The Classical Pastor (pt. III, Threats, an addition, and does it scale?)

pastor and paper

1 — The greatest threat to the classical pastor

A pastor friend of mine has a mantra, “People over paper.” He reminds people of that because “paper” (i.e. all task-oriented work) has come to rule the day. We send emails, check off to-do lists, craft strategies, complete reports, and attend meetings. We can fill an entire week with nothing but those tasks. And still feel behind when it’s over.

Sometimes the “paper”-work consumes us because we react to the demands in front of us. We fail to set higher priorities.

Sometimes we allow the “paper”-work to consume us because it’s more comfortable. Easier to allow predictable busy-work to bury us than to face an unpredictable conversation. Easier to talk with people about strategies than to talk with them about their souls. More exciting to create plans for a big program than to do the routine work of visitation.

Paper”-work is today’s greatest obstacle for the classical pastor. At every turn, it threatens to distract from worship and visitation.

If pastors believe in the slow, steady, deliberate work of the classical pastor, they must reduce the “paper”-work. Almost to the point of elimination.

I can’t eliminate this!” you protest. I know. I haven’t eliminated it either. But if I treat “lead a fine worship” and “visit the people” as top priorities, little time remains for the rest. I used to allow all the “paper”-work to squeeze out worship and visitation. Now I’m allowing worship and visitation to squeeze out the rest. By doing that, I’ve realized that much of the “paper”-work was inessential. By limiting my time for these things, I’ve learned how to do what I must in shorter time and how to delegate the rest.

A good test for pastors––can you take a week or two away and actually be gone? Can you spend time away in peace? You don’t stress about what’s going wrong or put out fires from a distance all week?

If your day-to-day presence is so essential that you can’t get away in peace, something is wrong. And the problem may be you. Some of us need to be needed.

For the sake of any ongoing, legitimate ministry, we need to get over ourselves and let others do some of the work. For the sake of the most important things, we need to remove ourselves from every urgent, daily need. For the sake of our health, we need to delegate some responsibilities. For the sake of our humility, we need to recognize that other people can do things as well as we can, and often better.

Eliminate. Delegate. Say no. Ask permission to stop doing things. Have the courage to stop hiding behind these things.

I’m blessed to work at a church with a structure for this. Our pastors are free to be pastors. We have other staff and volunteers to administrate. We have great administrative assistants. They handle most routine, week-to-week needs so we can focus on pastoral work.

To the pastor who doesn’t have that, you need to look for those people and ask for those structures. To be sure, it may come at a cost. I’m still classified as part time. That keeps enough money free for us to hire administrative help. Most pastors need more help more than they need more money. The average United Methodist elder in Kentucky is in the top 15% of all U.S. income earners.1 Given that astounding number, shouldn’t we be asking about the wisdom of some of our raises? Aren’t they robbing the church and the pastor of what they really need: more help rather than a more wealthy pastor?

2 — One other essential task for the classical pastor

I’ve based this series on a quote from Sam Stanley, who says, “There’s really only time for two things in ministry.” I know, but I’ll add a third. I don’t think I’m violating the spirit of Stanley’s advice. I think this one was implicit.

The classical pastor must devote time to study and prayer. One of my favorite responses from Stanley Hauerwas in our interview:

I think it’s very important for people in the ministry to train their congregations on why, as ministers, they need to have time set aside to pray and to read. I know that sounds odd, because one says, ‘Well, they probably are doing that all the time.’ No, I just think you need time set aside for study, and study is a form of prayer.

As someone who talks to several pastors, I can tell you that pastors do not, as a rule, study and pray all the time. Many disregard these activities as less important than the other work of ministry. Others can never find time for them. Each new day’s demands crowd out prayer and study.

To lead worship well, to preach well, and to visit people well, we need to study. Seminary training is a good foundation for a pastor’s study. It’s a lousy conclusion to it. John Wesley scolded any preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.”

I budget six hours per week for intentional study, outside of work specific to the sermon. That doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s something.

I’ve written much more about this. See my post “A pastor’s reading plan” for more detail.

3 — Does it scale?

Lead a fine worship and visit the people works well for a 50-person congregation. What happens if that congregation becomes 200, much less 1,000?

It would be most fair for me to say I don’t know. I’m the happy pastor of a small congregation, where I can still know every name and sit with every person. I haven’t experienced the demands of a 200-person congregation.

If I were deciding today, in a congregation of 200, I would seek out an assistant pastor. What would that assistant pastor do? Lead a fine worship and visit the people. They would help with the extra demands of a larger worship service and visit the people I couldn’t. Their work would be a direct extension of my work.

While this is theory for me, it also seems to be the classical pastor’s model in history. Look at what the brilliant Richard Baxter advised in The Reformed Pastor:

If you have but a hundred pounds a year, it is your duty to live upon part of it, and allow the rest to a competent assistant, rather than that the flock which you are over should be neglected. If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and children cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less? Have not many able ministers in the prelates’ days been glad of less, with liberty to preach the gospel?”

And here we are, back at money again. We don’t ask these questions enough today. (And we’re not well-liked when we do!)

Baxter’s top priority: ensure care for the whole flock. Baxter was writing about this within a larger exhortation for his pastors to visit all the people. If they couldn’t do it themselves, they needed to get an assistant.

In both my theory and Baxter’s reality, this model scales. At least to a point. Can it scale to a 1,000-member congregation? Even in that large context, can we ensure that everyone is known––no one falls through the cracks? I would like to believe so, but I’m too far removed to answer with certainty.

I know that most of our 1,000-person models would need to change. You may say, “That’s why we do small groups ministry.” I hope you’ve seen here something that goes beyond that, though it could certainly include it. The mega-church I referenced in part II had a small groups ministry, too. A pretty good one. You may say, “Some people like to remain anonymous.” Perhaps so. That doesn’t mean we should let them.

Your thoughts?

I’ve shared plenty about this now. What do you think? Is Sam Stanley right that worship and visitation are pastors’ most important duties? Is he right that there’s not much time leftover once those are done? What are your biggest challenges for living in this model? Your biggest questions or disagreements?

See pt. I, Lead a fine worship, and pt. II, Visit the people.

And if you liked this series, would you consider sharing it with some others? Click to share on Facebook, share on Twitter, or send by email. Thank you!

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  1. Average salary plus minimum housing allowance in Kentucky is $78,000. I’m not including our very generous pension and health benefits in the calculation. Use this nice tool to see for yourself.

2 thoughts on “The Classical Pastor (pt. III, Threats, an addition, and does it scale?)

  1. I think this is true. The only comment I have is that we need to be wary of to sharp a distinction between the pastor and the lay ministers. Small groups leaders should be shepherding and pastoring their small groups. Let’s not minimize what the group members can do for one another, as well. Visitation in times of need should start with the small group, as should challenges to greater obedience and faith. Just a thought.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I agree about drawing too sharp a distinction between the pastor and the lay ministers. Did you read part II and its discussion of visitation? In my context, even as a small context, our lay ministers (we call them pastors) are the primary pastoral support for people. And by extension, their small groups are the first and most frequent responders in times of crisis. I don’t mean to suggest this as a distinction between clergy and laity, but rather to suggest that the clergy must do it, even as the laity will surely need to be doing it, as well. (And usually the laity will give much more quantitative support, as there are more of them).

      Am I understanding you correctly? Does this response make sense?

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