Okay, I’m gonna ruffle some feathers with this one. All I can ask is that you read my article in full before you weigh in, or more particularly before you pick up stones to stone me. I’m going to make a harsh point, then I will give a “Rest of the Story” that may soften the blow.
Here’s my thesis:
If family is always going to come first, then you should pick another line of work. If you insist on always putting FAMILY FIRST you cannot be an effective servant of God! Pastoral ministry is NOT for you.
Hear me out.
The Bible Says…
Permit me to start with the obvious – a biblical foundation. It is not just a requirement of ministry, but of discipleship itself, that Jesus take a place of priority over anything in your life. Jesus said these words.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Obviously, Jesus was not talking about visceral, emotional hate here. He is talking about priority. When God says “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” it doesn’t mean that God despised Esau it meant he chose the younger over the elder. Jesus was demanding that he be the first choice in our lives always. Pleasing and obeying him must be my highest priority, more than pleasing my wife or children or anyone else. Jesus comes first.
And Jesus makes it clear that without such a commitment one cannot be his disciple. My point is that without such a commitment, one certainly cannot be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was a Saturday night in June of 2005 and I sat on the couch with my daughter who had just completed the 6th grade in the only school she had ever attended. She was born in Cedar Rapids, living in the only home she could remember (she was less than 2 when we moved in), had been in the same church since the day she was born, and had a circle of friend both at church and at school with whom she was very comfortable.
But the next morning a group of people were going to be in church from Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa. I was about to shatter her world to pieces. God was in the process of calling us to a new assignment on the other side of the state and her secure little world was about to explode into a million pieces. It is safe to say that she was not happy with me. Frankly, while she did well in Sioux City over the 6 years she attended school there, she never fell in love with it and has promised us that it will never be her home once she graduates college the first weekend of May.
I will never forget sitting with her on that couch. She was angry. She was hurt. She was devastated. How could I do this to her? She had known one house, one bedroom, one church, one school, one yard, one circle of friends (well, two – one at school and one at church), one life for twelve years and now I was going blow it all apart. How could I do that to her?
The answer was simple. She was not the most important thing in my life. Serving Jesus and following him took a higher place of priority in my life than making my daughter happy.
- I would give my heart to my daughter to help her – I mean that literally. I’d have it transplanted from my chest to hers!
- I would bankrupt myself (not that far from reality).
- I would cut off an arm.
- I would travel around the world.
- I would do anything I could.
But when God says go to Sioux City, I will not stay in Cedar Rapids to make her happy. She does not come first. Her happiness is not my first priority.
Every year I get a little bit angry right after Christmas when my extended family posts pictures of their big gathering. It used to be at a theme park in Valdosta, GA, but now it is at a resort in Palm Coast, FL. Mom and Dad, my brother, my sister, sometimes my other sister, the cousins and now the increasing passel of grandkids all get together and spend about 3 days on the beach down there. We’ve gone about twice in all the years they’ve done it. It kills me to see the pics on Facebook and not be there.
Why am I still in frosty Sioux City when they are all on the beach? One of our biggest services is the Christmas Eve service at Southern Hills. They start the reunion on the 26th. You try doing a Christmas Eve service in Sioux City and then getting to Palm Coast by midday on the 26th! Fly? Well, maybe you rich Deep South Southern Baptist pastors can afford to fly that time of year, but not this Iowa pastor! (Boohoo, right?)
I’m not trying to evoke sympathy. I’m stating a fact. My family gets together at a time when I just can’t go. Why? Because my ministry demands that I be on the job. I simply can’t put “family first” every year. A couple of years ago, I did. I let my associates handle the Christmas Eve service and we went to Florida. It was great. But I can only do that once every few years. My mom and dad are getting older and I get to see them very rarely. Why? Because God has called me to a ministry 1500 miles away.
I have to put the needs of ministry above my desire to be at my family reunion. Ministry is a sacred priority and you cannot always put family first. You must not, not if you want to be a faithful servant of God.
- When a man had emergency surgery on Christmas Day, I had to be at the hospital with him instead of with my family.
- When an 18 year old boy died on Thanksgiving morning, I had to spend that day dealing with the tragedy and my family had to take a back seat.
- A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were out on “date night” when a text came that one of the men in our church had been taken to the hospital not breathing. Date night over.
There are times when we have family plans, a movie, a ball game, or something else that we want to do, and ministry interrupts. A crisis. A medical emergency. A death. A spiritual crisis. Sometimes, ministry trumps family and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s frustrating. I hate it. My family didn’t like it. But to be a faithful minister of Christ requires me to do these things.
An Absurd Attempt
Have you ever seen someone try to divide life up into priorities? “Put Jesus first, then others, then yourself.” Try to live life that way and you will burn out and die young. “Always put your family first.” Sounds great, but you can never be an effective minister of the gospel and follow that. “I’m sorry, Mrs. McGillicutty. I know your husband is on life support. But my son’s first grade class is going to the science museum and I promised to drive. I’ll try to stop by after the field trip to see him, if he makes it!” Let me know how that goes.
Life cannot be divided up into such rubrics. It’s too complicated for that kind of simplicity. In my ministry, there have been weeks when I put in over 100 hours. Not many, but a few. Obviously, that week I pretty much ignored by wife and children. Hello. Goodbye. I ignored my own needs. If I went on like that week after week, I’d shipwreck. But for one week it was okay.
There were other weeks I spent the whole time with my family and did almost no work – it’s called vacation (and I need one NOW!) No one at my church complained that I wasn’t in the office that week. NO ONE. That week, my priorities were very different than the week that I worked over 100 hours.
Do you see my point? I can say that Jesus should come first all the time. He must be Lord of all. But should ministry be second, or family, or myself? It isn’t that simple. Sometimes one thing takes priority, sometimes another. Sometimes ministry is first. Sometimes family. Sometimes self. There’s no simple formula. We’ve got to decide day by day, hour by hour what needs to be done to glorify God.
Let’s boil it all down, folks. It’s all about balance. Biblical, Spirit-led, balance.
1) You don’t honor God by slow suicide.
There’s not a one of us here that believes suicide honors God. But there are a lot of preachers who are committing “suicide by inches” every week. We overeat, under-exercise, under-sleep, and over-stress every day. Most preachers are a heart attack just begging to happen. That any of us live to be 60 is the grace of God!
No, a pastor does not have to be a health-food fanatic or a body-builder. In fact, those things can become ministry-distracting idols. But your body is the tool through which all your ministry takes place. If I don’t take decent care of myself, I’m not being faithful as a minister.
So, there are times when I have to put myself first (after God). Maybe I have to carve out some time for a little exercise. That’s a good marriage builder too if you include your wife on those walks. Or, it can be a men’s ministry time if you get a group of men to work together. But you need to get sufficient sleep, eat right, exercise, etc.
A virtuoso violinist doesn’t abuse his or her violin. Why do we think it is a godly thing to abuse the bodies that we have give to God to be used in his service? This isn’t precisely germane to the family issue, but it’s part of an overall picture.
2) Don’t let your wife be a “ministry widow” or your kids “ministry orphans.”
There will be times when you cannot avoid prioritizing ministry over family, as I mentioned above. But you can avoid letting that be the norm. That’s the key.
I was a soccer player back in the 70s before playing soccer was cool. My dad would rather watch paint dry than watch a soccer game. But he was there (whenever he could be) to watch my games.
My son played freshman basketball in high school. I can still remember when he came to me and told me he was quitting basketball to devote more time to…wait for it…SHOW CHOIR! I attended more show choir “extravaganzas” in the next 6 years as my two youngest were in “New Sound” and “Headliners” at East High than I care to count. Here’s the truth. I HATE SHOW CHOIR – with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning suns! But I was there.
I coached my kids in basketball, soccer and track to spend time with them and their friends. If my kids had a complaint it was likely that I was around too much, not too little! So, when I had to be away, they did not feel that they were “ministry orphans.” I am afraid that during those years my wife may have felt like a ministry widow at times – I think I sometimes did a better job as a father than a husband. But the principle stands true.
If you are a faithful husband and father, if you give priority, quality and quantity time to your wife and to your kids, if your ACTIONS and the way you spend your time consistently lets your family know that you love them and that they are a high priority in your life, they will not be so quick to mind when an emergency takes you away from them from time to time! The more they know they matter ALL the time the less they will care about those times when you have to be away.
This is the “rest of the story” from above. Just as you are unworthy to be a servant of God if you want to always put your family first, you are just as unworthy if you constantly shuffle them to the bottom of the deck. If you ignore your family’s needs, if you treat them as secondary, if you always prioritize ministry over family, you are unworthy to serve in the church and your family will pay a steep price for your folly.
3) You must differentiate between ministry emergencies and ministry leeches.
There are emergencies that you simply have to deal with, things you can’t avoid. But there are, in every church, people who want to take up all of your time with their problems. They need counseling at the most inopportune moments. They have no respect for your family time. They don’t understand that you have a life beyond their needs.
They are leeches. A leech simply sucks the life-blood out of another – that’s how he (she?) exists. There are leeches in every church. You have to minister to leeches. But you cannot let the leeches control your schedule.
He is one of the neediest guys I know. Saved out of a drug background, his mind races 200 mph and he cannot form coherent thoughts. He jumps from subject to subject. He is constantly troubled, constantly needy, constantly demanding help. The pastor of the AG church across the street was in a meeting and did not return his text immediately, so he freaked out (how could that pastor be SO uncaring and ungodly?) and he came to me for help! I counseled him, tried to counsel him and his wife (perhaps the worst Christian marriage in the history of the world) and was contacted constantly until I did not fulfill his expectations and then he moved on to someone else.
- You can try to help leeches, but you cannot allow them to control you – because if you let them they will.
- You must dictate when and where you will meet with and talk to them.
- You must dictate how much time you will spend with them.
- Unless they are bleeding, you do not let them interrupt family time!
Minister to leeches, but do not be dominated by leeches.
4) Remember who you are and who you aren’t!
He was as faithful as any pastor I’ve ever known. If the doors were open, he was there. If there was a meeting, he attended. Every committee. Every conference. He was there. And every one of his kids hit the skids spiritually. It was sad to watch.
Someone said that there are two things every person needs to learn.
- There is a God.
- You aren’t him!
Pastor, dear pastor. You are an undershepherd. You are there to be a tool of God’s Spirit. But you are not God. Don’t pretend you are. You can’t be everywhere. You can’t do everything.
Here is a lesson you need to learn: no matter how hard you try, you will always come up short. You will leave something undone! Make peace with your own limitations. Stop trying to pretend you are the fourth member of the Trinity (Quadrinity?) and just be who you are – a flawed but faithful servant of the Good Shepherd of the souls of your flock.
It is when we strive for a perfection we can never attain that we become frustrated. It is when we feign a perfection that can never attain that we distance ourselves from our members. Be yourself – flaws and all. Be faithful. Be diligent. But remember that you serve the Good Shepherd who is the perfect Overseer of Souls. You are NOT him!
5) Don’t trash talk the Body of Christ
The pastor’s family sometimes gets to see the ugly side of the Body of Christ. Your tendency might be to come home and blow off steam about the deacons or about that sharp-tongued lady who angered you or about that powerful man who is trying to usurp your authority. I speak fluent sarcasm and my tendency would be to sit around the dinner table and say a few things about those people who are making my life hard.
Bad move, Dave.
Oh, no doubt my kids found that entertaining, and having picked up my love for teasing and my sarcastic wit they would join in the fun. But what am I teaching them? I am emphasizing the negativity of the Body of Christ. If they eventually decide that it is nothing but hypocrites and jerks, would not my actions be at least partially to blame?
As much as it might be great sport and good fun to ridicule the heels and hind ends of the Body of Christ in front of my kids, it’s not a wise move in the long run. It will not help my children develop a godly love for the Body of Christ.
6) Help them process the garbage.
On the other hand, there is almost no way a kid grows up in the pastor’s home and doesn’t know some secrets that no one else knows. Mom and Dad sat on the couch and talked at night. They didn’t know we could hear what they were saying but the house was so small you could hear just about anything. My kids heard my end of cell phone conversations and, not being idiots, they could deduce some things that I’d rather they not know.
Being a pastor’s kid means learning garbage about people that other kids never know. A good pastor does the best he can to shield his kids from this. He tries to avoid exposing them to stuff, but at some point in their growing up years, they are going to find out about something you wish they didn’t know.
- They may overhear you discussing a secret in someone’s life – something they shouldn’t know but can’t unhear.
- Maybe they are walking with you when an angry member stops you in the hallway and gives you an earful about something petty.
- Obviously, if you’ve been terminated, they have to pack up and move with you.
Pastor’s kids get exposed to garbage. You have to help them process it. That can be tough. Explain principles (and practice them) of forgiveness and grace – that’s what Christianity is about, what the Cross is about. Focus on love and hope in Christ. Whatever bitterness you feel, keep it between you and God. Do all you can to help them see the good side, the beauty, the glory of the Body of Christ.
(Helping a hurting pastor’s wife is more complicated and will require a post in and of itself.)
7) Don’t let your family see a hypocrite in the pulpit.
The worst indictment I ever heard of a pastor was, “He was one man in the pulpit and another man at home.” No words could be more damning to a pastor or to a pastor’s family. That is what causes pastor’s kids to go astray – when they see someone in the pulpit on Sunday who is not the same man they see around the house the rest of the week.
None of us is perfect. Not even close. But if you put on a spiritual facade when you walk into the pulpit, if you are “fronting” to the church, and your family sees a different man, it is a serious thing. They need to see you attempting to live out, day by day, what you preach on Sunday. You will fail. Repent. But the most important thing you can do for your children is to be real. To be genuine.
Pulpit hypocrites are family poison!
8) Put Jesus first!
I just looked down and saw that this post has grown to over 3000 words. I’d better stop now. I can always add a part 2 later!
But here’s my point. NO, you cannot always put family first. But you can put Jesus first in your life. That is the most important gift you can give your family – a husband and father who loves Jesus more than anything in this world.