Learning to Live with the Paperwork of My Vocation

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I am learning to change how I talk about church paperwork. In church ministry paperwork is unavoidable. During my first year in a small parish I often said that I hated paperwork. At clergy gatherings I found I was not alone, and it became common for me to borrow the same protest I heard other pastors use: “God didn’t call me to do paperwork, but to ministry!” Amen.

But I now consider this language and its underlying attitude to be flawed. Of course church leaders are often tempted to focus on peripheral matters instead of the most important things. And wise leaders set good boundaries, delegate tasks to others, and work from their strengths and indeed their calling. But most jobs require some kind of paperwork. I learned this early in ministry by spending time with my parishioners: teachers, farmers, doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs, transportation engineers, day-care workers; almost all of them had to do paperwork as part of their jobs. While many did not enjoy paperwork, I noticed that none of them used God and their calling to wiggle out of doing it. What if, by playing the “I’m not called” card, I was not exercising good leadership, but misusing God-language to cover up my incompetence, laziness and pride?

Today, I aim to use greater care in speaking of paperwork for two main reasons. First, most church paperwork exists because ministry involves people. Paperwork is a sign that God is shaping lives among people who want to be a part of our faith communities. I’m not suggesting pastoral leaders should give up important ministry tasks to do more paperwork. Rather, it is helpful to see a few minutes of paperwork as a spiritual practice done in gratitude for what has been entrusted to us as leaders.

Second, watching our speech about paperwork allows us to thank others–paid and unpaid–who do this work for our organizations. If we are lucky enough to have helpers assist us in paperwork, we should honor their hard work on behalf of others.

Leadership often entails certain tasks that are not really enjoyable. But our attitude and language about these tasks can actually invite people into seeing the importance of their own work, and when that happens we may discover parts of our calling that can only be revealed as we work together.

Rev. Justin Snider serves as the Associate Pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Danville, IL. He grew up in Tuscola, Illinois, and is married to the Reverend Miriam Snider. They have a son, Samuel, and a daughter, Katie. Justin received his education from Greenville College ('02) and Duke Divinity School ('06). He was appointed to Saint James UMC after serving five years as pastor of Emmanuel, Zion, and Armstrong United Methodist churches near Marshall, Illinois. During part of that appointment he served as a co-pastor with Miriam. Justin's interests include include running, reading, traveling, hiking, biking, watching sports, and running some more. Justin is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, thus he has a theology of hope amidst long-suffering. Justin's duties at Saint James include preaching, teaching, crafting ministries for young adults, and helping to reach new generations of people.

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