Thursday, September 17, 2009

Work, rest and ministry: how many hours should a Christian pastor work?

A few years ago, I completed a B.D. at MTC. Most of my classmates are now serving around Sydney (and various other bits of the world) leading congregations as full-time paid ministers of the word (some are translating the Scriptures in other lands, some are teaching in schools, some are being full-time parents, some are doing other excellent things here and there).

We keep up with each other through an email list whose discussions have at times been very amusing, very useful (as people share resources and ideas and struggles) and occasionally very contentious. Over three or four years studying together, we developed a healthy mutual respect and learned to rely on each other's insights.

A day or two ago, a new debate started (or restarted, as it has been discussed a number of times before) concerning the appropriate number of working hours for those serving as pastors of Christian congregations (which includes the majority of the group). A number of excellent points have been raised and discussed and a number of models suggested. I thought I would post my contribution to the discussion (slightly edited to remove references to specific names).

Dear all,

Coming from a bunch of girls and guys who only work on a Sunday, I don't know what the issue is!

But then again, I'm approaching my 31st birthday and have spent the grand total of 11 months in full-time employment, so I don't know why anyone would listen to me on this matter. Thus, everything said here ought to come with a sodium warning for the amount of NaCl with which it must be taken.

And so, more seriously, thanks to M for raising what I think is up there as possibly the #1 long-term danger for pastors, presbyters, priests and paid-ministry-of-the-word staff (does that cover everyone? Hmm, "PhD students" also starts with 'p'...). And thanks M for your honesty about your struggles with this issue. It is not easy, and the fact that the kinds of roles that many of you fill do not have obvious distinctions between work and non-work only makes it harder. Furthermore, it is easy to seek quick answers through adopting a one-size-fits all approach, as well as easy to repudiate such an approach as legalistic and believing that my situation/character/marriage/church is unique.

And even if we don't set ourselves up as superior to our classmates and colleagues (able to handle constant pressures that others need a break from), perhaps we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) set up our work as more important than the work done by our congregation members. If I am serving God's church and proclaiming his good news for the poor and teaching his word and ministering his holy sacraments and so on, then how can I stop for anything other than death (and its foretastes in hunger and tiredness)?

However, even leaving aside the highly problematic (and self-serving!) division of "gospel" work over against "secular" work, this question fails to note an even more important distinction: between work and rest (as P has so eloquently reminded us). In the beginning, the culmination and high point and goal of creation is not humanity, but Sabbath. And in the second creation account, the 'adam was created and placed in the garden to work and serve the ground, but also to enjoy the trees. We are made to smell the roses, not just put manure on them. We are first recipients of all God's good gifts (beginning with the breath of life and culminating in the holy Breath) before we are co-workers with him. We are first his children before being his servants. We are first those whose feet are washed by Christ before those who will die with him. In these ways, passivity is more fundamental to our creaturely (and Christian) existence than activity. And being presbyters, priests or PhD students doesn't change that. Christian leaders are Christians before being leaders.

Taking a slightly different tack, as someone who struggles more with laziness than workaholism, I wonder whether both sometimes arise from a similar source: the desire to please others (as M as suggested), otherwise known as status anxiety. While the workaholic may (as well as having wonderful and godly motives) fear the disapproval of others and so keep working, the lazy freeloader like myself may fear the discovery that even trying as hard as I could I would still not please others and so hangs back from trying too hard in order to avoid having to face this reality. Both the workaholic and the bum are (partially) motivated by a good desire (the desire for love and approval) that has been misplaced. It is good to be loved by others and to delight in being delighted in. But we are the delight of God.
"YHWH your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

- Zephaniah 3.17*
*Yes, this is said to Israel, but onto this tree we have been grafted.

And so being loved (or hated, or - worst of all - simply ignored) by others can take its secondary place. Held in God's embrace, we are freed from constant anxiety and constant activity, freed to enjoy, to receive, to be. Our work is good and rightly takes time and care, effort and attention. But our rest is better.
While writing this post, my message on the list received this reply:
And yet, the Sabbath which is the high point of God's creative project is one in which he continues to work (cf. John 5.17) and is the (temporal?) context in which he invites humankind to join him in that work. Is it rest as passivity or rest as shalom, toil-less, peaceful labour which has the prior claim on our agendas? After all, the first command is to fill, not contemplate, creation; and although the trees of the garden are aesthetically pleasing before bodily nourishing, 'adam is placed there to work and not to watch, but watch over.
Here is my reply:
It was neither passivity per se nor (self-serving!) contemplation that I had in mind, but rest as receptivity that I was particularly arguing for. That, although it is more blessed to give than to receive, we can only give if and because we have first received (and continue to receive) everything from God. I am quite suspicious of turning "rest" into "doing more work" (even "gospel" work) because it sounds like the addict justifying her habit through special pleading. My point is that unless we acknowledge and dwell in the fact that we are creatures whose every breath comes as a free gift, then our frenetic activity can quickly become self-justification.

Before the first command came the first blessing. And that is what I am saying. Being blessed comes before obedience.


byron smith said...

Speaking of work, perhaps it is time to put aside (yet another!) distraction and get back to the task before me...

cyberpastor said...

Hi Byron,

Is it worth noting, (at least between those given to abstraction like us :-)) that there is a metaphysical problem going on here? Usually most contemporary Westerners operate on an Aristotelian metaphysic that sees isolated things as prior to relationships? That is, the unmoved mover acts, not directly, to create another. It is only after this action that a relationship occurs. From a Christian point of view, the Triune God is relationships in eternity and hence actions always occur within a relational context and as a consequence of those relations. When this God creates an an organic cosmos, abundant in relations, actions become expressions of these relations - either righteous or un-righteous.

This means that the man and the woman act in creation to express the relationship in which they have been located - with God, each other and the non-personal world. The goal of expression is the glory of God and hence participation in the rest that is right relations. This is a matter of thought word and deed.

In more concrete circumstances, where ever we have relationships we have work to do depending on what the relational context requires in order for us to live rightly. From the perspective of the God or generosity and forgiveness all of life is a ministry of one or both of these things.

Does that help at all?

Ian Packer said...

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor - Subversive, Apocalyptic, and UNbusy.

Made a comment something like "How can encourage people beside still waters when I am running to and fro all the time"

Megan said...

This is a large topic, so I thought I would just comment on how it relates to family time and parenting.

As the daughter of a pastor, I am surprised how many people think that I must have had a father too busy with ministry to spend time with his family. Actually, of my parents, my father was the more present parent once we started school. He had (and still has) iron clad boundaries with his time. Similarly, people often suggest that a pastor's kids will be rebellious - which I never was. I wonder whether these 2 assumptions work together? The expectation that ministers will work overtime and all hours because they work for the Lord can lead to a neglected family. Yet surely our families are one of the places we serve (see cyberpastor's comment)?

Vocational ministry has the potential to either give us more flexibility for our family, or to edge into what in other families would be family time. I find this as a pastor juggling young children with part time pastoral work. In many ways, I have the advantage over other women who had to go back to office hours. With much of my preparation work, I have flexibility as to where and when I do my hours. This can be a negative though - weekends and nights can be spent doing ministry, while it is easy to answer emails or make phone calls when you are supposedly not working.

How can we preach about the importance of parenthood, and about a God who is imaged as parent, and yet give less to our children than some non church going parents, who use sundays as a day to enjoy their families?

As a woman, I find most people respect my desire to prioritise my children. I feel for my male colleagues who are sometimes not given the same respect towards their fatherhood.

Unknown said...

I recommend Tim Chester's book "the busy Christian's guide to busyness" which discusses a lot of the issues you raise..with similar conclusions. he is very good at diagnosing thought patterns (eg procrastination, or leaving things for a last minute rush) and addressing the underlying issue with God's word.

Unknown said...

Its an interesting question along the lines of how long is a piece of string?

I would answer that by asking the question as to the effectiveness of ministry against the busyness of ministry performed.

There is a huge tension as to is the church involved in changing the world and society..or is the church caught up with societies and the worlds push and call for busyness?

Another question to consider is how much ministry is adding more pressure to the congregations, potentially dwindling time in a time poor society in the name of "ministry"

byron smith said...

Some sobering stats from the US.

byron smith said...

These stats (there are heaps of them) are staggering. If even half of them are in the right ballpark...