This week I was chatting with someone who curiously asked me: “What does a pastor do?” Unsurprisingly, it's a question I get from people inside and outside of the church. Sometimes it's asked with a note of interested inquisitiveness, and other times with a hint of jaded cynicism. Either way it can be awkward to give an answer without feeling like you're self-justifying your schedule, significance, or salary. Well, let me ignore all the awkwardness and try to simply explain what a pastor does – at least an ordinary and biblically faithful pastor.
The Apostle Paul charged the young pastor Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). This is probably the most important thing a pastor does every single week. Because everyone hears the “final product” it’s easy to underestimate what goes into preparation for preaching. Maybe the easiest way to begin understanding is to think of that speech class you likely had to take in high school or college, or the talk you’ve had to give in the workplace. How much time and effort goes into preparing something like that? If you want the grade or the promotion it's probably a lot. Just because a pastor is a public speaker doesn’t mean these things come easily. I remember hearing once that Winston Churchill — arguably one of the greatest orators of human history — would spend more than a dozen hours preparing a 15-minute speech.
That’s a good place to begin. But now imagine preparing a 30-40 minute speech on a topic you may not know a lot about, on a text of the Bible that you believe has an objective meaning, and one that needs to be preached with explanation, persuasion, and application in a way that overcomes natural weaknesses of hearers and is as memorable as you can make it. Of course, if we appreicate what the Bible says about gospel ministry then all of this needs to be done in the midst of a spiritual battle, and under the commands of God to not flatter, tickle ears, or entertain. No, we are to prepare and preach in a demonstration of the Spirit and power under the shadow of eternity. That takes time. It can take a lot of time to prepare for something like that. There are many pastors – especially those who preach for morning and evening worship – who quickly find sermon preparation to nearly be a full-time job in and of itself.
But preaching isn’t all that the ordinary and biblically faithful pastor does. There’s many local responsibilities that are part of a pastor’s care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Of course, many pastors are the primary leader in public worship – reading the Scriptures, introducing songs, administering the sacraments, and offering the prayers. In varying degrees, those things take time and preparation as pastors seek to organize worship in an orderly manner, often trying to weave together a meaningful theme throughout the whole.
Pastors also often help with the teaching ministry in a congregation – Sunday school, catechism, youth meetings, or Bible studies. If there isn't a planned curriculum this can require a lot of legwork. Seminary equips pastors with certain tools but it certainly doesn't give comprehensive expertise in every subject of Christian doctrine and life. Sometimes hours of reading and study goes into the lessons that are taught. As I write this I'm preaching through James and on the life of David, teaching a Sunday school on public worship, and leading our youth through a class on identity. Four very different topics and each requiring its own time and study.
With the other elders a pastor need to do shepherding visits with all the members. When needed there’s people to meet in the hospital, or time with shut-ins, and there’s the day-to-day keeping up with people’s busy lives with phone calls, texts, emails, or lunches. There’s counseling that needs to be done in lending an ear or giving biblical advice to young people, singles, spouses, parents, and grandparents (within and without the congregation). There’s helping people navigate the trials of life like disease and death, broken marriages, and rebellious children. There’s the unexpected visits or phone calls from people who need a pastor — those struggling with questions, drug addictions, suicide, or those who need help paying the bills.
Pastors are involved in the routine meetings of the church with leadership or participating in the committees of a congregation. There’s community involvement for pastors who want to cultivate and maintain relationships and influence in the place where they’ve been called. There’s also administrative work that often needs to be done — sometimes piddly but necessary for a smooth functioning church, e.g. website maintenance, social media, posting sermons, putting together the bulletin, collecting prayer requests, emailing church updates and schedules, opening the building, etc. Additionally, there’s special services like weddings, funerals, and gravesides that need to be prepared for and presided over.
On top of all of that, pastors are essentially on call at all hours of the day for the spontaneous needs that arise or the emergencies that happen. Those things don't wait until he is sitting in his office at 8am on Tuesday morning. A pastor always needs to be ready to drop everything to be present, to weep with, or to bring encouragement in some of life's darkest tragedies.
Local responsibilities in a congregation and community aren’t the only part of a pastor’s sphere of service. I’m Presbyterian and one of the things we believe is the interconnectedness of the church. Our local congregation is part of a broader body of churches. That has implications for a pastor’s job description.
There’s regular meetings of broader church courts like Presbytery and Synod that need to be prepared for (usually with hundreds of pages of reading). There’s committees and boards that are needed to keep the denomination functioning, and others that serve particular study or judicial needs in the broader church. These boards and committees require organization, travel, meetings, oversight, and written reports. The diversity is massive ranging from budget preparation to studying doctrinal issues or working reconciliation between opposed parties. Those matters can be so significant that they swallow up big portions of a pastor's schedule.
In the broader context of the church, there’s also avenues for teaching at youth retreats, camps, or church conferences. It's important work and well worth the time. But these things need to be studied and prepared for in conjunction with a pastor's weekly responsibilities. Sometimes pastors have to help out congregations that don’t currently have a pastor — providing pulpit supply or helping to moderate elder meetings. If conflicts and problems arise he'll need to lend a shepherding hand from a distance.
In addition to all of that there’s personal responsibilities for every pastor. Pastors have to fan into flames the gifts they’ve been given “so that all may see [their] progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). They have to maintain a fervency in spirit and a zeal for the things of God, and continue advancing in knowledge and understanding. That alone is a tall order as the natural inclination of our heart is to grow dull and weary in these things.
They need to watch their lives and doctrine carefully (see 1 Timothy 4:16), manage their marriages and families well, strive to be an example to all believers, and maintain a good reputation with outsiders. Pastors need to continually cultivate those graces that are especially needed for the ministry: faith, knowledge, patience, selflessness, sober-mindedness, purity, perseverance, impartiality, boldness, gentleness, and love. You don't get those graces from passing a test or reading a textbook. Many of them are best learned through "on the job training."
In their week-to-week work pastors should be encouraged to hone any particular skills that they may have that can be useful to the ministry — writing, evangelism, apologetics, blogging, mentoring, music, design, podcasting, etc. These things shouldn't be seen as non-work hobbies to be done in spare or downtime, but important avenues for a pastor to fulfill his calling.
All of this is what a pastor does when he is, to borrow the expression, on the clock. Statistically some say the average American works 40.5 hours a week. Judging from the people I know and interact with I imagine it's not hard to fill those hours quickly. Well, to be blunt, neither is it difficult for a pastor to fill the work week. There's a lot that needs to be done for gospel ministry, the to-do list is often never ending, and many pastors I know live under constant low-grade guilt for the things that remain unattended to. But it's the greatest joy and privilege of every pastor to spend and be spent for the sake of Jesus Christ. What's your pastor do? He does his best to present himself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15).