When I meet or have the opportunity to coach people with part-time jobs in ministry, I often ask how many hours they work each week and how many they’re paid for. Almost everyone responds with a chuckle. Many have given up on trying to do the job in the hours they were hired for. The whole idea is almost a joke.
But what’s not funny is the effect this discrepancy has on these leaders and their families. They feel underpaid, undervalued, and begin to believe the message that their work is of little worth. Some extend that sense of worthlessness to themselves. Others feel like failing parents and spouses. Those who are bi-vocational feel torn between two jobs, constantly frustrated by competing demands. Others nurse growing resentment toward their employers, hurtle toward burnout, or decide to give up ministry altogether.
So what’s the solution? Boundaries. Yet setting boundaries is a risky proposition that requires real strength and determination. And ministry is one of the places where it can be really hard to enforce boundaries—after all, the work is so important! Setting and sticking to boundaries, however, is essential when there’s no way you can possibly fulfill all your responsibilities in the time you have.
If you’re in this situation, it’s time to be honest with yourself and your employer, and to be ruthless in setting boundaries and sticking to them. It all starts with the right mindset.
1. Take Off the Cape
Start by acknowledging you have limitations, just as everyone does, and admit that you are not called to save the world. Many people in ministry are tempted with a sort of hero complex, a subtle belief that the fate of the world rests on their shoulders, and they are personally responsible to save or minister to everyone who crosses their path. They may believe the church will be crippled without their oversight or active involvement. This is not humility or self-sacrifice, although it often disguises itself as such. It is arrogance, and it can easily destroy leaders as well as the churches they serve.
2. Find Your Value
Next you must recognize you have worth and value apart from your job in ministry. For many, the thought of drawing boundaries at work is unthinkable because it means risking the loss of something they have built their self-concept around. You will be in a better position to set limits and hold yourself to them if you understand that your value does not come from your work. You matter for so many other reasons, most significantly because of the roles you play in the lives of people who love you. You have much to contribute to the work of God’s kingdom beyond your work in ministry. Ultimately, your worth is based on your identity as a child of God, adopted into his family and given an inheritance of righteousness and eternal life. Regardless of how you spend your days, your life matters because God created you and put you here. If necessary, seek a counselor, coach, or spiritual director who can help you embrace and live according to this truth. Then set up reminders for yourself—images, words, songs, gentle nudges from friends—that will help you remember this every day.
3. Get a Job Description
If you don’t have a job description, get one. If there isn’t one, interview your boss, and create one for yourself. If you’re creating a new document, you have the opportunity to speak into it and say what you can and cannot realistically accomplish. If you don’t know the parameters of your job, there’s a good chance you feel your job is much bigger than it is. You may also be in a weak position when saying no to requests from others. If you have five coworkers, it’s possible all five have a different understanding of what you’re there to do. So take charge, and make sure you get that description.
4. Prioritize Tasks
Go through your job description and set priorities for all your assigned tasks. Don’t do this arbitrarily—base it on your church’s mission and your personal piece of pursuing that mission. Ask yourself, What is this church here for? and What was I hired to do? Then identify the most important elements of your job description, based on highest priority, not on what seems most urgent. You can use this set of priorities to make decisions about where to focus the time you have.
5. Collaborate with Your Boss
Request some time with your boss and come prepared. Go through your job description and tell your boss, honestly and boldly, how much you can realistically accomplish in the hours available to you. Show your prioritized list of duties. Ask for his or her input and participation in determining how you should spend the time you have available. Ask, “What should I focus on?” and “What should I let go or put on the back burner?”
6. Break It Down
Estimate how much time each task should take. Then create a weekly routine for yourself, designate each work period to a particular focus. If training small-group leaders takes two hours per week, designate two hours each week for that task. If visiting with people takes a day of your time, devote a day to it. You can always adapt the plan for the unique needs of any given week, but building a routine with your most important priorities in place ensures that you’ll have time for them.
7. Create Margin
As you’re planning for each week, be sure to leave margin in your schedule for things that come up. No week will ever go as planned, so expect the unexpected. Leave some open time in your schedule, or mark it as busy and write “margin” or “jobs from the Holy Spirit.” Chances are, you will always find something to fill that time.
8. Work Hard
Now that you know how to spend your time, work hard at it. And do it conspicuously—work efficiently, make the most of your time, refusing to waste even a minute of it. Make sure no one can say you’re a slacker. This will help you stand in a position of strength when it’s time to say no.
9. Go Home
Have the confidence and courage to do your work for the number of hours you’ve been hired for. Then, go home. The church will not fall apart because you are not there. When you come back, you’ll be ready to work hard again.
Amy Simpson is a leadership coach, a popular speaker, and the award-winning author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @aresimpson.