It has become common practice these days to rail against overwork in pastoral ministry. Undoubtedly this springs from a well-meaning reaction against bygone days of workaholism, when pastors would serve the church to the neglect of their families—and often their own spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Nevertheless, as is often the case with reactive movements, the pendulum seems to have swung too far.
In just the past few weeks even, I have seen three separate authors declare that a 55- or 60-hour work week is sin, as it would be for the average businessman in one’s congregation. I would challenge this notion.
Consider an elder in a typical church. Elders tend to be highly motivated and competent men, and so they often occupy prominent positions in their respective fields. They are certainly not working fewer than 40 hours a week, and in many cases they are probably working more. Let us say, for the purpose of illustration, that an average elder works an average of 45 hours a week. Is this sin? Surely not. No one would call this idolatry, greed, workaholism, or neglect of the more important duties in life.
But now consider what else an elder does. He meets with the elder board regularly (hopefully for prayer and the ministry of the Word, and not just to crunch numbers and micromanage ministries). If he is a truly biblical elder, he will also teach (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2), whether that means preaching, teaching an adult education class, or something else. He will almost certainly be an active member of a small group, perhaps even leading it. And, if he has any commitment to Jesus’ model of personal disciple-making, he will meet regularly with a handful of other men for the purpose of building them up in the faith. All of this is time well spent, and time for which we will rightfully thank the elder—but it is still time. If this description is at all accurate, the typical elder will devote some ten to fifteen hours a week to ministry in and through the local congregation.
And here’s the rub, then: as vocational ministers, we need to put in a typical 45-hour work week plus the volunteer hours an elder would dedicate to the ministry as well. That means a pastor should be giving, on average, 55 to 60 hours a week. This is not idolatrous workaholism any more than asking full-time workers to volunteer in the ministries of the church is. If we don’t consider the latter to be encouraging sin, we shouldn’t condemn the former as sin either.
In fact, it may be time for some pastors to reckon with the fact that sloth, which is sin, might be the greater danger in their lives. Of all members of the congregation, pastors especially should heed Paul’s warning to the Thessalonian church:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, emphasis mine)