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Once upon a time, while at the annual meeting of the Christian Reformed Church, I became acquainted with the late Rev. Bill Haverkamp. When he found out that both of us were born in the same small town in the Netherlands and could still speak the “original” language, he insisted that every day after lunch we walk around Calvin’s campus together to converse in our native tongue.

He talked about the “good old days” when he served one of the larger churches, preached two times every Sunday, taught all the catechism classes, and did family visiting, funerals, weddings, and all the other things a minister was supposed to do.  And he bemoaned the fact that churches were beginning to introduce staff people for every job expected of ministers in his day.

Since I was young and smart, I felt I knew much better what churches needed. I vigorously defended staff ministry. This was a new day, and specialized ministries in congregations are a must, I countered.

Does your church expect too much from your pastor?

Now that I am much older and know much less, I still feel just as strongly about the importance of staff ministry.  As a church for the 21st century, we need to use the different gifts the Lord gives to us. One person simply does not have all the gifts needed to do the things expected of a minister.

But I do wonder: Could it be that in some instances the multiplication of positions is simply because some ministers consider themselves too busy to do what they were called to do?

An elder from another church called to ask me for advice.  His church was introducing a second morning service, and both of their two ordained ministers felt that would make them too busy to preach at the evening service. I also know a couple of ministers who claim they are “too busy” doing ministry, but they do have the time to babysit during the day or help with educating their children.

I’m sure some ministers are too busy. But in my opinion, many are no busier than the people in their churches with full-time jobs who volunteer or attend meetings a couple of times a week. 

Time to Reevaluate?

Perhaps ministers and their churches should take some time to evaluate the roles of pastors and staff members. Is there accountability, or is your church expecting too much? Has the time come to add a staff member? As you evaluate, consider the following:

  • Ministers and staff members should be held accountable. Without becoming heavy-handed, church councils should know how those employed by the church spend their time.
  • Ministers should be available to people in their church and in the community, especially when there are special circumstances. That will help them connect with the people they preach to on Sundays.
  • Ministers and councils must decide together on the priorities of their churches. Ministers should not be allowed to “fly solo”—to decide on their own what’s most important at a particular time in the life of the congregation.

Ministers should try to get acquainted with the members of their church. Once a minister is known as someone who cares about the people in the church and community, his or her preaching will connect, and even a not-so-good sermon can shine.

In some churches both ministers and members are hurting. Some ministers feel misunderstood and overworked, and some church members feel neglected or ignored. Perhaps the time is now to take a closer look at the role of the pastor, the needs of the members, and the challenges and opportunities facing the 21st-century church.

Rev. Art Schoonveld

It is difficult to compare the expectations and role of a pastor 30 years ago or more with the expectations and role of a pastor today.

Even though a pastor’s calling continues to highlight core activities such as preaching, teaching, visitation, and outreach, demands and expectations have changed considerably.

As far as ministers and congregations go, there is an increasingly wide range of opinion as to the precise expectations and role of a pastor. Some of this gets articulated formally, and some remains informal and unwritten, though powerfully at work in a given community.

We welcome Rev. Schoonveld’s endorsement of staff ministry! The wide range of ministry tasks and rising standards often require gifts beyond what one person has received.

As well, in the past 30 years our immigrant denomination has woken up, smelled the culture, and heard the call to plant churches and revitalize existing congregations. Pastors across North America wonder whether to spend more time with shut-ins or more time interacting with seekers at the corner Tim Horton’s or Starbucks.

Technological changes have been huge and, for all the benefits, have also demanded enormous amounts of time and energy from pastors and churches. How and with whom to connect—those are real questions!

Changing Expectations

Expectations for the pastor’s spouse, and corresponding career demands, have also changed immensely. What may congregations today expect of their pastor and spouse, and how might we acknowledge appropriately what seem at times to be competing values of church and home? Stories abound of pastors stingy with family for the sake of the church and pastors stingy with the church for the sake of family.

During the past 30 years, “family systems thinking” has resonated in the halls of seminary and church as a helpful perspective. Thinking systemically, pastors learn that their role in the church has as much to do with their emotional response to people and situations as it does with reporting an impressive amount of visitation. Being calm and courageous and finding creative ways to stay relationally connected to people in the midst of anxiety becomes a key objective for the systems-sensitive pastor.

Now to the questions: Are ministers too busy? Are ministers choosing to avoid some of the work they do not prefer? Are they simply hiding behind the veil of being “too busy” when in fact they are underachieving?

The answer to all of those questions is the same: yes and no. Some ministers work far too much, and some work far too little. And there are those who work much, but not on point. But this is not a new phenomenon—it was just as true years ago.

Sometimes congregations and pastors expect too much of themselves and of each other. And too much of even a good thing is simply that: too much.

One of the fine points Schoonveld makes is that ministers do not have a monopoly on being exceptionally or excessively busy. People who work full-time and then volunteer countless hours to use their gifts for ministry can be very, very busy. And of course there are also many church members who underachieve, unwilling to use their gifts for the well-being of the body.

There is room here for both pastors and congregations to review priorities, to engage fully, and to identify and avoid excess and lack. In this regard, we note that C.S. Lewis once said, “Only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals . . . we find ourselves trying to satisfy different demands . . . none of which is essential to our vocation.”

As to pastors, Schoonveld identifies four key dynamics: (1) accountability, (2) availability, (3) the relational character of ministry, and (4) the need for pastors and church councils to develop job descriptions jointly. We agree that there needs be a gracious, candid, ongoing conversation between pastors and councils, one which identifies formal and informal expectations and assesses which of those are healthy, helpful, and need to be honored.

Clarity is a worthy and essential goal.

Rev. Norm Thomasma and Rev. Cecil Van Niejenhuis

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