Frequently Asked Questions - Being a Pastor

I am a pastor. For whatever reason, I often get asked questions about my job. Especially as fewer people grow up with cultural connections to the church, it is common for me to hear some version of "You're a pastor? I've never met a pastor before." I appreciate the curiosity behind these questions, so I thought I'd spend a little time trying to give answers to the most common ones I hear from both Christians and non-Christians.

What Is A Pastor's Job?
Boy, is this a tricky one to answer succinctly. Let me start with the big-picture biblical answer and save the details for later.

A pastor's job boils down to the biblical image of being a spiritual shepherd (1 Peter 5:2). That is to say, it involves leading the sheep, providing them with spiritual food, and protecting them from spiritual harm. One important clarification to that, though: shepherding is, in 1 Peter 5, the task of all elders (Scripture's term for the leadership of a church). A pastor is an elder, but there are other laypeople called to this same office. Any church should be led by a group of elders, and elders can and should arise from within every local church.

What we think of as pastors are, biblically, a subset of elders with a special task. Paul discusses how certain elders, in addition to the general calling of leading the church, have a "work of preaching and teaching." (1 Timothy 5:17) So a pastor is someone who is a shepherd, but a shepherd in a way that especially emphasizes their being called and equipped to preach and teach God's word.

Developing this a little bit, the pastor's goal is "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." (Ephesians 4:12) There's something really important in that verse - the idea is often that the "work of ministry" (caring for people, sharing Jesus with them and showing God's goodness to the world) is somehow uniquely the job of pastors or the institutional church. That is not the case. The work of ministry is done by all of us who are believers in Christ. My specific calling in that is to help equip people and build them up so that we can all carry forward this mission in the world together.

I know that's a general answer - if you want specifics, look below.

"Pastor," "Minister," "Reverend," "Father" - What's the Difference? Which Are You?
There really isn't one, other than different church traditions. "Father" is typically used only by the Catholic, Orthodox and some Anglican churches. Otherwise, they're interchangeable. Personally, I've never much liked "Reverend" simply because it feels like protesting too much to title yourself "one who demands respect." However, plenty of humble and godly men use it. "Minister" comes from the Latin for "servant," and "Pastor" from "shepherd," both of which seem pretty accurate to me.

How Do You Become A Pastor?
The answer to this one varies radically between different Christian traditions. First, before explaining the practical considerations, it should be said that pastors as elders are called to have a certain set of qualifications in terms of character (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). These qualifications do not equal moral perfection - pastors are still sinners like all Christians - but they do require a certain level of obedience so that the church isn't needlessly wounded by a pastor's abuse of power. In addition, pastors should have a sense that this is something God is calling them to do. This call includes both an inner sense of such a calling and an outward affirmation and recognition by others. After all, we aren't always the best judges of ourselves.

Practically speaking, in most traditions, pastors then attend seminary, which is an educational program aimed at equipping them for the specific tasks of preaching and teaching. Seminary studies (should) include in-depth courses on the Bible, theology, Greek, Hebrew, and practical things like preaching and counseling. The school I attended was a 3-4 year program, and I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree (which has always struck me as either enormously pretentious-sounding or something out of He-Man.)

Then, for the denomination where I serve, a pastor is called to some specific ministry role by a local church and is examined by a large body of other pastors (being Presbyterian, it is called a Presbytery). There is a series of tests to demonstrate proficiency in doctrine, biblical knowledge, and the original languages, as well as an attempt to discern the character and calling discussed above. At the end of this process, that larger body will ordain that person as a minister.

Just a note on that process: it is common to hear people complain about the rigors of such a process. There are denominations that require none of that training or examination. I appreciate the concerns of those brothers and sisters, but just speaking personally, I am grateful for all of it, even though it sometimes felt like beating my head against a wall waiting to do what I felt like God had called me to. Having ill-trained pastors is like deploying ill-trained soldiers - you might get more bodies on the battlefield more quickly, but you'll also be leaving a lot more bodies behind.

What Does A Pastor Do With His Time?
This is actually the thing I get asked the most. I can't speak for all pastors, and I don't pretend to represent them, but below is how I (ideally) divide my time in a given week, and I think it is pretty common.

Prayer & Devotional Life (5 hours) - This needs to be the first thing on any pastor's schedule. Ministers (including myself at times) are tempted to cut into it in order to do other parts of the job, but it is the most important part of what I do. Spending time with Jesus and praying for the church, her members, and her ministry are essential as we recognize that He is the one we need to truly be at work in us and our people. It is important to recognize that, in addition to this, I hope to do all the other parts of my job in a way that is prayerful.
Sermon Preparation (12-15 hours) - Preaching is not the only job of a pastor, but it is one of their central responsibilities. I go into more detail on this below. It's also worth noting that I usually write sermons more than a week in advance so that I don't have to make choices based on some Saturday evening time crunch.
Shepherding Human Beings (5-15+ hours) - There are many different forms of individual pastoral care. Counseling meetings, hospital visits, sitting with elderly congregants, and simply spending time building relationships and getting to know people better are all part of being faithful to the gospel ministry. It is a rare week where I'm at the minimum of this range. The high upper end represents the times that something major happens in someone's life, like a significant crisis or unexpected death. In such cases, the usual schedule constraints go out the window.
Planning Content (5-7 hours) - This includes preparing the liturgy (the stuff done in a worship service), writing prayers, prepping classes and other teaching, and getting ready for meetings. While preaching is the most visible sort of teaching and leading a pastor does, there are many other components as well.
Administration (3-4 hours) - Things need to get scheduled, details need to get hammered out, and emails need to get answered. I'm a fierce believer in delegating, and this is an area where I try to do a lot of it, but there is still some time swallowed up by such practical details.
Study & Writing (5 hours) - It is important for pastors to be growing in their understanding of the faith beyond the demands of a given week. Studying is an important input which, while not necessarily immediately useful, pays big dividends over the longer arc of ministry. I always try to be reading a few books about theology, ministry, and cultural issues. In addition, because of the particular ways God wired me, I try to do some writing in this time, including this article.
Execution (5-6 hours) - Leading Sunday morning worship, teaching classes, and running church meetings. The publicly visible stuff.

One other note on pastors and time - you are often, at least functionally, your own supervisor as a minister. This means that it is possible for some pastors to go to extremes in both directions. There are ministers who work far less than they should. I haven't known many of them, but have encountered a few. Often this is done by forsaking things like visitation or personal development, and sometimes even things like sermon preparation. Jesus will have some very severe words for negligent shepherds at His return.

At the same time, it is also possible (even easy) to work too much. I realize that the upper end of my listed schedule is around 60 hours. There have been weeks I have worked even more than that, but I strive to ensure that upper limit is very rare and reflects real crisis situations. I draw pretty strict boundaries around time with family so that I don't forsake the equally-important callings I have as a husband and father. While there are almost never "average" weeks, I generally try to keep it around 45 hours of work.

What Do You Do To Prepare To Preach?
I am a huge proponent of expository preaching, which is to say, I start with a text and try to figure out what that text is saying and communicate that message rather than starting with what I want to say and finding a text to fit it. This approach means that I split my official sermon prep between exposition (4-5 hours of studying the text and trying to understand it deeply on its own terms) and writing the sermon itself, which usually takes around another 5 hours. The rest of the time involves fiddling with it, running through it a couple of times, and putting together slides or graphics I'm going to use.

As far as how I do exposition, I usually start by just reading the text a number of times, maybe outlining it, and chasing down issues that strike my interest in the Hebrew and Greek. Then I read some commentaries and try to incorporate their insights, which occasionally involves going off on rabbit trails. I usually consider exposition done when I feel like I can answer these three questions well:
1) What is the text, in detail, saying? What is my opinion on any debatable parts?
2) How does it fit into the larger context of the book and the Bible's story?
3) Why did the author put it here? What is it trying to do to us as believers?

How Do You Preach?
You shouldn't use a manuscript when you preach. I use a manuscript. It is annotated and marked up, and I don't read it directly, but for whatever reason, it works best for me. I also try to focus on the text itself, helping people see where I'm getting ideas from it. Too often I feel like sermons use Scriptures as proof texts rather than teaching people to understand how to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

Why So Much Time for Visitation/Personal Shepherding?
Three reasons. First, because the example of Jesus reminds us that we must never lose the individual in the crowd. Jesus always takes time to speak to the hurting person he encounters even when it interferes with preaching to the multitudes. The shepherd always has time to leave the 99 to search for the lost little lamb. Another important part of the ministry of Jesus that calls us to visitation is His presence with people. He is constantly sitting, eating and laughing with them. More than that, the incarnation itself - God drawing near as a specific human being - is an image of such presence. As a servant of such a Lord, one of the best ways to communicate His presence is simply to be present myself. There is also a practical reason. Spending time with people is essential for doing the public parts of ministry well. Preaching is always an act to translating the world of the text into the world of the hearers. Doing this well requires walking beside them in their worlds.

Do You Enjoy What You Do?

Part of me is tempted to leave it there. A surprising number of pastors I know like to complain about their calling. This isn't all wrong: there are significant challenges in ministry, seasons of discouragement, and conflicts that wound the soul. I have felt some of those struggles. That said, there are also enormous blessings. The love and support of brothers and sisters in the church is a great source of joy. So is getting to see the way my humble efforts are used by God to help people, often in spite of my own failings. I get a front row seat to both the brokenness and the beauty that exists in Christ's body. That is not always an easy place to sit, but I have always felt privileged to have it.

I hope that was helpful. If you have other questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer!