Ministry leader, have you ever heard something similar to the following vibe: “Must be nice to only work a couple hours per week on Sunday”? While this may be tongue and cheek from some and ignorant of how much day to day grind goes into ministry by others, some of this perception-I would humbly own/submit-is frequently our fault. While some work far too much under the guise of “serving the Lord,” I observe a growing segment of church staffs who are swinging far too much in the opposite pendulum direction. This is not to say we are increasingly lazy as much as we are undermining our “labor of love” with a lack of intentionality and structure in how we work.

In his book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller warns us, “Our work can only be a calling if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and undermines society itself.” This “crushing and undermining” view of work/avoidance of work happens not just in the public marketplace but in the lives of those who frequent the pulpit.

Here are some ways that I am learning help solidify my actual and perceived work ethic in the ministry:

Have set office hours and routine.

While I acknowledge that ministry hours can fluctuate pretty significantly at times, a perpetual fluidity will undercut your productivity and effectiveness. Set office hours are especially important in collaborating and coordinating with other ministry leaders, volunteer or paid. This does not mean that all of your hours must be in the physical office on the church campus, but they should be as predictable as my Mondays doing deep work in my home office from 7 AM-4 PM. (As a church planter with no one looking over my shoulder or keeping office hours with me, I found this commitment especially important in the early years.) No matter how many moving parts there are to your schedule, you need a skeleton schedule to provide the structure upon which everything else is fleshed out…otherwise your flesh, the world, and even the Devil Himself can sabotage things week in and week out.

Be early for every appointment.

As someone said, “Being late is a broken promise. It tells the people waiting for you that you don’t respect their time.” While last minute things can come up, the person/persons you have committed to on your schedule deserve notification of the unforeseen delay well before the actual appointment. (A hack that helped me grow in this area is to schedule in extra margin between each appointment.) Truly the old adage, “if you are on time, you are late” should still be applicable for us. The business world has a close-to-zero-tolerance in this area; so should we in our calendar management. As the curator of your church’s culture, this sets the tone for everything in your ministry from when your services start to when your people show up.

Be fully present in meetings and counseling.

With a growing trend towards AI replacing jobs, this is our enduring super power-being personable and present for whose who need to share a burden or a joy. Put away the phone with all of its notifications and distractions. Close the laptop screen. Keep your eyes and ears focused upon what and who is directly in front of you. We all long to have “that moment” with those we minister to, and it is discovered not by stumbling upon it but working to clear any distraction from it. As James Pierce observes, “The moment is not found by seeking it but not ceasing to escape it.”

Work further ahead to avoid a last-minute feel.

Truly, as my high school speech teacher would repeat over and over to us, “preparation precedes poise.” If we not careful, we can egregiously take advantage of the graciousness and willingness of God’s people to overlook our winging it. One of the most glorious gifts of working ahead is it allows you to not just work in the ministry but on the ministry. Nothing undergirds your position of influence like those around you sensing that your present work is on tasks, initiatives, and events much further out. (For more on this subject, check out this post.)

Pursue excellence.

“Good enough” is not good enough. Typos in the printed materials, up on the screens, and on the website/social matter. Having a clean car, well-maintained house, organized office, etc. all do matter. Personal grooming and carefully-presented apparel do impact our range of influence. As Admiral William McRaven on the Jocko podcast recently shared, “No one wants to be a part of a mediocre organization. A mediocre organization will not attract motivated individuals, and motivated individuals will eventually leave a mediocre organization.” If we are truly doing it for the Lord, then we should not be cutting corners that compromise our message and ministry. For the record and all of us OCD-leaning pastors, we are talking about excellence and not perfection. As Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Stop settling. Work hard for excellence…excellence that declares all on its own, without your saying a word, that you and your team are hard at it.

Lastly, protect your sabbath.

Lest you think this post is one workaholic-leaning church leader trying to recruit more, being professional in your work ethic frees you up to also fully enjoy fully your time off. When you are structured in the rest of your schedule, you can decline without any sense of guilt or duty the demands that inevitably attempt to infringe upon your day of sacred renewal emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As counterintuitive as it feels, having a solid worth ethic in ministry does not detract from but actually enhances your down time. This then gives room for God to unmistakably work in our ministries as John Stark writes: “The universe does not rely upon your accomplishments – only God’s. It is amazing how quickly people forget how little the world relies upon what we accomplish in one day, week, year, or lifetime. This is a good reminder for pastors. The future of your church relies upon the faithfulness of God, not the amount of work accomplished in your work week.”

So what are we to think/do to keep at bay the “must be nice to work only a few hours a week” sentiment towards our ministry? The following paragraph puts it better than I could:

You need to be mindful of the work habits and patterns of your congregation. If you live in a rural community, for example, one that has farmers that get up before dawn, you might want to consider doing the same. They will have more respect for you if they know you’re working hard too. If you meet them for breakfast, and you look and act like you just rolled out of bed, they might think you’re a slacker. But if you look alert and engaged, then they’ll know you’re working hard. If they rise early and still come to church for mid-week programs and stay late, you should do the same. Not only will you convey a strong work ethic, but you’ll gain important information. If you’ve been up since 6am you’ll know how they feel at 7pm at church, then you’ll know whether you should ask somebody to volunteer for extra work, for example, because you’ll think, “I’m tired, and if I’m tired, maybe Joe is tired too. Perhaps I should ask someone else.” Most importantly, however, regardless of the schedule that you adopt, as the pastor, you should never have a weaker work ethic than anyone in your congregation. I encourage you always to run with the strongest pack in your church both to set a good example for them but also to remember you live coram Deo—you live and work in the presence of God, so work in such a manner.

1 Th. 2:9 “For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for laboring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God.”

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash