Note: I originally wrote this piece seven years ago, when I was still a pastor. Recently I’ve been hearing some talk on social media related to concerns about pastors writing or doing other things “on church time,” and it made me think of it, so I thought I’d dust it off a bit. If anything, I hope it will give some personal insight to those who have never pastored on the tensions that sometimes result between resisting the pragmatic professionalization of ministry and the expectation to keep everyone happy.
“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.“
— 1 Thessalonians 2:8
Well, I’m starting this post at 4:57 P.M. ET. I don’t know what time it will be when I turn the final corner toward “Publish,” but I suspect it’ll be 5:15 or so. I don’t know if that means to you that I started 3 minutes too early, given that 5 P.M. seems to many like standard quittin’ time for so many office jockeys. But I’ll be here for at least another four hours, maybe more, depending on what is needed after our men’s discipleship group meets.
One sentiment I see a lot in the discussion about pastors who publish (and travel to speak) is the disappointment about pastors writing books on “church time.” Setting aside the obvious reality that some authors with the title “pastor” are indeed lazy or absentee shepherds — in the biblical parlance, “hired hands” — and spend more of their time pursuing public platforms than caring for their flocks, I confess I have to chuckle whenever I hear someone use the phrase “church time.” And so does my wife.
We wonder if someone might help us understand when exactly “church time” takes place. Is it 8-5 on weekdays? Sunday through Thursday? It would be good to know when to clock in and clock out.
Actually, it wouldn’t. Because “clocker-outer” isn’t really listed in the normative pastoral qualification. I once had a guy attending our church plant in Nashville send me an angry message that included the lines: “You call yourself a pastor? Is that on the clock or off?” I was very hurt. Especially since I had foregone a salary and was leading the church for free. I wanted to ask him, “What clock?” And, “If I clock in, will you help me pay my bills?”
The reality for most pastors is that there is no such thing as “church time.” It’s all church time. When a benevolence call comes in on what is normally your day off, is that church time or personal time? When accusatory emails roll in while you’re on vacation, is that church time or personal time? When there’s weddings and funerals on Saturdays, phone calls in the middle of the night, hospital visits after hours, counseling sessions scheduled to accommodate those who “really work” for a living — is that church time or personal time? When the pastor can’t turn off his heart and brain at night about all that’s going on and he’s losing sleep, should he clock in? Pastoral ministry, when done faithfully, isn’t the kind of thing you can “turn off.” You can set up appropriate boundaries, take days off and vacations, take naps and breaks and Internet browsing mini-sabbaticals, but you never, ever really clock out.
Add to this the constant internal struggle to know, “Am I doing this work as a pastor or as a Christian?” Meaning, am I doing this “extra hours” act of service because it’s my job or because as a follower of Christ, I owe my brothers and my neighbors my sacrificial kindness? Why do I get paid for work on Sundays when everybody else, especially volunteers who serve on Sundays, have to come for free? I give up dinner with my family every Monday night for meetings at the church building, but so do some of the others in these meetings. They’re not worried about clocking in.
I don’t know how to sort that out. Maybe you do, and you can help me. I know I feel guilty a lot. I question my own motivations a lot. I constantly feel incompetent, inadequate, incapable. I also know I have a good, gracious community that has not shrunk back from sharpening me in the past. There are a few in the church for whom I can do no wrong, of course, just like there are probably a few for whom I can do no right. But I have lots of honest brothers and sisters. My life is theirs. My heart is theirs. Somewhere in there is accountability, watchfulness, discipline. They are not watching my clock, but they are watching me. I try to honor that. I limit my Sundays away each year, for instance. I ask permission for certain writing projects, for another. No church money is ever used for anything related to that stuff.
And I’ve made the commitment to them that if the public ministry stuff begins to compromise my ability to shepherd them well, it is the public stuff that will see curtailment. I am a pastor first. Thankfully, thus far, with affectionate grace they have seen fit to regard my public ministry as an extension of their own. They are stewarding me, and I’ve been grateful for their generosity.
In any event, the un-professionalizing of the pastorate runs both ways. One cannot expect a pastor to reasonably meet the high bar set by the Scriptures while trying to separate out “church time.” You probably don’t really want the pastor who’s always thinking about what’s on church time and what isn’t. So we might be working on a sermon at 3 A.M. Sunday morning, or working on a book at 9 A.M. on Wednesday. Or finishing a blog post at 5:39 P.M. on a Monday. (A little longer than I expected, but I plead the mercy of the court on account of the pop-in visit from a lady who needed her Samaritan Ministries claim form signed-off on by the pastor, which naturally involves conversation not pertaining to the business at hand. Because we’re human beings.)