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4 big reasons why pastors lack work-life balance

Getty Images/Pyrosky
Getty Images/Pyrosky

Pastors are a notorious bunch when it comes to work.

Church members have high expectations. The hours are long. Some weeks, you have no option but to grind it out for 70 hours. An occasional all-nighter is to be expected. But these situations should be rare, not the norm. Why do too few pastors strike a balance? Four major reasons exist.

1. The Always-On Phenomenon. Most churches expect pastors to be on call 24/7. Even though late-night phone calls don’t happen often, many pastors feel like they’re always on. And that creates a level of tension. Social media has exacerbated this phenomenon. Many people expect (unrealistically) instantaneous answers via Twitter, Facebook, and text. Defining “work” is problematic when the “off” button does not exist.

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2. The Jack-of-All-Trades Expectations. The call to pastoral ministry is one of diversity. In one hour, you’re the preacher. In the next, you’re the counselor. And in another, you’re the plumber. In any given week, someone is upset at the pastor for not meeting expectations, which means that person believes the pastor did not correctly allocate work hours.

3. No Week Is Typical. No one calls the pastor and says, “Today was just a typical day for me. I wanted you to know that.” There’s usually a fire to put out or a crisis to manage in someone’s life. Pastors experience the best of people and the worst of people. At funerals, it’s the best of people. At weddings, it’s the worst of people. Pastors rarely see people in the normalcy of life. Every week is different, so defining and managing work hours is difficult.

4. The Blurriness of Ministry and Life. When does work end and fun begin? Does a dinner with a new church family count as work or fun? Is it work or pleasure if you intentionally attend a high school ball game to interact with church members and the community? Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell because both can be true simultaneously. Pastors often struggle with work hours because of the blurred lines between ministry and life. More often than not, the two are inseparable.

The productivity problem

In the 19th century, industry leaders learned through trial and error that fewer hours worked can increase overall productivity. Organized labor helped reduce workdays to 8 to 10 hours. Surprisingly, industrial output increased despite the fewer total hours worked by laborers.

Several studies demonstrate that longer hours do not equate to more productivity over time. One study shows a diminishing return of hours worked. As people work more hours, those hours become less and less productive. Where is the tipping point?

Work week productivity falls after about 50 hours and crashes after 55 hours. You are no more productive at 70 hours per week regularly than at 55 hours. In fact, some studies go even further, proposing that habitually overworked people decline in discernment and focus on increasingly meaningless tasks. For pastors, this productivity problem means consistently long weeks make you a worse shepherd. Obviously, everyone has a few weeks a year in which many hours are required. Just ask any children’s minister during VBS week. The fall in productivity applies to those who are working long hours every week of the year. If every week for you is over 55 hours, you’re likely not nearly as productive as you could be.

How many hours per week do pastors work?

Most pastors work long hours. In a survey of 1,000 pastors, 65% indicated they worked 50 or more hours per week. The median number of hours a senior pastor works is 55 hours per week. Many pastors are right at the point of unproductivity, if not over the line.

Every pastor has experienced a few hell weeks. It’s part of ministry. However, numerous studies point to the physiological signs of burnout. What are the key signals? You can’t concentrate. You are mentally exhausted, even in the mornings. You always have too much to do and feel guilty about not accomplishing it all. “I’m sorry, but I’m overloaded right now” is a typical apology in the home. Sickness becomes the norm. You seem to catch a cold almost every month. When your life revolves around your to-do list, you will likely hate the list and your life.

Work hard for your church. It’s biblical! But you cannot minister effectively if you’re fried. Most pastors struggle with balance. Pastors should model spiritual disciplines for their churches. Work-life balance is a vital part of living in a way that glorifies God.

Originally published at Church Answers. 

Sam Rainer is president of Church Answers and pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida. 

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