Time On Our Hands

August 29, 2012

A pastor was describing his thirteen hour Sunday: the early review of this sermon; leading worship, including preaching; pastoral response to a family crisis; a late afternoon committee meeting; a hospital visit; and then another meeting at the church that evening. Most disturbing was this — while driving home he was still working, thinking of things not done and people not seen. “Always more, no endings; never enough,” he said out loud to himself.

Granted, such long hours are typical for many workers caught up in a job with high expectations, either self imposed or superimposed by others. Indeed, thirteen-hour days are not so extraordinary. We all live and work in an environment that applauds over-functioning. “Not enough time” is a refrain sung by most adults these days, for reasons to be saved for another discussion.

But, and this may surprise you, for pastors the issue is not about time. It looks that way on the surface, but having enough time is not the problem. The fact is, as pastors, we have time. Time is what we have. Time is ours to fill, to distribute. We are paid to show up in time with time — at worship services, at committee meetings, at appointments, at crises. And we show up, not with a stethoscope or prescriptions, but rather with caring presence that we hope is formed by the Jesus vision. That’s our job, to show up, be present, re-presenting a particular “way, truth and life.”

Note the freedom. Let’s acknowledge up front the uncommon freedom we have as pastors. Yes, it can be a burdensome freedom, but it is freedom nevertheless. Most laborers, including professionals, have limited, even little control over their schedules. Their time is carefully measured, sometimes in 15-minute increments. Most workers adapt to schedules largely set for them.

The unspoken covenant between pastor-congregation might look like this.

We set you apart (ordination) to lead alongside of us from a different angle. We give you time to understand, define and offer yourself in the role of pastor. We free you from some, if not all, the obligations to earn a salary outside the church. We pledge adequate personal and financial support for you to have the time you need to fulfill your calling. We make it possible for you to have time to study, reflect, and pray in ways that nourish your time with us as pastor. Together, as pastor and people, we seek to embody in our historical moment the extravagant compassion of God, so clear in Jesus.

The issue, as I see it, is not about having enough time. The issue is deciding what to do with it, where to spend it, with whom to invest it. Showing up on Sunday morning is a set requirement, plus a few other established meetings during the week. But the scheduling of most of our time is up to us.

The challenge is constantly clarifying, “what is the best use of my time — today, this week, this month in light of our shared mission as a congregation?” The issue is the hard inner work of self-definition based on our limits, our gifts, our sense of call, our assessment of needs — all in the face of persistent external pulls upon our time. And this too — it takes time to discern the difference.

On one hand, I am struck with the trust congregations give to us. They, by and large, trust us to make the best use of our time. That trust is why it is so painful when clergy abuse this confidence.

Equally, I am struck by the maturity required by pastors to be good stewards of this time. Theirs is the freedom to distribute their time based on their inner work of integrity, not from their inner need for approval, survival or self-justification. This is work, hard work.