How hard did the New Testament pastors and apostles work? What did hard work look like for them? I’m not only asking about their work days or weeks, but extended periods or seasons. Did they take leave, sabbaticals? What are we to make of Paul’s claim that he “worked harder than all of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10)? Should we imitate him?

Burning out before 40 in ministry is the result of a curious mix of stupidity and worldliness.

Not too long ago I heard a young pastor preaching on the qualifications for eldership. The sermon was faithful and helpful, with very good application for the local church. He also emphasised that pastors are called to work hard. Amen! But what does labouring in ministry actually look like? I wonder what cultural baggage we bring to considerations about pastors working hard. Upon reflection, I found myself hoping this young man doesn’t burnout before he turns 40, doing a disservice to the church. For that wouldn’t be martyrdom. It would be the result of a curious mix of stupidity, worldliness, and unbelief.

The Bible is Clear: Pastors Must Work Hard

Paul exhorts Timothy to do his best (2 Timothy 3:15). Elsewhere he speaks about teaching night and day (Acts 20:31). Good pastors are labourers (1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), working hard in teaching and preaching (1 Timothy 4:13-16). He likens pastoral ministry to “the hard-working farmer” (2 Timothy 2:6).

On top of all this, at times Paul worked as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3), to support his own gospel ministry, so as not to be a burden to the churches (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Thus there were periods when Paul laboured on two fronts. A tough calling indeed!

Paul likens pastoral ministry to ‘the hard-working farmer.’

A cursory consideration of the spiritual giants of church history would indicate that they were all committed to hard work. No shirkers among them. Spurgeon’s adage was,”Work yourself to death, pray yourself alive.” Him and others might have pointed to the various New Testament passages above that describe ministry as taxing and committed work. However, when it comes to our understanding of the labouring of pastors today, I think that we have at least two massive blindspots.

Don’t Project 21st Century Rhythms Onto Paul’s Day

The first problem is that we read our modern pace of life into it. We project the rhythms of 21st century routines onto the apostolic age. But our pace and routines of life in the 21st century are entirely different from Paul’s and his friends. For example, Paul went on three very long missionary journeys, as well as another lengthy journey from Jerusalem to Rome. In that time he would have covered thousands of kilometres.

Let’s develop this a bit. First century travel was slow and tedious, full of unexpected delays and long periods of waiting. Paul travelled on foot, horseback, by cart and chariot, and on ships. We are talking about days, weeks, and months of slow travel. Throughout his ministry, he probably logged years of pure travel time. This meant he had vast amounts of time to read the scriptures, reflect, pray, think, and meditate. Paul also spent a fair chunk of time in prison, which he also considered strategic ministry time (Philippians 1:12-13).

Paul’s overall ministry life was very unlike the frenetic routines that mark our own day.

Thus Paul’s overall ministry life was very unlike the frantic and frenetic routines that mark our own day. Paul had huge periods of time to do what we don’t do nearly enough of: read the scriptures and pray. You might argue that Paul was an outlier, not a regular local church pastor. But when we consider his friends—Timothy, Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Silas, Priscilla, Aquilla, Philemon, and Apollos—it becomes apparent that they also travelled, a lot.

One other example, many regard John Wesley as one of the hardest working pastors in church history. However, like Paul, his extensive travelling would have meant long periods of “down time,” when he undoubtedly prayed and prepared to teach.

Don’t Confuse Busyness With Hard Work

The second issue when we talk about pastors labouring is that we equate busyness with hard work. Whenever I get together with pastors and church planters, it’s not long before I hear about how busy everyone is. Schedules are hectic. Daily planners full. Pastors are always on the go. And it’s vital work, kingdom ministry, with eternal value and consequences. However, we unwittingly confuse busyness with hard work.

The ministry subculture says that if you aren’t crazy busy, you aren’t doing ministry properly. This comes with a kind of pastoral peer pressure. You actually feel like a misfit if you have time on your hands. This can easily become a pride issue. And it certainly becomes an identity issue for many pastors. But it can also be a smokescreen. We can hide behind busyness, because we are so horribly impoverished in other areas. In a perverted sense, busyness can “work” for us.

The ministry subculture says that if you aren’t crazy busy, you aren’t doing ministry properly.

Linked with busyness, there exist endless distractions in the modern day: masses of written resources, from blogs to books; countless podcasts; and a seminar for every day of the week. It doesn’t help that we can access all of this with a small, handheld, and portable device. That same device also contains all our correspondences, finances, the news, music, photos, social media, our shopping, and our diaries. But then, similarly to busyness, distraction might work for us. It fills our hours, satisfying the need for busyness.

In sharp contrast, consider Paul’s final written words. Writing from jail, he instructs Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). What scrolls? Definitely portions of the Old Testament. Possibly also the Targums, Pseudepigrapha, and I have no idea what else. Whatever the case, he had the tiniest fraction of what we have access to. But are our millions of resources always helpful?

When we confuse hard work in pastoral ministry with busyness and activity we’re in big trouble.

Pastor, Keep In Step With The Spirit

Tim Keller was recently asked what he would do differently if he could start his ministry over again. His reply came quickly, “I would pray much more.” Many other senior pastors have echoed this comment. But if he’d prayed much more, he would have done much less. If I was asked that question, my answer would be similar: I would pray and meditate on the scriptures more. And then pray more. What I propose here perhaps goes against current practice in many Christian circles, but especially my own Reformed spaces. I’m not advocating pure rest. I’m talking about a more a contemplative, reflective lifestyle, about calm. I’m talking about—what I consider—a more biblical lifestyle.

I’m not advocating pure rest. I’m talking about more calm. A more biblical lifestyle.

Some may say that’s dangerous turf, ‘Watch out for this weird mysticism.’ Nope. Listen to J. I. Packer, a leading theologian from the second half of the 20th century. In his Keep In Step With The Spirit, written in 1984, mind you, Packer says: “We don’t hear much about the inner, experiential life of the believer. The present-day silence on this subject is almost deafening.”

He continues, “The pace and preoccupations of urbanised, mechanised, collectivised, secularised modern life are such that any sort of inner life (apart from the angst of society’s misfits and the casualties of the rat race) is very hard to maintain…To make prayer your priority, as countless Christians of former days did outside as well as inside the monastery, is stupendously difficult in a world that runs you off your feet and won’t let you slow down. If you attempt it today you will certainly seem eccentric to your peers…for today involvement in a stream of programmed activities is decidedly in, and the older ideal of a quiet, contemplative life is decidedly out…The concept of Christian life as sanctified rush and bustle still dominates.”

Busyness, programs, and distractions have risen exponentially since Packer penned these words. That only makes his appeal more urgent.

Spiritually Audit Your Ministry Practice

We need much more than a slight readjustment or tweak. Much ministry practice needs a radical realignment and thoroughgoing change. For, with Packer again, “most of us without realising it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily to the world around us.”

We have lost our bearings and must rediscover a biblical balance for pastoral ministry.

Of course, it could be argued that the more contemplative, studious, prayerful, meditative life can become a cop out for the lazy pastor. True. But I’m arguing for an apostolic model of hard work, not laziness. We have lost our bearings and must rediscover a biblical balance for pastoral ministry.

William Longstaff’s classic hymn is apt in bringing this post to a close:

Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret, with Jesus alone.
Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul,
Each thought and each motive beneath His control.