How Much Does a Pastor Work?

Work, chair.jpg

I have no idea how much “a pastor” works. I’m sure a few pastors don’t work enough, while many others work way too much. I did some reading recently about why pastors leave the ministry, and the authors cited an interesting study. In the 1950s the average pastor worked 69 hours a week, while in the 1990s the average pastor worked between 48–55 hours (Hoge and Wenger, Pastors in Transition, 226). That’s a significant drop, and a healthy one if you ask me.

What Counts as Work?

Deciding what counts as work and what doesn’t count is not as obvious as you might think. Much of my job involves the kinds of things you expect it to involve, the kinds of things easier to track. Pastoring includes counseling, administration, overseeing staff health, hospital visits, officiating weddings and funerals, leading and attending meetings, preparing and preaching sermons, and so on.

But pastoral ministry sometimes involves less expected things, things such as hosting a 4-square tournament; arranging the stage before and after a wedding and then vacuuming up all the glitter stuck in the carpet after the wedding; washing church table cloths after a memorial service luncheon; graphic design for our welcome booklet, coffee mugs, and posters; helping the random guy who just needs gas money to get home; talking for 30 minutes to a church member at a swimming pool on my off day when I was there to play with my kids; occasionally shoveling icy-slush from the church walkway, plunging a church toilet, and painting the church foyer; and so on.

This isn’t a campaign for sainthood. It’s normal-pastor stuff.

Some of these tasks fit in the typical 9-to-5, but much of it doesn’t. And this is what makes it difficult to figure out how much, and how hard, we pastors work. Pastoring is more of a lifestyle job—an it-goes-with-you-everywhere-you-go job—than a punch-the-clock job.

Recording Hours Worked

Rewind the clock with me two and a half years. At that time, I had been at my current church for just over a year. Perhaps in the hopes of doing a good job and perhaps because of my sinful inclinations to be a people-pleaser, I said “yes” to everything. And—big surprise!—my schedule got out of control. Over one particular month, I remember working in the evenings five or six nights a week. You can’t work both first and second shift for long without problems. I was having problems.  

Talking about this with a great friend and fellow pastor-elder, he helped me to prioritize activities. Also, per his encouragement, I began tracking every hour worked.

I had previously resisted tracking ministry hours, though, for two main reasons. First, I resisted because when I was formerly an engineer, for almost six years I had to bill every half hour of work to a particular job. My time sheet was complicated and frustrating to keep accurate. When I traded the calculator for a Bible, I never wanted to record my hours again.

The second reason I resisted was because, as I said above, the nature of pastoral ministry makes it difficult to track hours. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the prep work to host 20 people for dinner at your house counts as “work,” or if it’s just cleaning your bathroom, mowing your yard, and scrubbing your floor. And sometimes it’s not clear whether the dinner meeting was a “work meeting” or a “friend meeting.” (Please don’t take this the wrong way, church; I’m just trying to be honest about the issues of pastoral ministry.) And after the 20 people leave, do the 45 minutes of clean up count as “work”? And if I bought the food for the meal with my church credit card, does my family get to eat the leftovers tomorrow?

Putting aside these musings and reservations, for the last 27 months I’ve done it. I needed to know how much I was working, especially how many evenings a week I was away from home. You can see the numbers below, but the average is 46 hours a week dedicated to ministry and around 2–4 evenings a week away from home.

What about “Writing Time”?

Tracking ministry hours is further complicated by the calling I feel to write. For the last three years, I’ve been treating this calling as an unpaid, part-time job. I don’t often tell people that, but that’s how I look at it. I do most of my writing early in the mornings between 5:30–7 am, and sometimes also on Friday afternoons from 2–4 pm.

Let me talk about the “unpaid” part of this for a minute. Writing has not been lucrative. So far this year I’ve worked on my writing projects an average of 10 hours a week, which is over 300 hours. This includes all the time required to research, write, edit, and publish blog posts and books. So far, I’m almost $1,200 in the red! You can see a detailed list of my expenses below. This financial investment in my writing would be greater if it weren’t for a few kind donations recently given.

About $300 each year is for blog hosting and email services. Most of the extra cost this year, however, comes from paying editors and mailing books. (Quick aside: I’m working on a book to help pastors find the right job in a local church. I’ve mailed almost 100 “beta versions” of the book to pastors in the hopes of securing 50 interviews for research. Later today I’m doing my final interview. Nearly all of these interviews have been on “writing-time” not “church-time,” by the way.)

So far I haven’t been too worried that writing has become an expensive hobby. Maybe someday “losing a few thousand” will become “making a few thousand.” But regardless, it feels obedient to the Lord to work at improving my craft, to work at growing my ability to write words that help people find joy in God. And besides, I enjoy writing.

But here’s the question: where do these extra 10 hours-per-week fit in relation to my 46 hours-per-week? Is writing a hobby, in which case the hours don’t count at all? Or is this writing work so related to ministry that these hours do “count” as work? I mean, with each blog post I work on getting better at communicating Christian truth, which I’d say is something closely connected to pastoring.

I’m not going to share my answer to these questions here, the question of how writing hours do or don’t add up to work. I have my guesses, but they are only that. In the near future I hope my elders can help me think more deeply about these questions.

Why Am I Sharing This?

I am not sharing this because my confidence is high that I do everything the way it should be done. In fact, I don’t really know. I’m doing the best I can. I try to listen to my wife and the council of other men I respect.

I’m writing this post for the same reason I share one post each year about how many books I’ve read: I share it to keep me accountable. It wouldn’t be healthy or honoring to God for me to work 32 hours or 82 hours. Working 46 hours of “work-work” and 10 hours of “writing-work” seems to be an okay amount. When it’s not okay are the weeks I officiate a wedding. In those weeks I can’t seem to figure out how to work-work less than 55 hours.

But as it is, this schedule has me with my family for almost every dinner, almost every breakfast, and almost every sporting event for my children. I do wish I went on more dates with my wife, but I can’t blame work for the infrequency. That’s more a function of lack of effort on my part (and having a large family, and living far from extended family) than it is too many evenings away.

The hardest part for my family, it seems to me, is not the number of hours I work or the pay. The most difficult part is that too often I don’t turn off work when I’m not working. I keep thinking about a certain marriage that is imploding or the sermon I don’t have written yet, the person who is mad at me and vice-versa. At home I keep thinking about how to keep all the work-plates spinning.

Carrying the stress of work to one’s home is not only an issue for pastors, but I should have less of an excuse; the theology I preach, is the same theology I should live. Rest is about faith that God is God, and he is the one who builds his church. When looked at this way, the anxiety I too often carry is evidence of my lack of faith, not my love for the church.  

If you feel inclined to pray for me (or to pray for your pastor), you can pray this: Pray that we would work hard for the Lord and not man, but when we are not working, we would not unduly carry the work home in our heads and hearts.

If there’s a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to figure out how to stop working when work is over, let me know. I could use it.

A graph of the number of hours I have worked over the last 27 months. (Click to enlarge.)

A table of the the writing expenses I have incurred this year so far. Numbers in red are expenses and numbers in black are income. (Click to enlarge.)

[Picture by Nick Hillier / Unsplash]