What do pastors do all week?

I’m now in my 20th year of pastoral ministry. Last week, I started writing reflections on the role of the pastor. I’m sharing these as a way to share some aspects of pastoral ministry that I don’t see highlighted or clarified too often. I hope it might help people who consider going into ministry, inspire other pastors to think about the similarities and differences in their own experiences, or help church members see things from a different perspective. See my first post on calling and the joys of ministry here.

I think people in nearly every profession are asked, “What does a typical day/week look like for you?” I’ve answered that question a number of times.

The facetious answer is to say that the typical Sunday looks like leading a worship service for a few hours and then taking a nap; the typical weekday looks like golf.

Thus my favorite version of the “What I think I do…” meme:

As with most professions, what I do week to week is probably quite a bit different from what outsiders (or even sometimes I) assume.

Also as with most professions, the real answer to the “typical day/week” question is, “There is no typical day or week.” They vary quite a bit.

Nevertheless, I’ve created a “typical week” in my life as a pastor.

In 2018, I was trying to get a better sense of how I was using my time. Sometimes what we think we do isn’t really what we’re doing. I wanted better awareness. I wanted to be sure my use of time was aligning with priorities. So I tracked my time throughout the year. I’ve taken the totals from that year and condensed them into one week.

To call this “a week in the life of a pastor” is a misnomer in at least two ways:

1 – The calendar I’m about to show you never happened. Instead, it takes what I did throughout a year of pastoral ministry and allocates it all proportionally to a single week. I’m sharing it to give you some idea of proportion and various activities and priorities.

2 – My particular position is unusual in a lot of ways. I lead a relatively small, relatively young community. So hospital visits and funerals are rare occasions for me, while they make up a large part of other pastors’ weekly schedules. I’m part of a larger church team, which means a few more meetings, but also less direct responsibility for some administrative tasks.

Here’s what my “typical week” looked like after tracking and averaging a year’s worth of time.[note]Like most of the rest of the world, right now it looks vastly different from this. There are a few things that have been streamlined, and I’m happy for the changes. But overall, I would love to get back to that typical schedule and away from the 2020 version.[/note] I’ll elaborate on it below.

Philosophy

First, a few words about philosophy as I plan my weeks.

Though the above calendar doesn’t represent any actual week, I designed it in a way that it could represent a real week. A few things you might notice there:

  • Priorities: Lead worship with intentionality and care; Visit the people; Study and pray.

    I’ve written at length about these being the top 3 priorities for the classical pastor. I expect these three things to consume the bulk of my week because of their importance. Everything related to worship and worship preparation is in light brown in my calendar. Everything related to visiting the people is in red (personal meetings) and orange (team meetings). Everything related to study and prayer is in a shade of purple.

    I would like to give more time to all three of these. Part of my time tracking in 2018 was to identify any ways to reduce time spent on other things so I could spend more on worship, visitation (with preference to personal meetings), study, and prayer.
  • 46 hours per week, 6 days per week. I try to keep my weekly time spent in the range of 45-47 hours. The blank spaces in the calendar matter, too. They represent time with family and friends, community involvement, personal time in Scripture and prayer, other hobbies and interests, exercise, and sleep. I believe all of those are important to me being a better pastor and a better person. So I see the blank spaces––keeping them and using them well––as important to my role.

    A lot of pastors take off one day of the work week. I’ve found that I do better to work each day with the ability to get off a bit earlier when I need to. That allows me to be home with kids on some afternoons, which is also the time I’m least productive if I’m trying to work.

    You’ll also see that Saturday is free. When I’m at my best, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset are strict no-work times, honoring the Sabbath. The main indicator of that for me is no meetings and no screens. Those are ordinary work. They’re non-urgent. They don’t need to happen on Sabbath.

    Last year, a few members of our congregation ended up in an awful car wreck that included a fatality. It was on a Saturday. Did I show up at the hospital? Of course. Crises like that are extraordinary. If you have a child who falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not pull her out?[note]See Luke 14:5[/note] But anything on a screen and the ordinary meetings can wait. (Also, if I find myself responding to crisis constantly, it’s either time to get more help or redefine “crisis.”)
  • Gaps in the days. I intentionally structure 30-60 minute gaps into my work days when I have the opportunity. Those are for walks, occasionally a nap, or going to the gym if it’s a longer gap. I’ve learned that building these in every 2-3 hours is better for my productivity, energy, and happiness. I wrote a lot more about all of this at “Managing workflow, managing energy.” (Though I don’t follow everything there as strictly as I used to.)
  • Time with people, time alone. “Ministry is for introverts. You spend a lot of time alone preparing your sermon, studying, and handling administrative details.”

    “Ministry is for extroverts. It’s all about people.”

    I’ve heard both of those claims a few times.

    From my experience, you need to be okay with significant time alone in pastoral ministry (and be productive with unstructured time). Some of the work requires it. And you need to be okay with significant time with people. Some of the work requires it.

    The calendar above shows 28 hours per week with people (60% of the time) and 18-1/2 hours working alone (40%).

Ministry Areas

Worship – 12-1/2 hours per week

Corporate worship is the most important time of the week for our community. (I said a lot more about that here.) So I spend a lot of time on it. On average, 12-1/2 hours per week––over a quarter of my working time. That’s an average of 7 hours in sermon preparation and also includes the worship services themselves and time meeting with a worship design team to prepare. Our worship design team meetings are one of the most important parts of my week and have significantly impacted our community through how we worship over the years.

This wouldn’t be nearly enough time if I preached weekly. I preach about 60-70% of the time and others from within our community preach the other 30-40%. We do that because we believe it’s important to hear from a variety of voices. It also allows me to spend less total time in sermon preparation without shortchanging the time needed to prepare for each time I do preach. If I preached every week, I’d probably want to find another 4-5 hours in my weekly schedule for sermon preparation.

Visitation – 8-1/2 hours per week

Sitting across a living room, meal table, or coffee table with people has become the most enjoyable and rewarding part of ministry for me. The loss of most of those opportunities during the pandemic has highlighted that.

From my longer piece on visitation: “Visit the people” is the church antidote to magic bullets. It focuses on people rather than any grand strategy or exciting new program. It’s slow, steady, and deliberate. The results will be better measured in years than weeks.

I once had a goal to sit across from every member of our congregation at least annually, along with at least a quarterly personal meeting with everyone in leadership. While that hardly seems like a lofty goal, I’ve found even it more than I can keep up with.

Priorities include meeting new guests and pastoral counseling. I try to meet with all new guests once they’ve come to worship two or three times.

Sometimes I have several people I’m meeting at once for pastoral counseling. Sometimes I have none. I’m not a trained clinical counselor, and I don’t pretend to be. I refer people to those counselors frequently. But pastoral counseling can be a crucial complement to clinical counseling. (I wrote more about that here.) So it’s a regular and important part of what I do.

In this category, I’m also including meetings with our pastoral team, my community’s staff team, ministry students, and other leadership meetings. Those meetings are vital to our trust and work with each other.

A note on meetings: I used to be involved in a lot of meetings that seemed perfunctory, meeting just to meet. Our church has a relatively large staff spread across three campuses. How often do we meet as a full staff? Almost never. One or two times per year. We recognized that we were having meetings because we felt like we should, but the very little we accomplished didn’t justify the time lost for other priorities. Most of my semi-regular team meetings now are lunch meetings. That’s because we recognized that the primary purpose for being together was developing and maintaining trusting relationships, plus ongoing communication. That happens better around a lunch table than a conference table. We set aside a few specific times for longer, more strategic work.

Reading, Continuing Education, and Prayer – 5-1/2 hours per week

The great Anglican priest and theologian John Stott wrote that the “absolute minimum of time for study, which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage” was “every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon, or evening; every month a full day; every year a week.”[note]In Between Two Worlds, p. 156[/note] I’m sad to say that I’m failing even the absolute minimum according to Stott. (I do a decent bit of reading outside of work, so I hope perhaps that compensates for the difference.)

Though it doesn’t meet Stott’s minimum standard, reading is vital to good ministry for me. John Wesley scolded any preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.”

This, of course, involves choosing reading that isn’t petty or superficial. Early in my time in ministry––pre-seminary––I heard someone advise that pastors should be reading at least two theology books for every how-to or leadership book we read. This was early on, and I was really into the how-to and leadership books, so the 2:1 ratio was a big shift for me. But now I couldn’t agree more. Except I believe a 2:1 ratio is way too much how-to. How-to and leadership books make up a lot of ministry world reading. And they occasionally have something valuable. But most of my real gains from reading haven’t been little tips and tricks to improve our volunteer recruitment or how to be a bold leader, they’ve come from reading deep, thoughtful accounts on history, theology, the Bible, psychology, etc. (I wrote more about my reading plan here. And why study and prayer are the third essential task for a classical pastor here.)

Also included in this is time for intercessory prayer. That hasn’t always had a place in my work week. It’s primarily a result of watching Todd Nelson over the past 15 years. I haven’t seen anyone else treat intercessory prayer as such a vital component of their ministry work. That has been a model I’d like to emulate. It may not be work that shows clear and obvious results, but I believe it’s real and good work on behalf of our community. I think it would be even better if I would move this from part of my time alone to part of my time gathered with a few other people to pray for the church and world.

Church Leadership Development / New Communities – 6 hours per week

This is the piece that’s unique to my position. It’s everything in green on my calendar. One of the primary ways that our church across three different campuses works as one church is through a few intentional efforts at leadership development and establishing new worshiping communities.

These may not relate to most other ministry positions, except that most pastors likely have some kind of pet project. These are mine. I’ll share in brief about them here because I love getting to share about these. If you’d like to talk more about how any of them work and if they could work in your setting, send me a message.

Our leadership development focus includes a laity development component and a clergy component. We’ve developed a Discipleship Intensive program that asks people for an 8-hour per week, 2-1/2 year commitment. It’s … intense. We’ve had 27 people complete it over the past five years, with several others somewhere in the process right now.

We’ve also established a fellows program––and now an internship program––for seminarians. These are to provide the church-based experience and training that we believe are a vital complement to seminary for preparing pastors. Our fellows and interns meet in cohort twice a week for the practical training components, then they serve in the church (fellows for 27 hours per week, interns for 7) for additional experience.

In 2018, our church was taking early steps toward planting a new community in a growing part of the city with no UMC presence. That didn’t take then, and our plans are temporarily on hold, but we believe new worshiping communities are the best way to reach new people, so I hope and expect it will be a part of our future when the environment is more favorable.

Though my pet projects may be quite a bit different from others’, I think having some kind of project outside the basics of classical pastor ministry is helpful. In a lot of ways, pastoral ministry is slow, ongoing work. I think some of the “magic bullet” approaches we see to ministry––unfurling a new banner every year or two––are because we get impatient with the slow and steady approach of classical pastor ministry. Projects are a nice outlet for something different without forcing our congregations into a new grand visioneering statement every few years to generate some temporary excitement.

Outside Connections / Resourcing – 3 hours per week

The calendar items I’ve set in blue fall into my “outside connections / resourcing” category. This includes meetings with people outside our church, speaking, and writing.

When I began writing, I did it to help clarify some of my own thoughts. Nothing helps me do that better than having to put thought into complete sentences that I want other people to read and understand. It came as a surprise that writing was also a great way to make connections. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of friends and identified a lot of people with common interests because of writing. So I consider this blog and other writing primarily as a tool for connecting with others. I’ve also seen it as a way to resource others––a small way to provide something of value to people beyond my immediate local context.

I don’t speak a lot, but I get occasional invitations that range from speaking at my college fraternity to speaking to university or seminary classes. Those have also produced some meaningful connections and, again, have been a way to resource others outside my local church.

I try to meet with at least one person outside of our local church setting each week. That might be another pastor in town, or it might be someone who leads a non-profit or other initiative of interest. This helps me to get outside of my little bubble.

Denominational Work – 4-1/2 hours per week

These last two areas are the ones I’ve had to work hard to keep as low as they are. They are necessary and important to ministry, but they can easily take over and crowd out a lot of the above. Over the past few years, our district and annual conference have had an increasing number of mandatory meetings for clergy. There is also some expectation that clergy will serve on district and conference teams. And we have an annual conference for 3-4 days each June. We do all of this because we believe in being a connectional church. That is, we are not just an association of self-chartered churches. We’re connected and stronger together than we would be apart.

This is an area where several pastors––at least in my area and denomination––will have to make decisions about priorities. Through the fellows program I mentioned above, we have a weekly meeting with someone in ministry to learn from his or her experience. A few of them have given a similar warning: “Prioritize your local church and hold firm. Avoid the temptation to do more for the system than you do at your church.”

I’ve seen how this can happen. Pastors can be sucked in to spending more time at the conference office and on conference teams than they spend with their people. Some will even advocate that this is how it should be––the clergy run the system while the people in the local church focus on the local church. But our denomination has named local churches as “the primary locus of mission and ministry within The United Methodist Church.” I firmly believe that a pastor who is paid by and appointed to a local church should give that church his/her top priority attention and energy. As go the local churches, so goes the conference. If we neglect our local churches for the sake of conference work, I expect the local churches and the conference both to suffer as a result.

I’ll admit that some of my skepticism about this is a result of seeing a lot of conference-level investment amount to very little fruitful action. This is, in part, due to the nature of our system. With every transition in leadership, many of our teams seem to start over––new visioning and strategy work. With transition of other team members, the vision and strategies that were developed rarely are upheld. And in our system, we have a lot of transition. So most teams will acknowledge that they’re still early in the process of planning or implementation.[note]I once complained to a consultant (we use a process consulting group for nearly everything in our conference––at least a dozen teams, maybe several dozen) about the slow and tedious nature of the process. He said that Phase III is where you really start to see results. I asked him which groups were in Phase III. He acknowledged there were none in our conference. But some “on their way there.” We’ve been using that consulting group for over a decade. At some point, you acknowledge that Phase III is a mirage and Phases I and II aren’t worth it without Phase III.[/note] We rarely get to the fruit that comes from hard, long-term work in the same direction. That amounts to a lot of 8-hour meetings without much worthwhile progress to show for them.

So my commitment has been to devote 10% of my time––about 210 hours per year––to denominational meetings and work. I’ve found that I have to be careful about my commitments and willing to say no to keep it that low.

Administration – 5 hours per week

There’s not a lot exciting to say here. Email and paperwork are a part of nearly any job. This one, too. I have to fight to not let these overrun more important things. A mentor used to remind me, “People over paper.” So this is an area I try to confine to 5 hours per week without allowing important commitments to slip or important messages to go unreturned. At my best, I truly limit my administrative work to a 1-hour block each day. Leave my email program open, and I’ll let each new message distract from deeper work on other things. Sometimes I do this well, sometimes I don’t. I’m happier and more productive when I do it well.

———

Of course, this doesn’t really capture it all. There are no random text messages or phone calls or emergencies on this calendar. They come, just as they do for people in almost every profession. For me, they don’t overrun my life. Some of that is perhaps fortunate and has to do with the demographics of our congregation. Some is boundaries and helpful coaching about what a crisis is and isn’t, and that I’m not the messiah and don’t need to have a messiah complex.

Not all of it is fun or exciting. I’ve learned over the years that I’m more likely to enter any of these blocks on the calendar without much excitement––whether it be a time of sermon prep or a time in pastoral counseling or a block trying to write something––and then finish it having enjoyed it and feeling like it was productive. This is, on the whole, good and meaningful work.

I know my experience will have many differences from others’. Happy to hear about yours in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “What do pastors do all week?

  1. Very interesting . . . especially like your comments on reading and studying. Will you post your 7-8 top books for 2020? I’ve missed this type of post the past few years.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for this! I’m afraid I’ve gotten away from those “best books” posts. 2020 was a weird book year for me, and I probably won’t post a best books list for it. But I’m glad you’ve found those valuable. I might try to get back to that in the future.
      Blessings,
      Teddy

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