Setting Boundaries on Ministry Time

September 6, 2011

Most pastors I know work too much. There are a few slackers, of course, but people drawn to pastoral ministry are usually both high achievers and high-empathy people, which means they have difficulty setting personal boundaries. Ministry is nearly boundary-less to begin with, and a pastor’s job description is incredibly broad.

According to Pulpit and Pew Research, the median hours workedper week for full-time Protestant clergy is 50 (58 for Catholic). That means of course that many work far more.

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

And the pastorate is a high-stress profession. According to the New York Times, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” The clergy has the second highest divorce rate among all professions.

•  25 percent of pastors’ wives see their husband’s work schedule as a source of conflict.
•  33 percent felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
•  33 percent say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.

I had my own brush with burnout about ten years into my ministry. Church life was challenging, and it seemed that all I did was work. I felt disconnected from friends, most of whom lived in other areas of the country, and I spent little time with my growing children. At one point I surveyed my ministry time several weeks and found that it average 62 hours. During one particularly busy season, I worked 17 days in a row.

After seeing those numbers in black-and-white, I decided enough was enough and made some changes to my personal schedule. Over the years, these have developed into personal rules that help me set boundaries and ensure enough rest and family time.

Work 50 Hours Per Week 

More than 50, and I know I’m running on fumes. Too munch less than that, and I feel that I’m not giving enough effort. Summertime is different because there are fewer administrative and program demands so I work about 40 hours per week from mid-June to early August.

Take One Day off Each Week 

Monday is my current day off, and it is sacrosanct. I never go in to the office, check e-mail, or take phone calls. Heather knows that I won’t discuss ministry matters—even for her ministries—on Monday. In addition to Mondays, I take one extra day each month for a total of five. (Saturdays are never a full day off for me.)

Take Holidays 

When a holiday falls on Monday, I take an additional day off within two weeks. For years I did not do this, and I regret it.

Set a Quitting Time Each Day 

The one thing I miss about corporate life is the clear quitting time (that and the two-day weekend). Pastoral ministry has no clear stopping point day. When most people are heading home from work, my evening of pastoral appointments, committee meetings, or ministry events is just beginning.

However, I seldom check e-mail after 6:00 p.m., and never after arriving home in the evening. This helps me clear my mind and rest at the end of each day.

Take All Available Vacation Time

Again, I didn’t do enough of this for many years and now wonder why. I’ve found that it is best for me to take whole weeks off rather than a day or two at a time. I also find it best to take at least part of the week away from home. It is challenging to find affordable places to go, so I’ve begun compiling a list of free or low-cost vacation options for pastors.

Avoid Consecutive 12-Hour Days

My best energy is in the morning, so I generally begin work early. But much ministry happens in the evening, so it is not uncommon for me to arrive home from work after 9:00 p.m. To keep the balance, I sometimes take an hour our two at midday to make time for cycling, yard work, or personal business, and I occasionally take an afternoon off.

Plan a Year in Advance 

Days off, date nights, and family outings are nearly impossible to schedule a week’s notice—or even a month’s. It is best to plan personal dates far in advance, then work committee meetings and appointments around them. If you’re not familiar with the concept of life planning, I suggest this free resource.

For me, setting boundaries on ministry time has involved knowing my physical and emotional limits, establishing a work pattern that fits, and, above all, honoring God’s command to rest.

How do you balance home and work life?


Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.