The Shelf Life of Pastors

The Shelf Life of Pastors October 15, 2020

Pastors live on the shelf in the pantry of many people. We are dry goods. Pastors are convenient. We are taken off the shelf whenever someone needs something from us. Other professional people feel the same way. You need your attorney when legal troubles arise. The physician is required when needed. How many times have we felt that we are put on hold by lawyers and doctors? Why didn’t the pastor come running when my Aunt Margaret was sick? Pastors get caught in the trap of feeling unappreciated. It appears to many that inconvenient times for us are the times church members want. Once that feeling begins it is hard to let go of it.

The Not Necessarily Needy

There are people in churches who wish to have the lion’s share of the pastor’s time. Should the pastor inquire about them after elective surgeries? Probably. But not all elective procedures are very serious. I once had a Lay Leader who called every Friday to tell me about someone having a necessary but not life-threatening procedure. He is an extreme example of a lay person doing something not because he should but because he could. After all, the people having the surgery had not said a word to me about it. So, I am well aware of this issue for Pastors.

The Emergency At The Wrong Time

I can think of three instances so far in my career where a family holiday gathering was interrupted by a church member having an emergency. We like to relax and enjoy good times with our families. Most people that show up to these things do. However, I remember each of those calls. And for some reason, those times leave the impression that they happen all the time. I once heard an adult ‘preacher’s kid” say, “it seems that every vacation we planned had to postponed because someone died.” The important words there are “it seems.”

Pastorus Nonconsultatus

Funeral plans are often made before I know about them. Usually, someone will courteously and ask if a certain day and time is one I can do. Other times I am told about the funeral and time and expected to be there. A colleague told me about an occasion when a family called to “reserve the church for a wedding.” The church secretary scheduled the wedding and informed the pastor. The pastor asked if the family wanted his services that day. The secretary called back to ask. The family responded, “We thought that was understood.”

Pastorus nonconsultatus is the practice of lay people planning something and expecting the pastor to take part without ever consulting the pastor. Many times these plans are meetings of some kind. Usually, they are congregational social times or concerts where the motto of the laity is “if we have it, you will come.” In other words, it is time for the pastor to come off the shelf.

These are especially annoying if the pastor’s family made plans, if the pastor’s children have a ballgame or recital, or graduation, or if the pastor’s spouse has some important event that involves their job.  Conflicts do happen from time to time. If the pastor has been consulted about the event or meeting, then it makes it easier to manage the conflict.

The Prevailing Myths About Pastors

There are a few curious myths about Pastors. They usually involve money.

  1. Pastors do not have to pay taxes. This is not only a myth it is a lie. Pastors pay federal income taxes and self-employment taxes. Clergy members may legally opt out of the self-employment tax if certain conditions are met. The clergy person must hold ethical reservations about taking social security or SSI disability payments for doing only religious work. Income that is earned in ways other than church work is taxable.
  2. Pastors are very spiritual people. Unfortunately, many pastors feel spiritually dry and exhausted all of the time. They believe, sometimes wrongly, that there is no time for spiritual development, exercise, or even to eat right.
  3. Pastors are lazy. Everyone knows the joke that pastors work only one hour a week. Pastors are usually no more lazy than the other person. Some are very lazy. Others are workaholics. Some people use this belief that Pastors do not deserve their salaries. A colleague was recently threatened to have his paycheck withheld until the churches could reopen while being closed during the pandemic. Online worship was going on. Paperwork was being done. Pastoral calls were being made.
  4. Pastors are not allowed to disagree (with me). There is a double standard in the church about how citizenship is exercised. Pastors are only allowed to express approved opinions. And if correctly interpreted biblical texts are preached that do not meet said approval then the pastor is wrong, political, or un-Christ-like. This impression is held in the wider culture. A member of my church told me after joining he was glad I was around. “I thought all pastors preached what Foxnews told them to.

The Calling of Pastors

A wise superintendent once cautioned me, “So many Pastors come to this office and complain about their relationship with their churches, they say ‘this is not what God called me to.'” He then said, “it is exactly what God called them to.” Pastors see the harsh reality of church life. We see the harsh side of life, for that matter. Pastors witness the deaths of good people in Intensive Care rooms. They agonize over threats and ultimatums sometimes given by selfish church members. And we build up dangerous resentments about the shelf where we have been left.

Pastors will improve our spiritual lives if we recognize the resentments. We know we shouldn’t feel angry over the job. But we should be honest enough with ourselves to know that ignoring that resentment is detrimental for everyone. Our anger coupled with our authority makes a dangerous situation. The first general rule of United Methodism is “Do no harm.” Pastors will do harm if our resentments are not engaged and overcome. We can harm ourselves as well as families and congregations. And we never intended to do that when we took our vows.


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