The Busy Pastor

A five-hundred year plus problem

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If there is anything that pastors can agree on, it’s that we are busy. We complain about it like we complain about the weather. Being busy is a badge many wear with honor. Busy-ness, we may think, is somewhere next to godliness. That’s an assumption that in this episode of Greatheart’s Table I’d like to challenge as we think about what it means to be a busy pastor.

“I Know You’re Busy, But . . .”

Lloyd was a Lutheran pastor, the husband of my wife’s college roommate. Shortly after leaving college, Barb and I visited Lloyd and Janeen in his rural Michigan parish, and I was taken by his aura of relaxed leisure. Nothing he did seemed rushed. He moved easily from smoking his pipe seated in his living room chair, to shaping furniture in his workshop, to caring for his widely dispersed sheep.

I observed in him an unhurried sense of purpose, something so utterly foreign to what I see in me.

When I began writing this I was at the back end of a two week vacation. Already I was feeling the pressure of a dozen urgent tasks clamoring for attention. I was mentally considering what would get done, what would have to be postponed, again, and whether I should get up earlier to fit it all in.

Sure, I’ll get around to living with Lloyd’s unhurried sense of purpose. Just let me finish this other stuff first.

And that is not the worst of it.

Occasionally, a member of the church prefaces a request for some time with me by saying, “I know you’re busy, but . . . .” And some don’t ask at all. I have allowed the myth of my busy-ness to seep so deeply into the congregation’s consciousness that those whose stories I want to hear and into whose lives God has called me to speak hesitate to reach out to me believing that by so doing they are intruding into my Important Work. When the sheep are convinced that the shepherd is too busy for them, something is askew.

I doubt that this is simply my own personal pathology. Sure, anyone who had seen me in my first year of ministry lying on my side on chilly Sunday mornings attempting to light the pilot light on the church’s heaters would have judged that I was not going to be very good at delegation. Giving the horizon-less demands and expectations of ministry to those of us poor at delegation and weak with setting boundaries is an unhealthy mix.

Nothing New Under the Sun

And it is not new. Nearly five hundred years ago John Calvin saw the need to address this concern.

“Let all . . . pastors of the Church, know, that whilst they strain every nerve to fulfill their duties, something will always remain which may admit of correction and improvement. . . .”

Yup. Something always remains. Even then pastors weren’t getting everything done. So Calvin exhorts them and us:

“Let, then, God’s servants learn to measure carefully their powers, lest they should wear out, by ambitiously embracing too many occupations. For this propensity to engage in too many things is a very common malady, and numbers are so carried away by it as not to be easily restrained.”1

How we might “measure” our powers must be the subject of another post. But we never will consider doing so until we are persuaded that we have in fact crossed some kind of line.

Believing that we have, Eugene Peterson stands next to Calvin urging busy pastors to just stop. “The word busy,” he says,

“. . . is the symptom not of commitment, but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”2

Peterson uncomfortably links our busy-ness with our vanity. Being busy makes us feel, and seem, important. And he with others, suggests that our show of energy really flows from a lazy willingness to let others control our agendas. Joining Calvin and Peterson is Dan Allender. He says that

“Being busy seems like the polar opposite of laziness, but a busy person is not so much active as lost. A lazy person does little to nothing while a busy person does almost everything, but the similarity is that both refuse to be intentional.”3

Yes, I’m busy. So are you. It may be the way we’re wired, it may be sin, or it may be the nature of our job. Unquestionably, the mythology that busy-ness is an unqualified good and necessary for ministry needs to be upended.

Breaking the Cycle

Recently I spoke with a man young in the ministry who was being told that he needed to work as hard, if not harder, as those who supported the church and therefore paid his salary. That’s the cycle that needs to be broken. We pastors need to set a contrary example of rhythm and rest for our congregation, modeling a conviction that busy-ness is by no means a sign of godliness.

That, for me, could be the hardest, and healthiest, thing I could do.

1

John Calvin, Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, Volume 1 (United States: Baker Book House, 1989), pp. 303-304. This is Calvin’s commentary on Exodus 18:13ff.

2

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (United States: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 17.

3

Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp (United States: Waterbrook Press, 2008), p. 128.