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Are pastors & priests “on-duty” all the time?

Are pastors & priests “on-duty” all the time?

Over at Ministry Matters, there’s a great post on the common notion of priests and pastors needing to be always ready set aside everything for their ministry.  In it, author Drew McIntyre looks at the question of pastors being servants or saviors, drawing on imagery from the recent Batman vs Superman film.

How does Superman choose when to intervene in the world?

Even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Even Superman can’t be on duty all the time. Even Superman needs a nap every now and then.

This pervasive mythology about pastors and other caring professions — that we are “on” all the time, that we never get to take time off, that we are “never off duty” — is not only wrong, it is sinful.

Sabbath isn’t just a command for those who aren’t “professionally” religious, but applies to all of us.  And denying that to ministers (and other care-givers) is a kind of sin in that it denies the way of life God is inviting us into.  And clergy that deny it and faith communities that allow it (or worse, encourage or expect it) are spiritually unhealthy.


We are servants, not saviors. Or, as a prayer attributed to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says, we are ministers and not messiahs:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.


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Jerald Liki

As a clergy spouse, I have strong feelings about this. The simple fact is that the idea of a priest being on call 24/7 is founded on three things that are simply no longer the norm: (1) a full-time priest serving a single congregation, (2) the priest living in a rectory on or near the church itself, and (3) a Leave It To Beaver family structure in which the clergy spouse has no other commitments than supporting the priest and rearing the children.

Now, whether we mourn or rejoice, that simply isn’t the way things are anymore. And as a clergy spouse, I am sick and tired of the minuscule handful of modern priests (and the significantly greater number of die-hard old timers) who either imply or insist that they were better ministers than my wife because they happened to live in a time before bi-vocational ministry became the norm, before many churches did away with the rectory, and before households with two spouses committed to work became the norm.

Priesthood is a vocation, but parish ministry is a job.

Clergy spouses fight for every hour in which Dad can be Dad and not Father, in which Mom can be Mom and not Mother. I was under the impression that the idea of priest-as-omnipresent-Superman had been discarded like the garbage it is, and I’m disgusted to see so many posters in this forum embracing that hopelessly anachronistic ideal in the time and place to which the Spirit has led us.

Dr. William A Flint, MDiv, PhD

Many are called, but few are chosen. There are many vocations, professions and other careers. I personally think the priesthood is a calling. The ordained ministry is a sacred calling. The Bishop annually ask the question: “How are you perfecting in the Love of God that is within you?”

Yes, the Church I grew up in is not the Church that exists today. The Church I served is not the Church that exists today. Whether that is good or bad, will be judged by how the Church survives the change.

Isabel F. Steilberg

No one (not even a priest) is indispensable; everyone is irreplaceable….

Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD

Maybe this is why many are flocking to mega churches. These megas seem to have a full funded programs and adequate staff to serve the large memberships. While I have deep theological issues with mega churches, I can see where they are meeting the needs of communities they serve.

When I served parishes, I was 24/7. I had good staffs, but pastoral responsibility was mine. As I have said that was a different time and a different Church. Today I see the Church losing its place in the community and being replaced with other forms of service to people that meet their spiritual needs. I restate I was called by God to serve God’s people, God demands all of me. Others may have better contracts with God than I do and that’s okay too.

When a dying soul needs me I will be there even if I have to cancel my day off or vacation. Currently that’s not an issue for me.

Brother Tom Hudson

Ah, the “good old days” when virtually all clergy were fully supported (including adequate housing) by the parishes they served. They didn’t have to have part-time or full-time jobs to make ends meet. They were on-site 24/7, and it was not terribly hard for them to reach their parishioners, who generally lived within a few blocks or miles of the church.

Welcome to the 21st century. Part-time, supply, long-term interim, and non-stipendiary clergy are fast becoming the rule, not because they don’t want to serve God in a parish full-time, but because the parishes themselves do not have the resources to provide the financial support that was the model in the 1940s-70s.

You can blame this on theology, liturgical changes, ordination of women, same-sex marriage, or whatever, but the reality today is that clergy today have to wear many hats that weren’t necessary (or even allowed) fifty years ago. It’s time that we realized that the models have changed, and time to make the adjustments that those changes require. Lamenting the past, or, worse, imposing strictures that used to be reasonable on the clergy of today, is just a waste of time, not to mention hurtful of those who give as much of themselves as they possibly can, while striving to earn a decent living for themselves and their families.

David Allen

When the priest is the only one capable of responding then something is wrong with the model of ministry. It’s more like, once baptized you can’t turn it off. There should be an entire parish of ministers.

James Pratt

David, you are very right. My first parish was a 4-point rural charge, and I also had to cover the adjacent 3-point charge that was without a priest. The week before my first Christmas, I had 3 deaths in my own parish (in 3 different communities) and 1 in the neighbouring parish. I was just finished the first funeral and on my way to meet the wake for the second, when the lay reader called to tell me about the third and to inform me that she had already met with the family and made the funeral arrangements. Throughout my 7 years in that parish, with a team of lay readers and lay pastoral visitors, and an ability on my part to be flexible with my day off, there was a healthy cooperation in which my need for time off was respected and pastoral needs were met.

David Allen

Actually, the congregations which I have in mind are about 300 or less and have an all lay priesthood, from the bishop and his two counselors who lead, to the visiting teachers/home teachers who visit each household every month. The visiting teachers are two women, the home teachers are two men, often a father & son team. And when it works properly and relationships are fostered, these are actually the folks whom congregants would call in the middle of the night from home or the hospital or even the county jail.

There is much we could learn about Christianity from the Latter-day Saints! They appear to have worked out the meaning of Ephesians 4:11 & 12;

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

Marshall Scott

David, I am very much in favor of training lay parishioners to make pastoral visits, and I’ve helped provide such training in the past. On the other hand, there are times and circumstances I can’t delegate. That continues to be the case, and I’m a hospital chaplain with a staff reporting to me.

I am quite sympathetic about my colleagues in small towns and/or in one-person, sometimes multi-congregation cures. We do need to set boundaries. We also need to allow flexibility. It does need to be the cleric who makes the decision; but if a colleague makes a decision that he or she has to respond to a particular set of circumstances, my first thought isn’t, “That person isn’t taking care of self.”

Jay Croft

David, you’re looking at a certain kind of church. I’m guessing a mid-size parish with a full time priest and perhaps a part or full time curate.

Yes, a church should be “an entire parish of ministers.” Ideally.

Theologically we are all ministers, regardless of what kind of collar we wear. However, “there are varieties of gifts,” as St. Paul describes.

Sometimes I tell people that the reason I became a priest was because I don’t like to deal with finances and spreadsheets. 😉

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