“Pastor, I’ve always wondered: how long does it take you to prepare a sermon? As a board member, people ask me, and I’d like to be able to explain why we pay you so much. Could you keep track of how you spend your time and put a summary in your monthly board report?”

Such a request, coming from a member of the session, vestry, deacons, or trustees, can raise the blood pressure even of experienced clergy. It is a natural request in a society that considers “the days of a man’s life” as a type of property to be exchanged for salaries and wages.

Most of us know that the smart response is a non-anxious one. Possible non-anxious answers range from accurate (“I find it varies from eight to twenty hours”) to honest (“I’m not sure; it depends how much looking out the window and how many false starts you count”) to whimsical (“Last week’s sermon about aging took me sixty years”).

But non-anxious is no easy thing to be, especially when lay leaders ask us about money, time, and preaching. As a denominational executive, I used to monitor church newsletters for signs of trouble, including clues that ministers had overreacted to such questions. Some clergy counterattacked, lecturing their congregants about how mysterious, intangible, and immeasurable our work is, and how wrong it is for lay leaders to oversee us as if our work were somehow comparable to that of common…well, to their work. Few congregations respond well to condescension or to scolding nowadays.

The other troublesome response I often saw was to over-comply by keeping the requested time log and publishing it not only to the board but to the congregation in the newsletter. Such a response buys into the time-clock way of thinking. It also telegraphs anxiety, making it more likely that a harmless—perhaps even innocent—question may lead to real difficulty.

An embarrassing truth about the work of clergy is that a lot of it looks like loafing. Who else gets paid to drink iced tea with a wise great-grandmother or toast the giddy joy of newlyweds? And little that we do looks more like goofing off than preaching. I don’t mean, of course, the feverish final preparatory rush or the climactic 20 minutes on the podium, but the hours of hunt and peck, preceded, in my experience, by as many hours of what might appear, to the naïve observer, to be procrastination.

And yet, that lazy-looking process—which seems to take the best preachers a full day or two to carry through—is one of the main things as clergy we’re paid for. Everybody seems to know this except clergy, who tend to undervalue this one aspect of our work.

Some years ago, a university divinity school appointed a faculty committee to review the school’s success in “homiletic pedagogy,” that is, teaching students how to preach. The committee, looking in the rear-view mirror, saw it was not the first to plow this ground. In fact, every eight or ten years since World War II the school had asked a committee to rethink how and whether to teach preaching. Most of the committees, after studying contemporary trends, declared that preaching was passé, or almost so, and so the school should focus its attention on the Next Big Thing—lay participation, worship arts, liturgical revival, radio, TV, small groups, the Internet.

Meanwhile, in the parishes, search committees kept on listing preaching at or near the top of what they wanted in a clergy leader. Governing boards kept putting preaching high among the qualities they praised in clergy or complained about. Despite the faculty committees’ confident pronouncements of a post-sermonic age and the school’s best efforts to prepare for it, preaching didn’t die. If anything, it grew in importance as parishioners acted more like fickle restaurant customers. Preaching, it appears, is a big part of what the people in the pews pay for.

In theory, of course, this should be true only in traditions where the pulpit stands at the center-front, as in Reformed churches. In practice, Calvinism flows wide and strong through North America, affecting Lutherans, Jews, Episcopalians, Buddhists, even—partly through the influence of charismatic movements—Orthodox and Catholic Christians. In Pentecostal churches, perhaps the most distinctive and successful kind of Christianity yet to spring from New World soil, preaching lights the fuse for the explosions of the Spirit that quieter denominations envy.

In lean economic times, boards often fail to recognize that their desire for “good preaching” means they need to pay their clergy leader, not to put in certain hours, but to play a certain role in the community of faith. The best response to questions about how long it takes to write a sermon may be the honest one: it takes a lot of time, including time that looks like work and time that looks like goofing off.