Too Busy to Pray: The Freedom for Pastoral Ministry

empty church

There have been a few writers who maintain that pastors are generalists. We must do many things and hopefully do them well. This is especially true for pastors in African American congregations and communities. It has long been assumed that the pastor is to be present and productive in every way imaginable; the pastor is to be preacher, teacher, social justice advocate, counselor, surrogate parent, mentor, business-minded, politically connected, a managerial genius… You get the point. The problem is that pastors who are all of these things and more are so spread out that ineffectiveness and burnout often follow. To be sure, pastors should be concerned with a whole host of things, but we should never be too busy to pray and be in the presence of God.

Pastors are not professionals, if by ‘professional’ we assume the emulation of corporate images of the CEO and manager. This does not mean that there are not things pastors and churches can learn from business cultures; rather it means that the pastor’s ultimate identity is not grounded in Wall Street but the Way of Jesus. E.M. Bounds is right when he says, “The preacher … is not a professional man; his ministry is not a profession; it is a divine institution, a divine devotion.” Thus, the pastorate, properly understood, is not defined as a profession but as a vocation.

As a vocation, a calling, the pastorate is by its very nature “full-time”. There is not a moment when the faithful pastor’s head, heart, and hands are not aligned to the whole counsel of God and to the service of the Lord’s Church. But this should not be misconstrued as being applicable to some kind of professional context where the pastor is always sitting in the office and running errands. There are many men and women in ministry who cannot do this for varying yet legitimate reasons. But congregations should never create and expect demands that take the pastor from prayerful preparation or for family life.

In order to do ministry most effectively, pastors in the 21st century must live out this vocation as freely as possible. I do not mean that pastors should do no work. Indeed pastors are very busy people and we do much more than preach a 20 or 40 minute sermon on Sunday. Because pastoral ministry requires so much from the pastor, the pastor should not neglect the most important and central elements of his or her authority and action. Acts 6 shares the calling of the first deacons. They emerge due to pastoral necessity: the apostles must be free for ministry of the Word and prayer. To be sure, tending to other matters was of importance, but the apostles invited the deacons to share in the pastoral call as to protect themselves from burn out and from displacing the primacy of prayer and preaching. This echoes Jethro’s admonition to Moses in Exodus 18 about the need for delegated leadership in assisting Moses in his pastoral work.

So in order to be free to do this most glorious work, pastors cannot be inundated with unproductive busyness; and the pastor must be free for full time ministry to fight full time devils. Pastoral ministry is spiritual warfare, selfless service, and sanctified life in the world. When churches free their pastors to do this eternal business, they and the larger community benefit greatly and are blessed richly.

In order for pastors in the 21st century to commit wholly to this work, they need congregations that cheerfully and generously support the pastor’s need for sanctified time, protecting it earnestly, and to take care of the pastor’s material needs. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (cf. 1 Cor 9:3-18)

H.B. Charles, a Baptist pastor in Jacksonville, FL, may be the most eloquent on this subject when he writes:

“Members love pastors who are always available. But it is not good if he is always available. He will be more help to you if he shuts himself up to pray and study. You want a pastor who has something to say, rather than someone who has to say something. This requires times to prepare. Give it to him.”

In a very real sense, this is what full-time ministry looks like when seen primarily through the lens of Scripture. All other work and witness the pastor offers flows from this.