What Does a Minister Do All Week?

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Yet again, I recently met someone who asked what Bob does. And, yet again, we got that tiresome old joke about how a minister has such an easy job, only working on Sundays. I know it’s a joke. I know a sense of humor about all things is a good and healthy attribute to embrace, but I’m finding it harder and harder to laugh at that joke. Those of you who have ever visited Bob and me from out of town know how absurd it is. If it’s such an easy job, then why are so many ministers burning out?

Here are some staggering statistics for you: 50% of all ministers starting out today won’t last five years in the ministry, and only 10% of those who are ministers right now will actually retire from a job as a minister. There are whole websites devoted to the topic of ex-pastors and pastor burnout. I can’t read too many of the stories on those sites because they are just so, so sad.

One minister wrote something I read once in which he said that one of the main reasons ministers burn out so much is that we live in an age in which people feel entitled. They don’t think of their churches as places to honor and serve God but rather as places meant to serve them. They pay their dues and expect to get something for that. The problem is, they all want something different, and it’s hard for a minister to deal with, say, 200 people, half wanting things one way, a quarter wanting them another, and a quarter wanting something altogether different. Ministers are consistently put into no-win situations, which may be why 70% of them are constantly fighting depression.

I’m not convinced that this entitlement is the biggest cause of pastor burnout, though. At our church (btw, Bob and I hate to say “our church” or, worse, “my church”, because it isn’t. It’s God’s church. But I use that terminology here to distinguish from other churches) I don’t think the majority of people feel so entitled (I’ve lived and gone to school in and worked in enough places to know there will always be entitled people in every crowd, but they’re not in the majority at our church). The members of this congregation are humble and loving and willing to serve, and yet I can still see how a minister might burn out even serving a church full of people like that. So much of what a minister does isn’t seen by those she serves. No one observes the suicidal person with whom he is on the phone for two hours. No one sees her helping the brother or grandchild or girlfriend of a church member, someone who doesn’t attend the church but whom the member has asked if she will help. No one sees how much time he spends, week after week, writing a sermon, practicing that sermon, and preparing the rest of the Sunday morning service. No one sees her studying book after book for the Sunday school class she is teaching or Bible study she is leading. No one is there on a Sunday night at 10:00 when someone calls and says, “I know it’s late, but I really need to talk. Could you please come over?”

Ministers are on-call 24/7. Like emergency room personnel, they are always in triage mode, forever having to figure out what most needs attention at any given time. This means that if they are truly loving and caring people (which we all hope they are), all but the very most important of administrative tasks are left languishing, which is why well-organized, intuitive church secretaries are God’s Chosen People (it would help if they could also possess a little ESP, as well, but God hasn’t granted them that gift. Instead, God gives them patience), but such tasks are also just about the only thing the majority of a minister’s congregation sees a minister doing. It’s understandable that people might think a minister doesn’t do much, especially if he has a good secretary, while the minister is actually feeling like he barely manages to keep his head above water, while always dealing with the worry that maybe he didn’t help someone quite enough. And if he’s a good minister, bent on keeping confidentiality, he has no one he can talk to about such worries — not even his spouse — except in the vaguest of ways.

When Bob first became a minister, I was surprised by how much time he spent working on the sermon. Surely, I thought, he’s spending way more time on that than most ministers do. Then, one of our friends posted an article about sermon-writing that noted the general rule of thumb for sermon preparation is one hour of prep for every minute preached. Wow! That means if a minister is writing sermons of average length in America (30-40 minutes according to statistics I can find), she is putting in what’s considered in other professions a full-time job (40-hour week) just writing sermons. Bob’s sermons are 20 minutes long, which would mean 20 hours a week. In 2012, Thom Ranier took a Twitter poll (not statistically significant but still interesting) and found that more than one out of five ministers spend 15 hours or more preparing sermons each week. If you’re so inclined, you can read more interesting information from ministers about sermon prep time here. Bob, in the early days, spent about 20 hours on sermons. Now he spends about 15 hours a week on sermon prep and writing. He practices each sermon three times before he gives it, so that’s about another hour for the sermon. He also writes his own prayers for the service, and picks hymns with our music director, so service prep every week takes somewhere between 16 and 17 hours.

My guess is that most ministers are like Bob, which means they can’t prepare for and write sermons while in the church office, where phones are ringing and people are talking, and they are getting interrupted in other ways. Office hours, for the most part, are spent on email, mail, meetings with individuals, and phone calls. Other ministers have also probably discovered that the best times to write without having to worry about being interrupted (unless there is some special church function going on) are Friday evenings and Saturdays. It seems people are busy with their own things on the weekends and are less inclined to call on the minister until Sunday. There’s another minister in our community who says he spends all day every Saturday writing his sermon, and a retired minister who sometimes attends our church who recently told me that he spent every vacation he took at the Jersey Shore planning sermons while his family was on the beach (I just bet his family loved that). Bob tends to split his sermon-writing up during the week (and he does a good deal of it when most people are in bed — again, because he’s less likely to be interrupted), but he typically finishes it on Saturday.

A couple of months ago, we were having one of these calm discussions of ours, and I said to Bob, “You never take a full day off. Ever. You put in at least 50 hours every week and sometimes as many as 80 hours.” He didn’t believe me. You may not, either. You may wonder when he puts in 80 hours. Well, add a funeral or a wedding (or both) to a work week, and that’s an extra sermon to write and extra visits to make and an extra service to conduct. This past Christmas, he had two funerals, a Sunday service, and two Christmas Eve services to do in 6 days. He barely slept that week. Luckily, the sermon for the Sunday service and one of the Christmas Eve services were both very short due to a cantata and a pageant.

Anyway, since Bob didn’t believe me when I complained kindly pointed out (by the way, lest you think I’m some sort of whiner, I am not alone. 80% of spouses feel that pastors are overworked) how many hours he puts in for work, I did something sneaky. I decided to track his time. For two weeks, I tracked, as best as I could (some of that time I wasn’t around, so he might have been doing stuff I didn’t record) what he was doing. Now I have some ammunition facts next time we argue calmly discuss this topic. This is what he did each day on top of sermon/service prep.

Bob’s Week Nov. 9 – 15 (rounded up or down to the nearest half hour)

Sunday Nov. 9th: two church services, teaching Sunday school, fellowship after church: 4 1/2 hours

Monday Nov. 10th: Office hours: 4 hours (included a pastoral counseling session)

Church-related phone calls (these are calls that are in addition to whatever were made/gotten in the                          office, and are outside of office hours): 1 hour

Tuesday Nov. 11th: Abbreviated office hours: 1 1/2 hours

Leadership team meeting: 2 hours

Worship committee meeting: 1 1/2 hours

Church-related phone calls (outside office hours): 1 1/2 hours

Wednesday Nov. 12th: Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Thursday Nov. 13th: Visited church members: 2 hours

Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Friday Nov. 14th : At emergency room with church member: 6 hours

Kick-off youth group lock-in: 2 hours

Saturday Nov. 15th: Morning shift of youth group lock-in: 5 hours

Peace witness meeting (community involvement expected of ministers): 2 hours

Total hours Nov. 9-15: 40 + 15 to prepare sermon + 1 to practice sermon = 56 hours

Bob’s Week Nov. 16 – Nov. 22

Sunday Nov. 16: One church service, congregational meeting, and 50-member luncheon: 4 hours

Visiting church member at hospital: 1 hour

Monday Nov. 17: Office hours: 3 1/2 hours

Tuesday Nov. 18: Presbytery meeting (all Presbyterian ministers attend Presbytery meetings): 9 hours, no office hours

Church-related phone calls (outside of office): 1 hour

Wednesday Nov. 19: Church-related phone calls (outside of office): 1 1/2 hours

Met with social worker to help person he’s been counseling: 3 hours

Abbreviated office hours (due to overlap of social worker meeting): 2 hours

Thursday Nov. 20: Member of congregation had surgery, went to hospital to wait with wife: 4 hours

Abbreviated office hours (due to time spent in hospital): 1 1/2 hours

Church-related phone calls (outside of office hours): 1/2 hour

Session (church board) meeting: 2 1/2 hours

Friday Nov. 21: Church-related phone calls and proofreading church bulletin (outside of office): 1 hour

Met with organizer of the church Christmas pageant: 1 hour

Saturday Nov. 22:  Church-related phone calls: 1 1/2 hours

This week, he also began his work on the Thanksgiving Eve sermon, because next week he has that           in addition to his regular Sunday services. He put in 7 hours on that.

Total hours Nov. 16 – 22 37 + 15 of regular sermon prep + 7 of Thanksgiving Eve sermon prep + 1 to practice sermon = 60 hours

So, there you have it. Two weeks in a minister’s life. They are quite typical. An easy job, right? Is it any wonder so many get burnt out, especially if they (as many claim) feel they don’t have any support or are constantly dealing with petty complaints? Bob’s not burnt out, and he gets support. Still, he also gets tired, and sometimes a little depressed by all his worries and concerns (as anyone with a conscience would). So do I. Next time you meet a minister, give her a hug. She probably needs it. While you’re at it, give the minister’s spouse a hug. We need them, too. And no jokes about only working on Sunday, please.

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4 thoughts on “What Does a Minister Do All Week?

  1. Oh, Emily. As one of the people who has visited for a weekend and caught only a brief glimpse of Bob, you know I am fully sympathetic and I’ve seen how hard he works. I genuinely don’t know how he does it, because it’s not just the hours, it’s the nature of the work in those hours. What to me seems the hardest is that in all that time he’s mostly giving of himself: his attention, his patience, his sympathy, his understanding, his help in any way he can. And I know he feels guilty that he’s spread so thinly that he can’t give more of that to everyone who calls on him. I have enormous respect for anyone who has that level of love and vocation, but it’s no wonder that ministers burn out; or that their wives are concerned and may want to discuss the matter, calmly. x

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    • Yes, you manage to see that blur as he races by you whenever you visit, right? It is hard that he’s always giving of himself. People tell him to take care of himself, but it’s hard to do when so many need his attention. One thing he’s got is an enormous reserve of energy and, luckily, he has the self-confidence that comes with having achieved success in other professions, as well as the wisdom learned from mistakes made in those other professions. I feel most sorry for young ministers, fresh out of seminary, who don’t have that well to draw from.

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