Question: What exactly do you do?
Most parishioners see their clergy for two hours once a week. What is it that we do with the rest of our week? What do pastors do when they aren’t in the pulpit? What do deacons do when they’re not setting the Altar?
As one person asked me, “What is ‘work’ for you?”
I’ve gotten this question from a lot of people — but strangely never any members of my own parish. It’s almost as though folks are nervous to ask their own pastors but really, really want to know.
Before we dive in, though, some caveats:
- Every pastor or deacon will have a different answer based on areas of expertise, theological perspective, and setting. Someone called to youth and family ministry will answer differently from a solo pastor who will answer differently from someone on a synod/diocesan staff. An Episcopal priest will have a different answer from a United Methodist elder. A priest serving in downtown Manhattan will divide their time differently from the pastor serving three churches in rural South Dakota.
- I serve a part-time call. This necessitates that I delegate more work than a full-time pastor or deacon.
- I’ve been at this for just about a year now. I bet I’ll have a different answer in a year and in five years and in a decade and when I retire. Or at least, I’ll probably have different wording.
So, what is it that I do when I’m not in the pulpit?
Short Answer: “Additional Duties as Required”
Long Answer: There are a few obvious answers. Parish life revolves around the Service of Word and Table on Sunday mornings, and as you would expect, pastors spend a lot of time getting ready worship.
Yes, I do spend a large chunk of time writing sermons. Those of us who preach every Sunday spend a few hours a week working on sermons — more or less time depending on how difficult the text is and how much time we can actually afford to spend on it. During Advent and Lent, when my parish gathers for mid-week services, I spend another hour or so writing those (shorter) sermons. And the lead-up to Holy Week ends up feeling like cramming for an exam. A solo pastor may preach four or five times between Palm Sunday and Easter.
Sundays also mean preparing the liturgy. In large congregations, an entire team might divide up these responsibilities, and the pastor serves as more of coordinator. In the smallest of parishes, a pastor might end up doing it all herself. There’s music to be chosen, bulletins to be prepared, and the occasional liturgical curve ball.
And on Sunday itself, there’s always a last-minute push to ensure everything’s ready. Before the congregation gathers for worship, I’ll spend anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half making sure that everything is in place. Parishes depend on faithful lay persons and can’t function without them, but sometimes an altar guild member is sick and unable to set up for the Eucharist or the bulletins need to be taken from the office to the narthex.
Because most parishioners see me on Sunday, that’s a time to have quick conversations and briefly check in on people — either before or after the service.
All of that’s just for Sunday morning. You can imagine how much more time goes in to a week with multiple services. As a part-time pastor, I always anticipate working about twice as many hours as usual when Holy Week rolls around — even after putting forward my best effort to work ahead and get everything in to place.
Ministry flows out of what happens on Sunday morning. Strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, we are sent in peace to love and serve the Lord.
But what does that look like in the daily life of a pastor?
Sometimes ministry is, for lack of a better term, surreal. Clergy are, at various points throughout the week, property managers, non-profit board members, academics, professional shoppers, emcees, chauffeurs, actors, party planners and so much more. Throughout the course of my pastoral formation and first year as a parish pastor, my ministry has included: a massive water balloon fight, driving a passenger van full of middle school students away from a police stand-off, more committee meetings than I ever thought possible, pulling weeds, planning meals for hundreds of people, spreading mulch along a city park, attending lectures, using a handsaw to clear fallen tree limbs, sleeping on the floor in a church basement for a week, using a jack hammer, breaking apart an old piano, computer repair, and so much more.
Ministry is difficult to define, and a lot of these categories overlap, but in reports to my parish council, I divide my time up in to a few areas: Outreach and Community, Administration and Leadership, Faith Formation, Pastoral Care, and Worship.
Outreach and Community is a broad category. Anything we do looking towards the outside world or to build up the community within the congregation. This may mean I spend a day developing a new website or a few minutes on social media. I’ve joked before that ministry involves more “meatball graphic design” than I expected. It may mean planning a fundraiser for our food pantry, designing coasters to hand out at a local beer festival, or coordinating with the local college campus ministry.
Administration and Leadership focuses on keeping the lights on, the doors open, and the institution running along. It may mean working with a committee to craft an operating budget, discussing building maintenance with the council, interviewing potential employees, revising the constitution, or any number of other details.
Faith Formation is about equipping disciples. It might mean teaching a course on baptism for parents about to bring their children to the Font or meeting with a seventy year old looking to transfer her membership into the congregation. It covers children’s and youth ministry and Bible study for small groups. Currently, it involves spending a few hours each week researching and writing questions for an upcoming discussion on prayer.
Pastoral Care ranges from visiting home-bound and hospitalized members to talking with members going through a rough time. But it also means taking a moment to check in with members as they come and go over the course of a Sunday morning or throughout the week. It might involve taking Holy Communion to a nursing home or a brief phone call to see how someone’s doing. Pastoral care, at least to my mind, also involves the Church’s charitable ministry. Depending on the size and financial well-being of the parish, this runs the gamut of helping pay for someone’s electric bill or a hotel room for the night down to sending them away with little more than a bag of rice and a silent prayer.
Worship doesn’t just happen. Whether it’s a funeral or a service during Holy Week, there’s a lot to be decided. How are we going to utilize our space? How can we facilitate more lay involvement in the service? I might spend an hour walking around the sanctuary trying to picture what a service will look like or reading books to learn how our ancestors in the faith gathered for worship. And, from my perspective, worship reaches into just about everything else. How can we better incorporate the life of prayer into our Bible studies and council meetings? Recently, I spent time working on a pattern for prayer and study, combining the vespers liturgy with a small group.
As I said in the intro, every clergy person has a different answer. One of my friends planted a community that meets in a bar while another friend is a priest in the suburbs; all three of us would undoubtedly answer this question with areas of agreement and stark differences. The Church’s diversity demands a diverse approach to ministry. Some of the work is stuff we love to do, the type of thing that reminds us why we first felt called into ministry. Other times, we face tasks that have to be done whether we like it or not. And some of it is stuff that none of us learned in seminary.
Most of all, though, bishops, presbyters, and deacons pray. We pray as we drive to the hospital, as we write sermons, as we work on the budget. We pray when we’re “on the clock” and at home. Sometimes the prayers are thankful; other times, they’re laments and cries for help. (Occasionally, they are imprecatory prayers asking God to smite copy machines that jam up.) Some of these prayers are great works of the Tradition, written centuries ago; some of them are uttered spontaneously.
I pray for the Church, for my parish, and for my parishioners that we might continue to worship the Triune God and serve our neighbors.