There are challenges about how we do ministry in a healthy way. This means that there are aspects to church leadership both in a paid and in a voluntary capacity that are difficult, sometimes these are unavoidable and sometimes they are simply down to how we organise things.
One frequent suggestion is that the pressure to work evenings is an aspect of this. A Christian leader may be out every evening because that’s the only time that they can do pastoral visits and because it’s the only time when meetings can be organised. This means that they end up with no family life.
I think it is worth making a couple of observations here. First, that whilst there are things that do make Christian leadership distinctive from other kinds of vocation, there are also times when those of us engaged in ministry can forget that the things we experience are no different to other people. There is an element of that here.
First it is worth remembering that the concept of “family time” as being about recreation within the nuclear family is a pretty recent concept. For much of history, family time meant that children were learning to assist their parents in the family business and management of the home. Then post industrial revolution it would be normal for many parents to be working long shifts in the mill or at down the pit from dawn to dusk. Time with their children would probably be on the one day off each week, on Sunday and would be about spiritual devotion together.
Now, we probably don’t want to go back to those days. If things have changed in that respect, I would suggest it has mainly been for the better. However, many people still find themselves working evenings and even through the night, these include:
- Factory shift workers
- Hospital doctors
- Care workers
- Call centre operatives.
Add into that the significant numbers of people within your congregation who will bring work home with them whether that’s a report to read or in the case of teachers, lesson planning and marking, then you realise that the encroachment into a pastor’s evening is not that different to many other members of the congregation.
Now, one response to this might be to consider that this may well be true but in most cases, including the pastor, the person is being paid for that time and the expectation is that they should be compensated with time off elsewhere. This is not the case of the volunteer worker who does these things on top of a shift in the factory, office or hospital. There is something to consider here and so it is important that we don’t overburden people beyond what is necessary. For example, don’t become too meeting heavily. For example, do you need weekly church leaders’ meetings meaning that the volunteer elders have already given their available time to a committee?
We might also observe that when people are not at work, then for many, traditionally there would be social activities that took them outside of the house. A church member might:
- Be the member of a political party and have a campaign committee to attend
- Passionately support their local football team and spend most Tuesday evenings trekking to distant grounds for away games.
- Go to the cinema or theatre
- Meet up with mates at the pub.
Though, if we are serious about gospel engagement with our communities, the possibility that people are being taken away from some of these activities might be just as concerning as the loss of family time. Indeed, I suspect that some churches filled evenings with prayer meetings, member’s meetings and Bible classes in order to keep people away from some of those activities, especially the ones considered “worldly”.
Secondly, I think that those of us who are in paid pastoral work and expect to be giving most of our evenings to that can carefully structure our days. Even if you set aside evenings, you don’t need to use the whole evening. So, don’t attempt to cram several visits into an evening that kicks off around 6pm and finishes at midnight. As a rule of thumb, I’d probably set aside 7pm -9pm for those visits (adjust the time based on context but keep it to two hours). You can also then structure your day so that you can be around for a few hours when the kids finish school.
Thirdly, I think we all need to revisit how we think about family because that will affect how we think about family time too. The concept of “family time” is very nuclear family orientated. There does have to be something about church leadership where we think about the whole church as being the family, the household. So, spending time with members of the congregation is about spending time with family. It’s not work in the same way that a care worker’s visit is considered to be.
And if we re-orientate our thinking a little, to see this as extended family time, then that might give us a few other options. Now, there will be times when elders need to sit down and talk with a church member on their own because there will be confidential issues to engage with such as challenging sin, praying for something the person is struggling with or counselling concerning suffering and persecution. However, that’s not all that pastoral visits are about. So, for example, if you are dropping in on an elderly member who finds evenings lonely, then why not take the kids round to see them? If you want to disciple a couple, then why not invite them round for dinner? In fact, there is no reason why pastoral work has to be away from the home. This way we are drawing our family into the wider aspects of our lives.
So, I think it is possible for us to have a healthy approach to evenings that can enable us to engage with the church family but also care well for our own families too.