Taming the tyranny of too much

Patterns of pastoral function that frustrate, and what may be done about them

H. Peter Swanson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of pastoral care, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

What is expected of a pas tor? One pioneering piece of research 1 identified 1,200 descriptions of what pastors are supposed to be and do. That's far too much, even for those who may consider themselves to be super pastors. The fact remains that the aver age pastor works under heavy pressure; from preaching to counseling, from worship coordination to conflict resolution, from church growth to financial management.

Two years ago the Czech-Slovak Union authorized the author to study their pastors' work/time patterns. The study included 259 pastoral respondents and selected lay persons from different churches, thus providing two different perspectives.

The results showed that the average Adventist pastor worked 65 hours a week, with some squeezing in as many as 85.2 These long hours are consistent with findings from different parts of the world and from various denominations.3

Such long hours take their toll on the pas tor's family; health; social, spiritual, personal, and professional growth. What is needed is a careful, intentional budgeting of time and work priorities.

Work has a way of becoming tyrannical in our lives. The Creator did not intend that work should run our lives; instead, we should master our work, and make it an instrument of effective service. In other words, we should take charge of our work.

Our study probed five strategic concerns: (1) What is the role of the pastor? (2) Which are the most important pastoral tasks? (3) How should pastors allocate their time? (4) How may pastors improve their efficiency? and (5) How can we implement a reasonable workload for pastors?

What is the role of the pastor?

Our study defined parish ministry as consisting of five major roles. Each role, in turn, was defined in terms of a number of particular tasks.

1. Preaching—includes sermon preparation, preaching, worship planning, leading in worship, and planning the sermonic year.

2. Administration—deals with committees, communication with the congregation (such as church-bulletin preparation and telephone ministry), strategic planning, and church finances.

3. Pastoral care—has to do with counseling, visiting the sick, home visitation, attending to the congregation's social life, and caring for aspects of reproof and admonition in the congregation.

4. Teaching--includes teaching and training, small-group studies, Bible classes, youth ministry, and personal devotions.

5. Evangelism—takes care of Bible studies with interested people, lay evangelism, reclaiming missing members, community welfare, and public evangelism.

Pastors must not expect to accomplish all these tasks by themselves. Instead, they should lead out in a shared ministry by helping church members identify and exercise their spiritual gifts and assume responsibilities for some of these tasks.

Of the pastoral tasks, it is important to ask, Which five are the most important?

Which are the most important pastoral tasks?

Our study revealed some predictable and some surprising findings.

First, both pastors and lay members identified the devotional life of the pastor as the most important of all pastoral tasks. Although this "task" is not listed above, this prioritization should not come as a surprise, as church members first of all look to pastors as spiritual leaders of the community.

Second, both pastors and lay per sons agreed that training the congregation for service is crucial for the life of the church. Where there is active lay training and participation, the workload of the pastor is considerably eased, and many other advantages are experienced.

Third, pastors and laity considered lay participation in evangelism as pivotal to pastoral effectiveness. This is heartening because church members want the very thing that will lighten the pastoral load and at the same time ensure effective church growth.

Fourth, and somewhat surprisingly, while pastors placed sermon preparation on the list of most important tasks, the lay members chose ministry to children and youth as a higher priority. This indicates the congregational concern for the spiritual welfare of its younger constituency, and sends an important message to pastors.

Fifth, while pastors saw visioning and strategic planning as of high importance, the lay person placed a high priority on visiting the sick and the infirm. What this says is significant: Pastors tended to spend more time in their study, but people want ed them to be in their midst, leading and nurturing the flock.

So how shall the minister divide the workweek among these and the other important pastoral tasks?

How should pastors allocate their time?

Determining how much time pastors should allocate to various pastoral tasks is a delicate balancing act. We will note how much time pastors allotted to some of the key tasks that come under the five priorities outlined above.

Devotions. Although this was considered the most important of pastoral tasks, the time spent by pas tors for personal devotion and study varied from one hour or less per week to 12 to 20 hours. The average was about 5.4 hours per week .

In matters of relationship to our Lord, it is impossible to prescribe for others the precise number of hours that should be spent in spiritual devotion. But our ministry is powerless and our efficiency is poor if we do not set aside regular and intentional periods for personal prayer and devotional study.

Training laity. The average time spent by the 259 pastoral respondents in lay training is 4.2 hours per week. Beyond imparting essential know how, these pastors helped members identify their spiritual gifts, inspired them to action, and supported their efforts to fulfill their responsibilities.

Church-growth involvement. Our pastoral respondents spent an aver age of 2.8 hours per week in actual work with lay members in various ministries related to church growth. Congregations where such pastor-member shared ministry exists have shown consistent increase in membership and a reduction in pastoral workload.

Sermon preparation. Time spent in sermon preparation ranged from 1 to 20 hours. Does this mean that pastors who spend fewer hours in sermon preparation are more experienced and adept than those who spend 20 hours? Or could it be that some pas tors do not really take sermon preparation seriously?

A simple but challenging homiletical rule says that for each minute one plans to spend in the pulpit, one should spend an hour in preparation. Following that rule could improve the quality of our preaching and shorten excessively long sermons. Either way, under no circumstances should the quality of a sermon be compromised no member wants to see that.

Ministry to the young. This is very important to lay leaders, yet our study revealed that our pastors spent an average of only 1.8 hours per week in children's ministry. The amount of time spent here is perhaps influenced by the number of young people in the church, and/or by the effectiveness of the lay persons who minister to the youth. However, to the congregants, direct pastoral involvement in the lives of children and young adults seems indispensable.

Strategic planning. Of all the administrative responsibilities of the pastor, the most important is creating a vision in the congregation of what God calls them to be and to do, and working with them to turn that vision into reality. Our survey revealed that pastors spend an average of 1.8 hours per week in this area of responsibility.

Visiting the infirm. Visiting the sick is to follow the example of Jesus. The pastors we surveyed spent about 3.8 hours per week visiting the sick, disabled, bereaved, and home-bound. In congregations with a preponderance of elderly or infirm members, this task may take up more time.

We have now looked at how much time our respondents spent in caring for the most important pastoral tasks. Now, consider the time they spent in attending to tasks they themselves rated least important.

Church bulletin. Both clergy and laity rated as least important the ever-recurring obligation to publish a weekly bulletin and compose a periodic newsletter. Yet most pastors reported spending about 1.2 hours each week on this task. The value of communicating to members via the printed page seems obvious. But the pastor's involvement and time commitment to this activity should normally be kept to a minimum.

Church finances. Pastors and laity agreed that overseeing church finances and involving themselves in fund-raising efforts are tasks that are best served by others. Nevertheless, our study showed that pastors spent an hour or more each week on these activities.

Not all denominations or congregations would agree that their pastors should be excused from fund-raising. And when major projects such as building programs take center stage, extraordinary promotion and involvement by the pastor are doubtless beneficial. However, it seems that if these responsibilities can be adequately cared for by other capable persons, the pastor's time may be invested in other pressing matters.

Helping the needy. The way we treat the hungry, naked, and incarcerated really matters to Jesus (Matt. 25:45). However, both ministers and members placed this work nearly last in importance, though the respondents did spend about 1.2 hours per week on these activities.

It is possible that ministers who work in impoverished, inner-city parishes may have more direct involvement with the suffering than was reported by pastors in this study, many of whom came from more privileged middle-class congregations.4

Phone calls. Fourth from the bottom of the list, according to our study, is the administrative work of making and answering phone calls, doing church correspondence, and following up on requests from parishioners. Time spent ranged from one-half hour to 15 hours, with an average of about 4.5 hours per week. A good volunteer secretary can ease the load here, although some calls and letters are perhaps unavoidable.

Church social events. Ministers are expected to participate in church-related social events. Although accepted by many as a pastoral obligation, this task was rated as 20th in importance, but it absorbed about 2.3 hours of the ministers' time each week.

Our study indicated that a pastor needs about 75 hours a week to accomplish all the key tasks at the reported rate-of-time consumption! But is it reasonable to expect a 75- hour workweek, or even a 60-hour week for pastors? Such an expectation is nothing less than submission to the tyranny of trying to do too much.

So the 75-hour expectation should send an alarm to churches and church administrators: The pastoral task cannot be done without an active clergy-lay shared ministry. That, perhaps, is the central lesson we learned from our study.

How to improve pastoral efficiency

Our study also focused on pastoral efficiency. Some ministers are excessively perfectionistic while others habitually lag behind in quality task performance. To measure the quality of clergy performance, we asked ministerial supervisors to identify the most effective versus the least effective pastors in their conferences. We then looked for differences between these two groups. We also compared ministers who baptized 50 or more persons into church membership during a three-year period with those who baptized 10 or fewer in the same period.

The findings were fascinating. Pastors' self-ratings of their task proficiency were almost the same as the ranking by ministerial supervisors. Further, we asked lay leaders to rate the quality of their pastors' work, and their rating was not significantly different from the other ratings.5

While many factors influence effectiveness and productivity in ministry,6 it is clear that those whose work quality is above average are recognized as superior to those whose work quality is below average. This means that slipshod, substandard work is not acceptable. Whatever the reason, ministers whose performance is below average must take remedial action, such as further education or in-service training to rectify their deficits.

Our findings also show that while large congregations may be able to have specialist pastors to deal with preaching, evangelism, pastoral care, finances, family ministry, etc., our churches usually need a top-notch generalist who, with the help of trained laity, can minister to the varied needs of a congregation.

Each congregation has its particular challenges and evolving areas of focused attention. While expansion of Christian education may be a top priority one year, other aspects of out reach may place very different demands upon pastoral expertise in subsequent years. Good generalists must be intentionally selective about where to invest their energies, and thus avoid becoming overloaded simply because they are capable of doing many things well.

Though we may not achieve out standing proficiency in all five pastoral roles, we may certainly strive toward mastery of each aspect of ministry. Pastors can monitor their own ministry by keeping periodic checks. Clergy spouses and children can often act as valuable critics.

The parish itself is the best source of assistance in our understanding of our own effectiveness. Insights from thoughtful church members will provide a healthy balance to our own regular evaluations of how well we are progressing toward our personal and congregational objectives.

How can we implement a reasonable workload?

One thing our study showed is that pastors are under extreme pressure. They have too much to do, and to do all that effectively, is a difficult, if not an impossible, order. This tyranny of too much to do may be a monster of our own making. It can also be created by the composite demands that others impose upon us. Either way, the tyrant must be tamed!

How can we accomplish the expected tasks of the pastor and yet keep the pastoral workload reason able? Our study helped us develop four steps.

Step 1. Decide an upper limit of hours per week that you are able and willing to work, after providing adequate time for family, health, and other personal obligations. For some this may be a 60-hour week. For others a 50- or 40-hour week may be more realistic.

Reduce that number of hours per week by about 10 percent to deter mine a work commitment that is respectful of your resolve to live a balanced life, while it also allows you the flexibility to deal with unexpected emergencies.

Step 2. Divide your work time among the five pastoral roles. As you estimate the amount of time that you will allocate to each role, consider how each of the pastoral tasks that are associated with that role will share in the time budget. Make sure you train and organize lay persons to care for many of the pastoral tasks.

This Teach/Evangelize/Establish sequence could be repeated in subsequent years. Of course, changes in the needs and goals of the congregation might call for different ways of budgeting the pastor's time.

Step 3. Map out what you plan to do and when you plan to complete each task. A countdown checklist is important when certain deadlines must be met. If you design and follow a regular schedule, you will ensure that the time you have budgeted for different priorities is actually invested as planned. Remember that a schedule is simply an aid to make intelligent and timely decisions to reach your goal in an efficient and purposeful way.

Step 4. Put your plan to work. Make needed adjustments as you go along to ensure that your strategic objectives are met. Also ensure that the mission of the congregation is far more important than the methods.

No matter how revered or well-established a particular practice may be, if it does not contribute to the life and goals of the parish, its relevance must be reviewed. By eliminating nonessentials we dismiss distractions and focus our best efforts where they are most needed.

Be rigorously selective about the new and urgent items that clamor for a place on our "to do" lists. Saying "No" to activities that are inconsistent with the main thrust of our mission is a sacred duty. By deliberately deselecting the unessential, and intently focusing upon the truly important tasks, we can maximize our effectiveness and manage our time. Prioritization and time management are servants to help us to be more effective pastors.

1 D. S. Schuller, M. P. Strommen, and M. L. Brekke, Ministry in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).

2 Unpublished Pastoral Tasks Survey conducted by the author in May 2001 on behalf of the conference.

3 H. Peter Swanson, "Pastoral Effectiveness: A Study of Differences Among Comparison Groups of Seventh-day Adventist Clergy," Ph.D. Dissertation (1999), 41, 58.

4 Ibid., 10, 290.

5 See ibid., 263-265.

6 Ibid. 22-61, 78-91.



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H. Peter Swanson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of pastoral care, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

April 2003

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