There is a very old (and not very funny) joke about pastors and their schedules. It goes something along the lines that a pastor only works “one day a week”. I have been told some version of this quip more times than I can count, often when running into church members or community members in a coffee shop, grocery store, or while dropping off my kids at school. Sometimes it is at the end of a Sunday service as I greet people leaving the church: “well, you’ve worked your one day for this week, I hope you’ll enjoy the rest!” The rejoinder, which I usually provide is that pastors don’t work one day per week, “we only work one hour out of one day, each week”.
The reason that I often reply this way, is that there is no use in getting into a conversation with people about “what pastors do all week”. I’m not interested in defending my job or trying to prove my worth by listing out my various activities. Instead, I just play along as an accomplice, subtly suggesting that the idea that pastors don’t do much is pretty silly, and we both can grin about it.
This is the topic of Emma Percy’s enjoyable, accessible and practical book What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing. She draws on the image of a mother who is caring for her children as a kind of metaphor for what being a pastor in a local congregation is like. She builds this idea on top of the work of Naomi Stadlen, who wrote a book called What Mothers Do: Especially When It looks like Nothing.
The basic idea is that there are tasks related to being a mother, such as feeding a child, tending to their needs, keeping them bathed and dressed and all the rest. And part of being a mother has to do with accomplishing those tasks each day or week or year. At the same time, part of being a mother has nothing to do with tasks but is all about relationship. It’s about the way you talk to your child, or the hovering presence that you provide in a home, or the non-verbal cues and modeling that help a child discover how to live.
In the same way, Percy suggests that pastoring is much like mothering, where there is a lot more going on than simply a task-oriented job. This rich metaphor is a delight to consider. Most pastors who come across this book will immediately see themselves in it, especially in her unpacking and exploring of all the complex ways that a pastor does her job beyond the clearly delineated job description. She states that “parish clergy can also find it hard to find the right words to describe all the busyness of sustaining church life. It is easy to make lists of services taken, funerals conducted and meetings chaired, but how do we begin to talk about the time and energy expended on caring for all the different people in the parish?”
This is the exact tension that I often feel in my own ministry and work. As a 7 on the Enneagram, I am someone who loves to look ahead and to organize my life by making to-do lists, and then I get great pleasure out of crossing items off of the to-do list. But the reality is that in between all of those sermons, newsletter articles, Bible studies, hospital visits, staff meetings, committee gatherings, and community engagements (all of which can be measured and can show up on a to-do list), there is a lot of ministry life that looks very different.
As Percy puts it, “central to ministry is the building up of the relationships, the quality of incidental encounters, the time spent in praying for people, the care given in walking with people through difficult circumstances and the witness that all of this is connected to the love of God known through Jesus Christ.” When asked about what I enjoy most about being a pastor or working in church ministry, I always talk about those kinds of things. The chance to have access to the holiest and hardest parts of people’s lives. To be seen as a trusted counselor, prayer partner, or just someone who can be counted on for a hug and a listening ear.
If I were to look back on all that my own mother did for me when I was growing up, I could certainly count out all the actual, listable ways that she helped or loved me. But much more important is the overarching sense in which she was with me, and for me. In this way, Percy’s image of ministry as mothering is really powerful.
She points out that, “Being and doing are interwoven. There are plenty of tasks to be done but a list of tasks cannot adequately define the role. Both mothering and ministry are relationships and activities.” This is a helpful schema for thinking about pastoral work, that it takes both “being and doing”. In my role as Head of Staff for our church, this is a helpful reminder to me, when I am looking at the work that others do on our staff. After all, the front office secretaries also have a “being and doing” dual-role when people walk into the church. It is the same for youth ministers, musical leaders, and those working on facilities issues. None of us is meant to simply be an automaton of achievement, and the most valued church workers (of every stripe) are those who take time to mother and pastor and care about the people they encounter.
Maybe the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthian church are important to remember here, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Even with my best, task-oriented work at the church, it also takes the caring, nurturing and mothering as well. And in the end, it all belongs to God, the one who is really at work in all that we do.
Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 4.
Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 20.
Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 22.
1 Cor. 3:6-7 (New Revised Standard Version).