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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - "Part-Time" Ministry

This week's question is one that many of us have grappled with over the years, and one that is possibly not ever quite settled.
I am assigned to a church as a 3/4 time local pastor. It is a small church with an average attendance of about 75-80. (2 services each Sunday a traditional service and a contemporary service)
Full-time pastors are expected to work 40-60 hours a week. But we are all "on call" 24/7. Is there an easy (or easier) way to figure out if we are working too much or not enough -other than keeping track of every minute we are working?
And is anything having to do with the church considered "work?" Prayer meetings, required educational classes, funerals of church members and of non-church members, visiting, homes and hospitals, community "face time", ministerial associations, accountability groups, visits with a mentor, nursing home worship services...and of course preaching, preparing sermons, planning for the coming weeks and months and meetings, secretarial work if there is no secretary or if the hours of the secretary are limited...
How do you figure it all out and not overdo? I've been told by my superintendant to watch my hours and not to do too much. How does one not do "too much?" When things need to be done, they need to be done...

PS: I do not have another job other than this- I don't know how part-time pastors do it if they have another job on the side and have a family...
I (earthchick) don't think we ever fully "figure it all out." I think it's a constant and organic process of determining priorities (both at church and in our personal lives) and trying to be faithful. For me, being faithful means learning when to say "no" - as well as when to say "yes." That requires working towards a clear sense of what is actually the work you are called to do, as opposed to just responding to everything that anyone else thinks is urgent.

I currently serve 3/4-time as a co-pastor with my spouse (who is also 3/4-time) in a medium-size church. My baseline of visible hours (office hours, church services, board meetings, hospital visits, programs, and the like) tends to be 25+ hours. Then there are what I think of as my "invisible" hours - the hours I spend working at home on my sermon, the time I spend doing other prep at home, phone calls at home, conversations with my ministry partner at home, etc. When the invisible hours are added in, that means that, for me 3/4-time is 30-45 hours a week, depending on the week. That seems about right, when full-time pastors generally put in 40-60 hours.

Obviously, I do not see my job as a 30-hour a week job - that's usually the low end of what I put in. But as a salaried professional, I see my work as something along the lines of what a lawyer, doctor, school superintendent or principal might do - full-time for them often means more than a standard 40 hours a week.

One of the many advantage of a job like ours, especially for those of us who are technically "part-time," is that we have great flexibility, and generally a lot of latitude. If there is a week that you feel like you have really been slammed - a funeral or church crisis on top of the usual responsibilities - or if you have a stretch of weeks where you find yourself working on the high end of what you feel like is your range of hours, then you have the freedom, and really the responsibility, to find a way to give yourself some time back in the week or weeks following. Take an extra day off, leave the office early, don't go to a meeting that you don't really have to be at. No one else is going to determine for you when you need to draw these lines - you have to develop that sense for yourself, and then be vigilant and proactive about that self-care.

And by the way, YES!, all those things you listed are very much "church work"!

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, offers this:
Ministry is about being and doing – so in a sense whatever our percentage of work we are always ministers – asking ‘is this ministry?’ is like asking ‘am I being a mother?’ at all times of the day. Being a minister is who I am – all the time.
But I am not saying we have to work all the hours of the day – this would be bad for us, of course – and we would not be effective in our ministry.
We all need a balance of rest, work, prayer, play, family, friends, activity, sleep. When you are overdoing something your body will tell you – listen to it!
And plan time off and do not be afraid to say ‘NO, I can’t do that then, its my day off’.
There will always be things that have to be squeezed into the week, so don’t feel guilty if there are ‘gaps’ in your diary. If you really feel you haven’t done enough in any given week, pray a bit more, or visit someone who’s lonely, or read a book!
Ministry is never ‘done’ for the week – there are always things that have to wait for another day, another week, etc. Learn to go to sleep with this prayer “Lord I’ve done all I can today – give me rest for tonight & strength and wisdom in the morning – and thank you for covering the night-shift.”.

This probably sounds obvious – but I hope it doesn’t sound smug – I’m still trying to live by my own advice, as I’m sure my friends who read this will be quick to remind me!

Sue, who blogs at Inner Dorothy, initially wrote in with this:
This is one topic I can speak about with some authority and experience. For me, it's been a real, "live and learn" situation. In the United Church of Canada (my denomination), full time ministry is defined as 40 hours per week.


Obviously, there are times when crisis situations demand more time, but the Manual also states clearly that these extra hours MUST be made up by the ministry personnel as lieu time. It is the minister's responsibility to work out how and when that is going to happen, working with a (hopefully) well-functioning Ministry & Personnel Committee. As a Church, we have had such a high rate of burnout and long term disability claims due to ministers crashing and burning, that the church has taken the issue very seriously.

In your case, in the UCCan, your maximum hours for the week would be 30.

And yes, whenever you are doing work for the church, you are working. I've tracked my hours throughout my ministry, and it's amazing how quickly they add up. For example, those calls you get at supper time every night???? I pick up my book, write down the name of the person calling, their number (in case I have to call back at some point), and the amount of time I am on the phone with them. Work time. Absolutely work time.

I think the major problem with this issue is an ego thing. When I was doing my internships, I sat at a ministerial meeting and literally sat in awe as I watched this table full of (sorry guys - male) ministers bragging to one another about how hard they work. "Well, I'm definitely going to be putting in another 70 hour week, just like the last three."

Who did they think they were impressing?

The point is that needing to be needed can be VERY seductive, especially to Enneagram 2s (if you're into Enneagram theology). I've had to fight with myself for years to FINALLY learn that the words "no" and "delegate" are not four letter words. They are words that just might save your ministry.

If you want a short ministry that will flame out quickly - go ahead with the 70 hour weeks. If you want to be in ministry for the long term, learn to say (politely and sincerely) "I have other commitments that day, perhaps we can look ahead to the next week" or "I'm serving on several Presbytery committees already, I'm sure you will be able to find someone else for that committee who isn't so burdened already."

You get the idea. Assertive, not aggressive. True - to both yourself and to God who calls you to this ministry. Wishing you peace and good discernment in a difficult matter...

And then later that same day, Sue wrote in with the following:
Me again: I need to add that about an hour after I sent in this know-it-all response, I had another crisis call - a funeral, and a complicated one at that (family dynamic issues). I wrote my first ATM response with my calendar for this week laid out in front of me with Tuesday (all day) and Thursday morning booked as "OFF" to make up for the extra 12 hours I put in last week.

Then the call came. I won't be getting either of those lieu days this week. I wish I could say for sure that I would get them next week. The reason I'm adding this, is that even when I think I've got a handle on this terribly difficult issue, situations through a curve into the middle of it all.

When I spoke with the daughter of the woman who died today, all I could hear in my mind was Jesus saying "Whatever you do for the least of these..." and my heart filled with compassion for her. I've been where she is and I know how much it hurts.

I suppose that somewhere in the middle of God's call and the personal self-care that EVERY person in ministry so desperately needs, there is a perfect balance.

Clearly I haven't found it yet. But I'm trying.

So, there you have the matriarch's responses, what about the rest of you? We usually get a lot of answers to this type of question - I think we all have an investment in getting the whole self-care thing figured out! I look forward to seeing how the conversation proceeds this time.

This was the last question in our current Ask the Matriarch queue. Please send your questions to

- earthchick


  1. I don't know how well it worked out long term, as I haven't checked in with her for a while, but I had a friend who worked 3/4 time as 3 weeks on full time, and one week off - and yes, that included Sunday. I think lay people took the 4th Sunday. It worked better for her, because then she could really be present when she was there and really be OFF when she was off.

    I dont know what she did if there was a pastoral emergency during the 4th week...

    Basically, I'm with Sue. Whether you're scheduled to work 12 hours a week (as I was in my first call) or 30 or 40, the work will never be done. So YOU have to be the one to call it.

    I'm taking a sort of leadership class right now, and the prof says, "You are used to working through
    your piles. But the problem is, you have too many piles now. So stop trying to work thru them. Just pull out the stuff that, unless you do it, the organization will be damaged." "damaged" to me is a pretty strong word, and helps me make better choices.

  2. Hi, I am in my first placement, which is designated 80%. As part of the conversations before I started, it was agreed I would not lead worship each week. It turns out I lead about 8-9/13 per quarter. The congregation hadn’t thought about how less than full time would work, so I had the flexibility to work out my own way. I keep track of units – that is a morning, afternoon or evening, and just over 11 units per week is about 80 %. I keep track of what I work, including meals with members of the congregation, meetings, worship prep, reading etc etc.
    I find it very difficult to work 80% on a weekly basis, but find it easier to attempt 80% over the quarter. It works out about 2 weeks each quarter I have off – not always 2 weeks in a row, but at times it is. I plan the preaching plan around when I want to take the time, and I really mean off. I don’t turn up for worship or meetings, and I usually go and visit friends or have a few days away. If a crisis occurred while I was away, a few [2-3] people in the congregation have my mobile number and will ring me if necessary. This has happened rarely, they can usually manage to look after things until I return. I am fortunate that the congregation has 4 accredited Lay preachers, so finding someone to lead worship isn’t an issue. Also the congregation are good at looking after each other, so I do very little visiting that isn’t crisis related. Not long after I started here, I worked out, with Church Council, what the priorities are.

    All the best with this,

  3. Juniper, I really love what your prof said - that's a really helpful way of clarifying priorities.

    PRL, I think you are right, too, about working out what the priorities are. I think it's so important to help congregants see that not everything can be a priority (which means not everything will get done! at least not by the pastor!).

  4. Yes, to all of the above. A colleague in another profession used to say to her boss, when he wanted to pile another responsibility on her, "and what would you like me to stop doing in order to do this?" That was a bit "in your face," but she made her point. When a parishioner sometimes suggests that I do a particular thing because it's convenient I have adopted the direct phrase, "I'm sorry, you'll need to talk to ______, he takes care of that." As gentle a phrase as that is, it sometimes takes people back that I say no. They are, however, getting used to it.

  5. A colleague of mine on another discussion board posted recently that he will be retiring but taking a half time position as a pastor of a small church. He asked "I wonder what that means?" and immediately a bunch of us chimed in..."It means you will get paid half as much for doing the same job" "It means half time pay for full time work" Finally, one of us spoke up and reminded us it does no one any good to work a lot more hours than we are paid for. It doesn't do the church any good because they don't understand that they themselves are to be about doing ministry, not just the pastor. It does ourselves no good because we feel overworked and underpaid. And it does our colleagues no good because the next person appointed there will be asked to do at least as much as you are doing, and so the cycle will continue.
    I have been working as a 1/2 time associate for a little over a year. The church I serve is about an hour from my home, which actually makes saying "no" easier. I work from home four days a week while my girls are in school (planning liturgy, preparing for Bible study, researching and writing sermons) and go to the church for 12 hours every Wednesday. I lead a Saturday night service, and do not go to church Sundays. Once a month or so I get a Saturday off, and once a month or so I preach three services on a weekend. On Wednesdays, I meet with staff, do visitation, lead Bible study and chair meetings.
    I don't keep track of my hours, but did once and it was between 20 and 30 for everything I do - from sermon prep to Bible study. It seems right, and the congregation just gave me a raise, so I guess they are happy with the amount of work I put in.
    Being an associate is a LOT different than being a solo pastor. I can and do say no to a lot of weddings and funerals, knowing we have two other staff who can do them. But I still think my paragraph above is important! All the best to you.

  6. Timely topic for me. I missed my Sabbath day two weeks ago and took and extra 1/2 day the following week. This sabbath...partly due to pastoral things (funerals), my installation, and annual meeting on the first Sunday in February.

    At our monthly session meetings I include my self-care in my report. What I did...if I was successful in taking my Sabbath.

    Setting the example early, has been important for me. I am not sure the congregation "understands". I am sure there are some that think we only work "one day a week". The more I can teach/help/model for people a more balanced life...the better for all...pastors and congregation.

  7. Timely ATM for me, I begin a 3/4 time call on Monday. To make matters more difficult, the former pastor was full time, and the manse is attached to the church. The intent is to make the call full time as soon as we get things ramped back up from the "no pastor" slump. but until that happens, I'll be walking this road with a congregation that still has full-time expectations. I know that to give them full time will probably mean they never up my call, but it will be a difficult line to walk.

  8. I'm just about to start a 1/4 time "retirement position", assistant to a young Rector, who is also a part-time + part-time appointment (the other 'part' is chaplaincy work); we are working thro' my daytimer and the Rector
    s, and I am giving 3 "blocks" or "units" a week not counting the Sundays. We've agreed that I'll have "fifth Sundays," when they occur, OFF.
    This parish is in re-build mode after a real lean time...seeing how it all works out is going to be very very interesting!

  9. altarego: I like what you said, and with the deepest respect, I would simply add that it is REALLY important to take out the "I'm sorry" part of that sentence. It may feel harsh at first, but you have no reason to be sorry about delegating duties to the appropriate person or people.

    When every "no" or "delegating" is associated with an "I'm sorry" - the message that is sent is that you regret not being everything to everyone. You don't need to be sorry for something that no mere mortal could possibly accomplish.

  10. I work 80% time as well (sort of an odd figure, but it ensures benefits) as an associate. I'd guess that an average week is 35-38 hours. The single thing that has helped me the most is having Wed and Fri as days off. With very few exceptions, I just don't schedule things for those days. That is much easier than trying to keep shorter hours but being in the office 4-5 weekdays.

    We don't have a lot of weddings, so not a lot of call for Friday night rehearsals, but I have asked couples to consider Thursday evening rehearsals. We also don't have tons funerals, and many of those are memorials with greater flexibility on planning. Just those two things can add up pretty quickly.

    There have been some substantial periods when I was, to all intents, in charge, and I simply tried darn hard to continue to keep those days off. It doesn't always work but it helps.


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