Unquestioned, Unqualified, Unlimited Pastoral Access
How our digital culture has put pastors on-call and why they shouldn’t be
It’s an old joke that pastors only work one day a week. (Of course, that doesn’t stop someone from making that joke about once a quarter as if it’s the first time I’ve heard it!) Any pastor, or anyone who knows a pastor, knows such a statement is false, and it is typically said in jest.
But while some offer lighthearted jabs at the pastor’s supposedly light schedule, others swing to the other end of the pendulum and offer more serious evaluations about the nature of pastoral ministry. In a conversation in which someone is sympathizing with the stresses of vocational ministry, I will often hear variations of this statement: “Well, you pastors have to be available 24/7.”
Is that true? Must pastors be available 24/7? Are pastors always on call?
Considered objectively, this assumption is just as false as the assumption that pastors only work one day a week. And yet the way we pastors respond to such assumptions—and more broadly the way we practice our ministry—may inadvertently embrace and reinforce this identity. We end up teaching others and training ourselves to think that to be pastor inherently means unquestioned, unqualified and unlimited accessibility. And this can have some unhealthy consequences.
Constant accessibility can easily lead to burnout, as pastors try to meet expectations. Like a rubber band that is always stretched and never relaxes, the pastor who fails to set necessary boundaries will eventually snap. It can also lead to bitterness, as the exhaustion of being stretched so thin leads the pastor to resent the very sheep he is called to lovingly tend. And it can lead to a boastfulness, as the pastor makes himself so indispensable in the lives of his people that he begins to function as if he were Christ himself, and not merely a steward and under-shepherd of the flock.
Like any problem, an accurate diagnosis must precede proper treatment. While there are many factors affecting this trend in pastoral ministry, I think a prominent one is the increasing cultural expectation of constant connectivity.
A Culture of Connectivity
The advent of things like text messages, email and smartphones has significantly changed the way we think about connectivity and availability in the last 25 years. We live in a culture where disconnection, even for a short period of time, is abnormal. When I tell someone that I don’t have my phone with me or that I’ve turned it off, they might look at me like I’ve said I’ve stopped breathing.
When everyone around us lives in a state of constant connectivity, it shapes the expectations that they have for us and that we have for ourselves. We have come to expect that since just about everyone has a device that they carry with them at all times, that they therefore can and should be available at any moment. Not only that, but the versatile ability of smartphones means that we are accessible via multiple avenues of communication all at once. It is possible for me to get a phone call, text messages, emails, GroupMe messages, Slack messages and Tweets all at the same time about entirely unrelated issues. This is a level of remote connectivity unparalleled in history—and it's overwhelming.
What does this have to do with pastoring? Cultural assumptions shape our expectations. In the minds of both church members and pastors, the expectations of what it means to “shepherd the flock” have been inadvertently altered. Because a pastor has a cell phone, members may begin to have the expectation that they can call, text or email, at any point, and expect an immediate response.
That’s what other employers have come to expect from their employees too. That’s what consumers have come to expect of their customer service representatives. And whether we realize it or not, that’s just what we’ve come to expect from one another, isn’t it?
Pastors are generally not helpful in pushing back against these assumptions and expectations with reasoned, biblical feedback. Instead, we too often give in, and in so doing unconsciously teach our people that these expectations are healthy and appropriate.
For example, once, after a particularly lengthy phone call, I had a member tell me that I was the most accessible of all our pastors. At the time I wore that as a badge of honor—of all our pastors, I was the one who really was there for the people. But with more experience I have come to see that this was not because I was demonstrating love for the flock, but rather because I was so afraid of disappointing our members that I neglected to construct proper boundaries for their good and my good.
If I’m not careful, I can start to think that what it means to “shepherd the flock” (1 Pet 5:2) looks a lot like being constantly connected and available, responding to every call, text, email or message immediately. That is what people expect, and so (I reason to myself) that is what it must mean to love them.
I’ve often thought that I’ve needed to be constantly available to simply maintain the spiritual well-being of my people. It is up to me, I think in my pride, to make sure they are walking with God, growing in grace, restrained from sin, and loving one another. This effectively makes me the Holy Spirit and sets me up for an entirely unrealistic and unsustainable ministry.
For example, imagine someone is struggling with temptation and they call or text me, but I fail to answer. If they fall, I know I will feel responsible in some way, as if I had an active role in leading them to sin. I sink into despair, imagining my brother or sister coming to me with words echoing the grief of Martha and Mary: “Pastor, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened” (John 11:21, 32). It’s become normal for me to assume that constant accessibility is part of what it means to love my people well. If I fail in this, I question whether I’m fit for pastoral ministry at all. This is a sure recipe for ministerial collapse.
And I know I’m not the only pastor who struggles with such expectations.
The Good News of Inaccessibility
But there is good news for weary pastors like me. You don’t have to be accessible 24/7. You don’t have to be because Jesus is.
Jesus is the most important pastor in your church members’ lives. It is He, not you, who is “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), “the Great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20) and “the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25).
You can take time off, because He doesn’t. You can stop thinking that the church depends upon your constant prayers, because it is He, not you, who always lives to intercede for his people (Heb 7:25). You can stop thinking that your people’s spiritual health, maturity and stability depend upon your immediate pastoral counsel, because it is He, not you, who dwells within his people by His Spirit, whom He has given to be our Comforter (John 14:16–17). You can take a nap, because it is He, not you, who never sleeps nor slumbers (Ps 121:3–4).
You can turn off your phone, close your email and establish boundaries for your accessibility, because it is through Him, not you, that your people have unquestioned, unqualified, unlimited access to the Father (Eph 2:18). Regardless of your title, Jesus is the senior pastor of your church.
To some, this might seem like a convenient way to avoid the hard and messy work of ministry. It is true this perspective could be misunderstood and misused by slothful shepherds. This does not mean that we shouldn’t spend and be spent for the sake of our peoples’ souls (2 Cor 12:15), labor and strive to present everyone mature in Christ (Col 1:28-29) and pray fervently for them (Col 4:12). But it does mean that we must be careful not to confuse our calling and scope of ability and responsibility with that of Christ.
Far from being unloving or unpastoral, resting in Jesus’ senior pastorship and setting appropriate boundaries for your own accessibility is how you can love and care for your church in a sustainable way.
You can create boundaries around your accessibility. Such times of disconnection and inaccessibility will help you to thrive in ministry because it will protect you from burnout, bitterness and boastfulness. It will likewise allow you to be refreshed and replenished to minister to others when you are available and it will train your people to remember that their most important pastor is the Lord Jesus Himself.
No matter how much we bend to others’ expectations, we will always be weak, frail and end up disappointing someone. Only Jesus can be the perfect pastor who can always be accessible and provide the prayers, comfort and counsel that we truly need.
Jesus is always there for you and for your people. So, turn off your phone and go take a nap for the glory of God and the good of your flock.