At the outset of a difficult topic – pastoral laziness – I want to be clear that my purpose is to encourage both pastors and their congregations. Where conflict arises over the minister’s work ethic, I believe most of the time there is a path forward to strengthen the bonds of affection that should exist between a pastor and his congregation.
That said, here are some hard words: Apart from heretical doctrine or immorality, one of the most serious charges that can be levelled against a pastor is sloth. In the judgment of his congregation, he fails to take his cues from the “hard-working farmer,” one of Paul’s models for pastoral ministry (2 Timothy 2:6), and seems unfamiliar with Solomon’s exhortation: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The evidence is not difficult to detect: poorly prepared and delivered sermons, failure to visit and care for the flock, chaotic administration, and invisibility in the community. Laziness is a serious sin. Haphazard shepherding of God’s flock is inexcusable, a dereliction of God-given duty. It also insults the congregation who provides his salary so that he might pursue the work of ministry “free from worldly cares and avocations” (Presbyterian Church in America, Book of Church Order, 20-6).
Fortunately, there are very few lazy pastors – and they should repent of their laziness or leave the ministry.
Far from lazy, most pastors I know are diligent and faithful laborers who love and care for their families and congregations. Unfortunately, even diligent pastors can be wrongly charged with laziness.
IDENTIFYING THE REAL ISSUE
How can a pastor who is not lazy find himself accused of just that? The accusation, undeserved, arises from two sources: first, from a difference of opinion about what a pastor’s workday should look like, and, second, from an unfortunate but correctable lack of self-awareness on the part the minister. Let’s take each in turn.
DIFFERING EXPECTATIONS FOR THE PASTOR’S WORKDAY
The workplace has changed dramatically since I was ordained in 1985. The idea of flexible hours and mobile offices had not made its way to the mainstream – and for those who have spent their working lives in 8-5 office environments, it can be difficult to understand.
It is not unusual for a pastor and his elders to have conflicting opinions on how to structure his day. For example, a pastor may find that working from home is more productive than studying at the church, with its many interruptions. Another may choose to do some work in coffeeshops where he can meet people. Neither choice is symptomatic of laziness.
But both choices can give the appearance of laziness, a fact that the conscientious pastor will admit. He also knows that his office brings temptations to idleness, whether he succumbs to them or not.
Here’s the crux of the matter: most pastors have freedom. Much of the time, the structure of his workday is left entirely up to him; he has flexibility in managing his calendar and ordering his work. For the minister skilled in the disciplined use of time, that freedom is a bonus: he can manage his own schedule, seeking optimal efficiency.
But freedom must be exercised cautiously to avoid conflict.
When the structure of the pastor’s workday is in dispute, the conflict is often one of expectations: the congregation expects the pastor on site, working in his office throughout the day. After all, that’s what most of them do – they leave home and go to work. Working at home or hanging out at a coffeeshop is not an option. If you’re not making a hospital visit or handling an emergency, you should be in the office, just like them. The assumption is reasonable.
Here’s my advice to pastors. When you take a new church, talk with your leaders about their expectations and listen carefully. As you begin your work, strive to meet those expectations. Work hard, earn their confidence, and gain a reputation as a diligent worker. Later, from a position of trust, begin to talk with your elders about alternative ways to structure your day. Share about your favored work routine and why you find it helpful. Don’t be in a hurry; be willing to compromise; be patient.