4 Big Reasons Why Pastors Lack Work-Life Balance

Pastors are a notorious bunch when it comes to work.

Church members have high expectations. The hours are long. Some weeks, you have no option but to grind it out for 70 hours. An occasional all-nighter is to be expected. But these situations should be rare, not the norm. Why do too few pastors strike a balance? Four major reasons exist.

    1. The Always-On Phenomenon. Most churches expect pastors to be on call 24/7. Even though late-night phone calls don’t happen often, many pastors feel like they’re always on. And that creates a level of tension. Social media has exacerbated this phenomenon. Many people expect (unrealistically) instantaneous answers via Twitter, Facebook, and text. Defining “work” is problematic when the “off” button does not exist.
    2. The Jack-of-All-Trades Expectations. The call to pastoral ministry is one of diversity. In one hour, you’re the preacher. In the next, you’re the counselor. And in another, you’re the plumber. In any given week, someone is upset at the pastor for not meeting expectations, which means that person believes the pastor did not correctly allocate work hours.
    3. No Week Is Typical. No one calls the pastor and says, “Today was just a typical day for me. I wanted you to know that.” There’s usually a fire to put out or a crisis to manage in someone’s life. Pastors experience the best of people and the worst of people. At funerals, it’s the best of people. At weddings, it’s the worst of people. Pastors rarely see people in the normalcy of life. Every week is different, so defining and managing work hours is difficult.
    4. The Blurriness of Ministry and Life. When does work end and fun begin? Does a dinner with a new church family count as work or fun? Is it work or pleasure if you intentionally attend a high school ball game to interact with church members and the community? Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell because both can be true simultaneously. Pastors often struggle with work hours because of the blurred lines between ministry and life. More often than not, the two are inseparable.

The Productivity Problem

In the 19th century, industry leaders learned through trial and error that fewer hours worked can increase overall productivity. Organized labor helped reduce workdays to 8 to 10 hours. Surprisingly, industrial output increased despite the fewer total hours worked by laborers.

Several studies demonstrate that longer hours do not equate to more productivity over time. One study shows a diminishing return of hours worked. As people work more hours, those hours become less and less productive. Where is the tipping point?

Workweek productivity falls after about 50 hours and crashes after 55 hours. You are no more productive at 70 hours per week regularly than at 55 hours. In fact, some studies go even further, proposing that habitually overworked people decline in discernment and focus on increasingly meaningless tasks. For pastors, this productivity problem means consistently long weeks make you a worse shepherd. Obviously, everyone has a few weeks a year in which many hours are required. Just ask any children’s minister during VBS week. The fall in productivity applies to those who are working long hours every week of the year. If every week for you is over 55 hours, you’re likely not nearly as productive as you could be.

How Many Hours Per Week Do Pastors Work?

Most pastors work long hours. In a survey of 1,000 pastors, 65% indicated they worked 50 or more hours per week. The median number of hours a senior pastor works is 55 hours per week. Many pastors are right at the point of unproductivity, if not over the line.

Every pastor has experienced a few hell weeks. It’s part of ministry. However, numerous studies point to the physiological signs of burnout. What are the key signals? You can’t concentrate. You are mentally exhausted, even in the mornings. You always have too much to do and feel guilty about not accomplishing it all. “I’m sorry, but I’m overloaded right now” is a typical apology in the home. Sickness becomes the norm. You seem to catch a cold almost every month. When your life revolves around your to-do list, you will likely hate the list and your life.

Work hard for your church. It’s biblical! But you cannot minister effectively if you’re fried. Most pastors struggle with balance. Pastors should model spiritual disciplines for their churches. Work-life balance is a vital part of living in a way that glorifies God.

Do you need to navigate how to manage your hours better? You can get help from Church Answers. We have a few spots open in our Platinum Coaching Group. You can learn more about it here.

Posted on December 20, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Clayton Blackstone says on

    I grew up on a potato and dairy farm in northern Maine. A few years before my dad died, he looked at me and said, “You’ll never know how hard it was to keep you boys busy all the time in order to keep you out of trouble.” Rare was the week prior to my retirement when I did not work 55-60 hours per week. Looking back I realize that every request that came to me came not in the voice of the one who asked it of me or from an internal sense of all that I thought needed to be done, but in my father’s.

  • Jared Haines says on

    A true pastor is a man called by God. Aman called by God should welcome and embrace that calling. It is not a job but a life. This one reason many new pastors only last 5 years. They may not have been called but more than likely, they don’t embrace the call. I pastor a small church of about 30 in the Sunday morning service. Yes, I wear many hats. From all sorts of maintenance repairs to roofing, siding, concrete work, landscaping, even tree removal. We recently built a pavilion, and I did about 60% of the work. I am not complaining. I am stating a fact. I enjoy serving God and the people He has entrusted to my care. Some weeks are long some are not. Personally, my phone is always on. I have calls in the middle of the night, not too often. It goes with the calling. Maybe too many pastors are focused on the ‘job’ and not on the service to God. I was called to be a pastor in 2010. I was ordained in 2013, I was 56. My dad was a pastor for 60 years. I never wanted to be a pastor. God called and I haven’t looked back. My dad did a great job showing me what a pastor’s life is like. Especially when you are all into God’s calling.

  • William A. Secrest says on

    Something that you did not mention is pastors taking their day or days off. I am supposed to get two days off a week that but that rarely happens anymore. Thursday is my day off that I do take and I am amazed at how often I get phone calls and texts from people wanting immediate answers to problems and concerns. As pastors, we feel obligated to respond because we feel that we are needed in the moment. I am part of the American Baptist Churches USA and I serve in southeastern Indiana. My area minister advised me to turn off my cell phone on my day off and let people know that I am not available. I have not done that nor do I plan to. The issue is creating boundaries and letting people know that you are going to stick to these rules for your benefit and theirs.

  • Sam,
    The information on productivity is quite insightful. Thank you!

    For me, part of what made work/life so challenging as a pastor is related to your fourth point about the blurriness between work and life. It not only affects the pastor but can affect the pastor’s wife as well. At least that was the case for us because I have had a very difficult time disassociating myself emotionally from the people that I shepherded. I would carry that emotional baggage home and share it with my wife since I had no one else to process with. Quite unhealthy! I think this can especially be a problem for pastors who are “feelers” rather than “thinkers” on the Myers-Briggs assessment. Most pastors, btw, are feelers. Working long hours is not so much a problem so much for me. It’s the emotional toll that it takes on me that can exhaust me.

    I have often wondered how Jesus was able to emotionally disconnect with people while at the same time empathetically “carry our sorrows.” When I read the Gospels, I see both emotional traits with him. It’s funny how I can easily and empathetically work with dying patients and their families as a hospice chaplain and disconnect emotionally – not carrying the grief that they feel with me. But it is very hard for me to do that in a congregational setting. Perhaps it is not so much the emotional burden but rather the political tussling that wears me down.

    I guess I need to see a therapist. (Only halfway kidding!)

    Thanks for another excellent post.

  • Good insights Sam. Thanks. We might also include the conviction of our “calling.” We would see the call to pastoral ministry as much more than a career choice. That same conviction of calling can cause us to fail to include margin in our lives or leave the “open” sign on too many hours. Before the days of instant communication, pastors would only be contacted in an extreme emergency, usually in person by someone. Most of what I deal with after 5 pm is stuff that could easily be dealt with the next day, or a few hours earlier if the caller had been more mindful. Conviction of calling is necessary and should not be allowed to become a heavy-handed taskmaster.

  • There are also those bivouac pastors like me who don’t get a day off because it’s one job or the other. I teach middle schoolers and pastor, and my wife teaches, too. Right now we’re exhausted. We love both our jobs, but they are emotionally and relationally exhausting.