“Is this Pastoral work?” 2

“Is this Pastoral work?” It’s a question that I can honestly say I’ve never been asked – at least directly. I think this is due in part to the awkwardness that accompanies such a pointed inquiry. Though not necessarily indicative of the intentions of the enquirer, it does seem to reflect a degree of distrust regarding the pastor’s judgement – something that increases the potential for strain in one of the most critical of a congregation’s relationships. It also comes with a risk – the risk that one will discover that the time, love, and attention granted to an individual by someone they’ve come to trust is being given only because that individual is being compensated for their effort.

Despite these concerns, the question is a valid one. On the surface, it often looks like I’m really just a “paid Christian.” So what’s the difference between what a pastor does and the work of the average church volunteer? I could point out that pastors differ because of the nature of our Divine Call. Scripture indicates that God has granted each of us unique gifts with the intention that they be used for the betterment of the body of Christ (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 7-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11). In the case of a pastor, these include a capacity to preach, teach, administrate, counsel, and comfort (among others). It’s a whole suite of natural inclinations that prepare an individual to serve not just as a leader, but as a leader of God’s people.

I could also point out the extensive specialized training required to become a pastor. In the PC(USA) this includes three to four years of Grad School and multiple internships. This ensures that each minister has a deep enough knowledge of polity and theology (theoretically) to unite the congregation in the discernment and enactment of God’s will.

But this really doesn’t answer your question, does it. You already know this. What you really want to know is whether when I join you for dinner and we play checkers afterward, do I think of this time together as ‘work’? Do I count all of the time I spend praying or reading the Bible as pastoral hours? If I don’t – how do I know what is and what isn’t pastoral work?”

While you’re likely to hear different answers from different pastors, here is mine:

In general, there are two questions I ask as I approach any given task. The first is, Would I be doing this if I weren’t the pastor of this congregation? In some cases this is easy to answer. No, I wouldn’t spend the hours required each week to write the 8-10 page research paper you’ve come to know as the Sunday sermon. I wouldn’t be attempting to attend (let alone offer meaningful guidance) to every church committee. And I certainly wouldn’t be trying to oversee the staff who ensure that the Music and Christian Ed departments function effectively, the building and property are well-maintained, or the bulletins get printed on time. I wouldn’t be asking for God’s guidance as I seek to resolve the challenges that face our congregation or pro-actively calling on individuals who I think may be in need. These tasks – all outlined in my formal Terms of Call – fall solidly in the category of ‘work’.

In other cases though, the answer isn’t quite this simple. The truth is that there are also tasks that I sometimes count as pastoral work that I would be doing – at least in their basic form – whether I was a pastor or not. I attend community events; I eat meals and socialize with congregants; I pray; I read Scripture. In these cases, there is a second criteria I use: Is the nature of this task significantly transformed by the fact that I am a pastor?

In my time here, I’ve made my way around town and it’s reaching a point where many folks recognize me. There are plenty of events or activities in which I would eagerly participate regardless of my position. That said, there are some which I attend because I’m the Pastor of our congregation. When I’m invited to speak or to pray as the pastor, am attending for the purpose of developing relationships between our congregation and the community at large, or at the request of members who have asked me to attend as the pastor – these events become work. To help congregants and others clearly identify that I’m “on duty”, you’ll generally find me wearing my collar rather than my street clothes.

The same principle applies to social invitations. If you’ve invited me to join you for some recreation or a meal because we get on well and we spend a few hours just enjoying each other’s company, that’s not work. On the other hand, if you invited me to dinner because I’m the pastor, if you want to chat about challenges the congregation is facing, or are seeking advice from me because you want the pastor’s opinion – well, that is. Sometimes this means that part of what I do when I’m spending time with you is work and part isn’t. Some of you have gotten quite adept at spotting the difference and I frequently hear the words, “I need you to put on your collar for a moment” from those who recognize that the time I spend performing these tasks does constitute the fulfillment of my formal Terms of Call.

This same principle applies to more mundane tasks as well. If I’m reading (even Scripture or an academic journal) for pure enjoyment or my own edification and relaxation, this isn’t work. On the other hand, if I’ve specially selected a passage, a book, a journal, or anything else because I’m actively seeking to improve my capacity to serve effectively alongside you with wisdom, creativity, and discernment – it is. If I’m reading something because I’m looking for answers that will inform my sermon, assist in answering the questions of my congregants (individually or collectively), or help to improve the functionality of our congregation – this is work. If I’m reading because a congregant has requested pastoral feedback on something they’ve read… also work.

As you can see, the answers to these questions provide a great deal of clarity when it comes to discerning which of my daily activities do or don’t fulfill my Terms of Call. But there’s one more question I want to answer before I conclude. This one is far more important than those I’ve answered above: When I’m sitting with you in my office, at your home, or by your hospital bed, when we’re on the phone together or e-mailing or texting – whenever I’m listening to your sorrows, holding your hand, caring for you in your trials – am I doing that just because I get paid?

The answer to this is a resounding, “No!” While like any first responder, I do get paid to be available to do this, the genuine love and affection I offer you is not for sale. This is not “just a job” to me and the emotions I express… those are the real deal. The tears I cry are there because I care about you and don’t want to see you suffer. The joy we share is from the genuine delight I feel over your successes. And I’d still love you and be glad to know you even if I weren’t your Pastor. Yes, there are some gray areas here and there, but this isn’t one of them.

2 thoughts on ““Is this Pastoral work?”

  • Wendy Taylor

    Wow – what a thorough discerning account of a pastor’s job description/Terms of Call – an account I agree with wholeheartedly – so glad your thoughtful caring message was emailed out to the Presby congregation – thank you for honest straight forward thoughts/conviction, and the cheerful & enthusiastic plus passionate persona you bring to the Presbyterian Church, it’s congregation and to me & Steve!


  • Pam Blom

    Oh Anna, what an unusual question and what a loving answer. I applaud your response both knowledgeable and thoughtful

    Anna, I hope you know how fortunate I feel we are to have you in our church and in our lives. Thank you for sharing such a relevant personal message. We all have a much better understanding of your roles in our community and I and my family hope you will continue your work with all of us.


Comments are closed.