Everyone wants a pastor who works hard and works smart. Productive pastors make good use of limited resources. And they bless the church with the ministry of Christ. So we ought to encourage our ministers to be good stewards of their gifts. But we must never encourage them to pursue productivity at any cost.
This is a real danger. Because while being productive is a virtue, we live in an age that is obsessed with productivity. Working hard is good, but the modern world has turned working hard into a religion and has made productivity its god. And if we are not wise to this, we may encourage our ministers to work in a way that does more harm than good. For, as Pascal warns, when we “pursue virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves.”
Like any false religion, the modern cult of productivity loves to promise more than it can deliver. Guardian reporter Oliver Burkeman gives an example of this in his excellent article, “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives.” In the late nineteenth-century housewives were promised that “labour-saving machines” would give them more free time. But as their efficiency in housework increased so did society’s expectations for cleanliness. “Now that the living-room carpet could be kept perfectly clean, it had to be; now that clothes never needed to be grubby, grubbiness was all the more taboo.” Ministers face a similar situation today. Now that they have access to millions of books, they are expected to access them. And if a minister can host his own radio shows, publish his own books, and mentor people around the world, why shouldn’t he? Perhaps he should. But no one can do everything, or even most things. And those who try to do it all, often find that it backfires.
John Pencavel, a Stanford professor analyzing data on munitions workers during WWII, found that after forty-nine hours of work in a week, gains in productivity decreased. According to the Harvard Business Review, one study found that “managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.” Moreover, studies also show that overwork can lead to “all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.”
The cult of productivity also dehumanizes us. Whereas God sanctifies our humanity, the idol of productivity destroys it. One way the modern productivity movement dehumanizes us is by mechanizing us. Think of how the priests of productivity use the language of machines and assembly lines to talk about how you should “streamline your laundry” or “optimize your digestion.”
J. Gresham Machen once said that he loved to climb because it refreshed his soul and helped him “escape…from the heartless machinery of the world.” But these days, even our rest and recreation must bow to the god of productivity. Once a midday nap was a time for quiet, prayer, and refreshment. Now you should probably feel guilty for that nap, or at least “hack it” to get more done when you wake up.
Machen once climbed the Matterhorn in Italy. It became a treasured memory. “We sat on the Italian summit, with our feet over Italy and our backs to a little wall of summit snow, and let our eyes drink in the marvelous beauty of the scene. What a wonderful help it is in all discouragements, what a blessed gift of God, to be able to bring before the mind’s eye such a vision as that.”
Sadly, many ministers today—Machen’s men included—are no longer fleeing from the mechanized world but have taken its ideas into their ministry and into the church. I include myself among them for all the times I’ve considered food, sleep, or bodily exercise as “necessary evils” instead the blessed gifts of God.
Before leaving this point I must add that sometimes mechanization is only a cover for something even worse: deification. Just as a minister is not a machine, neither is he God. The world, however, suggests otherwise. Daily, we are told that creaturely limits can be overcome, or at least nearly so, by simply working harder and making smarter choices. This cultural impulse is strong. So strong, in fact, that in a recent New York Times article on the benefits of running, the writer felt compelled to remind her readers that “running does not make people immortal.” Good to know!
The truth is we all have limitations and we need to admit that. Ministers included. Only God knows everything, can fix anything, and can be everywhere at once. As Zach Eswine writes in The Imperfect Pastor, we needn’t repent that we’re not God, only for trying to be. But when ministers refuse to repent for trying to be God, they inevitably harm everyone around them. Because ministers don’t burn out like a light. They burn out like a fuse on a bomb.
Admitting our limits means respecting that we are creatures. It also means respecting that we are diverse. God didn’t make all men the same. Some ministers are healthy; some are sick. Some men need eight hours to prepare a sermon; others need sixteen. And our life circumstances can also affect the shape of pastoral ministry. B. B. Warfield’s life is an example of this.
Benjamin and Anna were newlyweds in Germany when they got caught in a thunderstorm that caused Anna severe trauma to her nervous system and eventually made her bedridden. But Benjamin loved his wife. So because of her fragile condition, he made the choice to stay close to home throughout his career. This likely increased B. B. Warfield’s literary output—he “has done about as much work as ten ordinary men,” Machen said. But as Warfield’s friend Francis Patton remembered, his choice also made him unable to preach, take part in the debates of the General Assembly, serve on church boards, and take other speaking engagements.
Still, it can be hard to admit one’s limitations. The Wall Street Journal reported that “out of every 100 people who believe they only need five to six hours of sleep a night only about five people really do.” Why is it so hard to admit our limits?
One reason is that it requires us to be humble and admit our need for others. I think of the apostles who, in the early part of their ministry, had to face the fact that under their watch a scandal arose: some widows were not receiving church funds because they were Greek. Remarkably, the apostles did not double down and fix the problem themselves. Instead, they told the church to find other men to help so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. In doing this, the apostles had to tell the church that they were unable to solve a problem that needed to be solved, that they had to rely on other people and trust that God would supply the need. That takes humility.
Today, some ministers find themselves in a similar situation. They have a particular calling and yet find their schedules filled with duties that more properly belong to ruling elders, deacons, and non-ordained members too. It may be tempting to just try harder, but sometimes humility is what is really needed.
Of course, it will be asked: What about when there is no help? What about church plants, for example, where there are no local elders or deacons and the church is small? It’s a good question and it gets us to the second reason why it’s hard to admit the limitations of pastoral ministry.
When we admit our limitations we are forced to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. If help cannot be found, it may require stopping activities that feel important, godly, and even necessary. Just as Jesus did when he would stop healing people in order to be alone and pray. So it may be that updating the church directory must wait another year. Or perhaps the number of meetings should be limited. Or maybe starting an evening service should be postponed until the pastor is a faster at preparing his sermons. Every church will be different and will have to find their own way to live humbly before the Lord.
Of course, not everyone needs to slow down and do less. Honesty will require some ministers and churches to be more zealous and effective than they currently are. We must be good stewards of all God has given us, our individual gifts and our corporate gifts.
But if we are honest, we will learn to recognize that God has given us gifts and limitations. This is humbling on both accounts, but it is also a double blessing because it teaches us to lean on God for all that we have and all that we don’t; to trust Him for all the things we can’t do, and by faith, do all that we can.
- This article was originally published in New Horizons 38, no. 6 (June-July 1017): 10-11.