How much should I work as a minister?

One of the questions that has troubled me ever since I started in "full-tine" ministry is: how much ministry I should be doing each week?  It's ironic that as I was thinking about writing this blog, I was ill (again), probably at least partly because I was tired (again), probably at least partly because I was too busy (again!).

When I started in ministry, at times it felt like it was a competition as to who could do the most work.  People would quote "better to burn out than rust out" (which for some reason I though was from Robert Murray M'Cheyne, although it seems to actually be Neil Young!  Although William C. Burns seems to have said something similar).  And plenty it seemed were burning out!

I can remember being taught from the following verse:

For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossains 1:29 ESV)

and feeling the challenge to work hard (and in reliance on God).  However, that verse doesn't really seem to address how much time in a normal ministry to be working.

In this blog, I want to put a few theological reflections and questions in place.  In the next I want to discuss a few common models and their pros and cons and then in the final blog I want to try and synthesize my ideas a bit.

Here are my not very radical theological reflections.

  1. The Bible doesn't seem to tell me the specifics about how much I should do.  I.e. I don't see a NT description or a prescription of the average working week for a church elder.  Now I think that's probably a pretty obvious thing to say, but it's important to realise we're working with more general principles and with wisdom.
  2. We are to work diligently.  I take it that is the lesson from Colossians 1:29 (see also 1 Thes. 2:9; 5:12; 2 Thes. 3:8; 1 Tim. 5:17).  It is undoubtedly possible to be a lazy pastor, but we shouldn't be.  We are to work hard and diligently.
  3. We are to rest.  Now rest is a much broader idea than having time off from work, but it isn't less than that (hence it is six days that we labour and do all our work in Exodus 20:9).  Now, I know there's a whole sabbatarian argument here (i.e. does the sabbath follow to NT believers or not).  Let's put that aside for a minute and suggest that it is (a) unlikely that whole practice of resting from work was lost in the New Covenant, (b) Jesus seems aware of the need for us to rest (Mark 4:38; Mark 6:31; John 4:6), (c) God has created us such that we can't function without rest (as Jesus shows).  Now undoubtedly it is possible to rest too much (think of some of things Proverbs says about the lazy) and at the wrong time (think of the disciples in Gethsemane).  However, we do need to plan to rest.
None of that is very radical, but it does seem to leave a rather open field in which wisdom comes into play.  So let me pose a few questions that tend to pop around my mind on this issue.

  1. What is work and what is rest?  As a minister those things can be quite hard to define.  Is going to the church social event work or not?  Is doing my quiet time part of my working week? Actually, as a Christian those things are quite hard to define.  We tend to define work as what we're paid to do, but I don't think that is the Bible conception.  So cleaning, washing, cooking, gardening (at least my kind of gardening!) and so on is work, even though we do it out of work (paid employment) time.
  2. How does ministry fit with my family and other responsibilities?  The two have a big impact on each other (if my family is a mess so is my ministry and if my ministry is a mess, well my family will know about it!).
  3. There comes a point where doing more is fruitless and a potentially different (although there is some relationship) point where doing more is damaging.  The first is the law of diminishing returns and can be seen in sermon prep (beyond a certain period of time, the sermon is not going to get noticeably better to the listeners).  The second is more complex - it can be that doing too much damages your health, or makes you do things badly because you're tired, or makes you do things badly just because you can't really cope.  The question is: how do you judge these points accurately?
  4. How do you balance the long term and the short term?  I suppose this is simply saying that the burn out/rust out dichotomy is a false one.  We want to do long term effective ministry, but that requires planning what I do today and this week!
I think some of these turn out to be the wrong questions.  I think the best way to see that is by thinking about different suggested models for a ministry working week.  That's what I'll write about next time.


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