What do clergy do all week?

Ministers are sometimes unkindly described as “six days invisible, on the seventh day incomprehensible.” This month I am celebrating thirty years in ministry. Back when I began, veteran ministers advised me that a minister’s time would usually be spent in the study in the mornings, out visiting in the afternoons and at meetings in the evenings. How the lives of ministers have changed! This week I rediscovered “Pulpit and Pew”, a programme of in-depth research on pastoral leadership in the USA undertaken between 2001 and 2005. In particular I appreciated the report by Becky R. McMillan discussing just how clergy use their time, available online at  http://pulpitandpew.org/what-do-clergy-do-all-week.

Half of those full-time ministers surveyed report working between 35 and 60 hours a week with one quarter less and the other quarter more than that range. I paused to reflect on the hours I work as a minister. In the spirit of openness, I share that during my first 10 years it was probably 60 hours a week. For the second decade the average would have been closer to 55. Nowadays I typically spend around 50 hours a week in the tasks of ministry and sleep ten hours a week more than I did when I first started. I am content to be average. I fondly believe that my church would rather have quality than quantity. I look back really wishing that I had taken this approach from the beginning (and so do my wife, my now-grown-up children and my spaniels).

The studies report that a minister’s typical working week is divided between planning worship including writing sermons (a median value of 33% of the time) providing pastoral care (19%) administration and attending meetings (15%) teaching and training others for ministry (13%) and denominational and community affairs (6%). Other common tasks include writing articles, fund-raising, correspondence and chaplaincy. Women ministers work the same number of hours as men but report spending less of their time in preparing sermons and more in administration and pastoral care. Ministers describing themselves as conservative (as I would) typically give more time to preaching and prayer and less time to administration. In churches with more than one minister, the senior pastors usually work more hours than their colleagues but curiously their time is used in similar proportion.

For myself, I found this analysis quite affirming, even recognising that there are significant differences in patterns of ministry in the USA. For me, still preaching two sermons every Sunday (all six years’ worth from my current church are online for anybody to read and borrow at www.pbthomas.com/blog –  you are very welcome), around one third of my time is spent preparing and delivering those messages alongside preparing for and leading worship. Similarly, roughly one fifth of my time is spent in pastoral care, although over the years an increasing element of this is expressed using phone calls, emails, texts and social media such as Facebook and Messenger rather than in face-to-face conversations.

Preaching, teaching and pastoral care have always seemed to me to be the heart of pastoral ministry. We are called to be pastor-teachers (literally “teaching shepherds,” one phrase, not two in Ephesians 4:11). By the lakeside the Risen Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my lambs. … Take care of my sheep. … Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17). Once could even argue from this that nourishing our flocks by preaching and teaching is the highest priority in ministry and “taking care” of them was the next. I recently found myself puzzled by an advert I saw. A church was looking to recruit an Associate Minister to join their team to take responsibility for the teaching, preaching and pastoral care in order that the Senior Minister could be released for the tasks of “leadership, vision-building and disciple-making.” Surely the principal ways that ministers lead and build vision and make disciples is precisely through preaching, teaching and pastoral care? We must guard against devaluing these vital expressions of ministry or allowing other worthwhile activities to squeeze them out. Somebody once asked old Joe what he thought of their new minister. “He’s got foot and mouth disease,” Joe replied. “He can’t preach and he don’t visit.”

In “Pulpit and Pew”, ministers reported spending an average of 10 hours a week in prayer and meditation and 4 hours on general reading not related to sermon preparation. Again, I am encouraged. My own experience would probably divide that amount of time a bit more evenly between prayer and general study, but that same weekly total has remained constant same through the decades. The Message translates Romans 12:1 “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.” Continuing study and a commitment to prayer are vital if we are to give our best in preaching, teaching and pastoral care. Of course, different ministers bring differing gifts, skills and experience to the calling and comparing our lives with others has its limitations. I am certainly not suggesting that my own patterns are appropriate for everyone. But God calls each one of us to be the very best we can be in his service. The examples of other ministers may help us avoid the extremes of sloth and burn out, which are both just as dangerous.

Comments are closed.