By Ed Thompson
We had about 10 inches of snow on the ground here last Friday, so I ended up working from home. It was no big deal. I had my work computer and my calendar with me, as well as internet access, so I was good to go. I had worked from home for several months during the ongoing pandemic, and when we sell the presbytery office building, I’ll be doing that again.
I recognize that there are advantages as well as disadvantages to working from home. I miss the opportunity for casual conversation with our other staff members. While I could call, text, or email them if it’s a pressing issue, most of the time I prefer to just walk over to their office and ask them a question or just ask for their opinion on an issue I’m dealing with. That’s a lot more fun, and I will often learn more and find out things that I never even knew that I needed to know. I also like the pictures I have on the wall of my office. Most of them will probably end up in storage when I’m working at home full time. That will also be true when I retire, so taking that step may well serve as preparation for that fateful day. At this point, I also don’t have a working printer at home, so if I need to print something out, I have to wait until I can get to the office.
Working from home, though, saves time. I don’t live a long way from work, but it’s a much shorter walk from the kitchen, the dining room, or the living room to the desk that’s set up in the bedroom. Maybe I only save a half hour each day, but over time that adds up.
And the reality is that I’m basically as well connected at home as I am at the office. As long as I remember to turn on my cell phone, people can call or email me. When my computer’s turned on and the internet is working, I can respond to and send email. I can write sermons and newsletter articles, and take part in Zoom meetings. While part of me prefers in-person meetings, Zoom meetings save time and money. I have nothing against traveling to Huntington, Bluefield, Lewisburg, Elkins, Morgantown, Parkersburg, or points in between; however, if the weather’s bad, if it’s late at night, or if it’s an early morning meeting, it’s a lot easier to fire up the computer than it is to get in the car and drive somewhere. Maybe there’s no opportunity for pre-meeting conversations, to talk over lunch, or to have parking lot conversations after the meeting’s over, but the work gets done, and frequently it gets done faster when meetings happen online.
Sometimes, churches have a hard time thinking about their pastor working from home. They can only imagine them working at the office. Maybe they worry if their pastor isn’t in the office, they’ll be goofing off. Unless you’re monitoring their computer screen constantly, though, it may look like they’re working on a sermon or preparing for a bible study, but they could just as easily be scrolling on Facebook, shopping on Amazon, or catching up with childhood friends or classmates from high school, college, and/or seminary. Sitting at a desk in a church office doesn’t prevent you from goofing off, nor does it automatically make you more efficient. It may seem to make you more accessible, but I think there are ways to accomplish that just as well – or maybe even better – when you’re working from home.
In many ways, it comes down to trust. Do you trust your pastor? If you don’t, it probably doesn’t matter if they’re in the office or not. If you do, you can find ways to address most of the concerns most people have.
Accountability and accessibility are key.
Accountability for the pastor means providing regular reports to the session about what you’re working on, how many people you’ve been visiting (not names because you need to protect privacy and maintain confidentiality, but rather types of visits – i.e. hospital visits, home visits, premarital counseling, marital counseling, and perhaps telephone conversations), how many committee meetings you’ve attended, and what priorities you’ve set.
Accountability for the session means providing clear, consistent, and realistic expectations for your pastor. If you aren’t clear about what you expect from them, how can they meet your expectations? If expectations aren’t consistent, if some members expect one thing and others members have different ideas, pastors will get caught in the middle. If expectations aren’t realistic, pastors will be blamed for not working hard enough or long enough. To be clear, consistent, and realistic will involve open discussion with the pastor, as well as with the congregation, in order to figure out what priorities you have and determine how many hours it will actually take to accomplish what you want done. Without this kind of open consultation, you may be expecting your pastor to work 70-80 hours a week. That’s not fair. This becomes even more critical if you have a part-time pastor. No pastor, not even one working 70-80 hours a week, will be able to do everything, so every church needs to set some priorities for their ministry.
It’s also important for a session to recognize that they have responsibilities as well. It’s not all up to the pastor. Session members can visit people in the hospital and the nursing home. They can lead bible studies and teach Sunday School classes. They can be involved in community organizations and represent the church to different groups.
To make this all work requires accessibility. That doesn’t just happen because you’re sitting in an office. Accessibility means having a cell phone, publicizing that number and your email address, answering calls during the day, and checking for voicemail, texts, and email regularly.
Working from home becomes even more important during the pandemic. Pastors may be concerned about spreading illness and putting church members at risk. If the pastor has some underlying health issues or has children or perhaps elderly parents to care for, they may want to restrict how many people they’re exposed to in order to be safe and to keep their family safe.
Working from home doesn’t have to be – and actually seldom is – a way to avoid work. There are ways to do that sitting in an office. So it doesn’t matter where you sit, where you answer the phone, or where you plug in your computer. It does matter that you’re engaged with, in contact with, and connecting with your church members and with the wider community. That’s what ministry comes down to, and that can be done working from home.