that it seems like something that needs to be addressed. And part of the reason I feel I can address this, myself, is because I serve a church where the session does not treat me as a paid hourly employee. They don't demand that I account for every minute of my day or scrutinize my schedule. In the church where I currently serve, I have never, ever felt like I am their employee; I feel I've been treated as a pastor, a minister who seeks to use his time well and live a life that is above reproach. 

On the other hand, there are many pastors out there who don't have the freedom to speak on this issue--and likely won't even feel free to share this article on social media--because they are literally turning in time sheets and showing their work as if they were high schoolers clocking in at their first job at the Burger King.

There are a few things we can know about a small church that watches and scrutinizes the hours of its pastor:

1) Most likely, there are business leaders on the session.

2) The session members do not trust their minister.

3) The church will almost certainly chase their pastors away.

If you are a ruling elder on a session where you know the minister is being watched and scrutinized like this--if not by you, then maybe by another elder--I hope to give you a few reasons to stop this practice immediately, and consider even repenting to the pastor for how you've treated him.

1. Time =/= Increased Productivity.

In the business community, time equals productivity. If you're working in a restaurant, another hour equals more food made and more people fed. If you're running a lawn care business, productivity means more grass cut as fast as possible. If you're in banking, staying in the office for just another hour means that account will be completed, which means tomorrow you'll be able to move on to something else, and over time that productivity turns into greater returns. The business world knows what productivity looks like: Greater return on investment and cash in the books. Time really does mean more productivity in the business world.

But what does pastoral productivity look like? More money in the church coffers? More behinds in the seats on Sunday mornings? More conversions? More baptisms? The biblical answer is that pastoring is not a job like making widgets or generating financial returns. Biblically speaking, productivity looks like the pastor fulfilling his calling with "a good conscience and sincere faith," which cannot be numerically measured.

2. Time in the Office Is Not the Sum Total of Pastoral Ministry.

This is very important: If you think your pastor is being productive because his car is in the church parking lot, you have missed out on what a pastor does.

Sometimes pastors are out performing visitations to people. That takes time, and doesn't look like any traditional definition of productivity.

Sometimes pastors work from home. I've been known to rise at 4 or 5 in the morning and work on my sermons. Many pastors relish the flexibility to work odd hours, or even to pepper their work throughout the day when they find spare minutes.

But let's just say the session does consider visitation to be "work." What about when a pastor is reading a book for his own edification? Or what about when a pastor takes a walk with his wife and discusses what he's been reading? What about when a man talks to his daughter about the news of the day and discusses how to think biblically. What about if he is having lunch with a deacon?

There are parts of being a healthy pastor with a healthy family that simply do not fit neatly into the categories of traditional productivity or time well spent, and yet without them the pastor's life would be a mess and he would be entirely unable to minister in the long term. In other words, you could never really measure the time a pastor spends being a pastor, because he never stops. Probably even the man himself could not tell you when he stops being a pastor and when he shifts into "average joe" mode, and that is because of the next point I want to mention.

3. Pastoral Ministry Owns All of a Man's Life.

Part of the reason why office time does not equal pastoral ministry is because all of the pastor's life is ministry in some way. Even when I take my son to Taekwondo, what am I doing? I'm reading a book on my Kindle that helps me be a better pastor. I might visit with the person next to me and see if there's some comfort I can share with them. Sometimes I am sitting with my iPad in my lap tweaking a sermon. I may be composing a letter to a church member, all of which is very nontraditional when it comes to counting office hours.

Pastors are always on call and always need to be ready to respond. We might have a disaster at 9pm on a Saturday that requires our attention. Family movie night may have to go on without us. We may have a church member stop by our house unannounced that needs ministered to. We may have a hundred unplanned interactions each day that look nothing like the equivalent of flipping a certain number of burgers or mowing a certain quota of lawns in a day. You cannot quantify the work of a pastor because his whole life is, in a sense, spent on call. 

There are certainly examples of lazy pastors. Sure, that happens. And perhaps someone needs to write an article on that subject. But even then, pastoral laziness still cannot be measured in terms of hours. Pastoral laziness will show up in terms of how the people are cared for, the care that goes into the sermons, whether administrative concerns are being taken care of and so on. Hours "on the clock," I hope you can see, are not the way to gauge pastoral laziness.

Elders, I cannot emphasize this enough: Trust your pastor. Give him room to be himself and give him the freedom to work in a way that he sees best. I have developed my own routines through trial and error, and I am still learning, but I would feel utterly stilted and trapped if I was treated the way some of my fellow ministers are being (or have been) treated, and I would warn a prospective pastor to any church that I knew treated their pastor like this. Many pastors have straight up told me, "I had a church that treated me that way, and life's too short - never again. I would say no to any church who did that in a heartbeat."

I fear that many church sessions are not very reflective on the nature of the pastorate or what they really have when they have a pastor. This mentality that treats the pastor as an employee is a reflection of an imported business-mentality, but not of a biblical mentality.

Some sessions see their job as creating friction in the pastor's life, pushing back at every moment and making his life difficult so that he doesn't "rest on his laurels." However, this philosophy misses the very real fact that every pastor is already his own worst critic. There is plenty of friction in the soul of the average minister.

Derek Thomas has spoken of the epidemic of pastoral guilt - that fear that I'm never doing enough - that fear that there is always something more... that if I could just accomplish one more thing, or preach an even better sermon, I might be worthy of this office or I would deserve to be here. Some pastors cope with that by doubling down and eventually burning out. Others cope with it by descending into deep depressions that they feel they cannot share with others (especially the members of the session). Still others decide not to cope with it and leave the ministry. Sessions, your job is accountability and congregational care, but not to create difficulty, misery, or guilt in the minister's life simply for the sake of friction.

In the end, the cure to this problem of sessions treating pastors like employees is remarkably straightforward: Sessions need a biblical understanding of the pastorate and of elders. We need to stop importing the things we've learned in the business world as if there is a 1:1 relationship between our previous success and the office of elder. I fear far too many successful business men have become elders due to perception of competence and worldly achievement when really they ought to be Sunday School teachers or deacons. The result is business philosophy masquerading as biblical eldering or tough love.

A church pays their pastor so that he will be free of worldly concerns, not as reciprocity for hours spent. The intention of paying a pastor is that he is free to minister the word well, shepherd the church, serve the people, and make sure that he and his family are spiritually fed so that he can keep ministering for the long term, not so that he is motivated to work harder or eventually burn out. Ministering well in a sustainable way involves finding a work flow and lifestyle that can leave him free to do those things in the way he best sees fit with a "clear conscience," and that may not look like the easily counted 40, 60, 80, or 100 hour work week.

If your church is stalking the pastor's hours, watching every movement he makes, and letting him know that you are holding his feet to the fire, I believe you are in the process of running your minister off, and I believe that you need to repent. This behavior reflects a business-like mentality that does not belong in the church. It reflects a belief in the power of productivity that is wrong-headed, and misses the fact that soul-enrichment is totally unquantifiable. It reflects a distrust of a minister of the gospel who is responsible before God for how he lives and serves the people under his care. 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.

Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA) and an adjunct Professor at Belhaven University. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and most importantly the husband of Arryn and father of four children.

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 ]