How does a pastor most healthily balance ministerial service with family time? This tension is felt by all who serve the church and resides just under the surface in many congregations. Sadly, many men leave the ministry due to erring one way or the other in what is often a delicate balance.
A few years ago, while interviewing a potential staff member, I was struck anew by this tension. The interview was going smoothly until a committee member inquired about the role the candidate’s wife would play in his ministry. The young man became defensive, insisting the church was hiring him, not his wife. That brief exchange nearly torpedoed his candidacy, and it left me puzzled.
In the previous months, I had gotten to know the couple personally. He was a great guy, and his wife struck me as one who fully supported her husband. In fact, in many ways, I viewed them as a model couple, well-balancing ministry and family. That is why I was surprised by the young man’s response.
After further conversation, I discovered the couple was not reticent to give themselves to the church. Both husband and wife were eager to serve. Rather, he had been coached up by others in ministry to protect his wife—an appropriate concern that was inappropriately expressed. That scenario was indicative of a long-standing concern for the pastor and the church alike—how do we rightly balance ministry and family expectations?
A Swinging Pendulum
In the mid-twentieth century—during the heyday of programmatic and event-driven ministry—churches prioritized pastoral presence. In many churches, the pastor was expected to be virtually omnipresent. The dutiful parson was always roaming hospitals, making house calls to church prospects, and presiding over every church function. In addition to limiting his time for sermon preparation, it often compromised his ability to lead his family.
In its most excessive forms, congregations expected their pastor to lead ever-growing ministries, even at the expense of their family. In fact, one of the 20th century’s most famous pastors once remarked, “A man has to choose. He can have either a great family or a great ministry. He cannot have both.”
Other, more budget mindful churches, may expect a “buy one get one free” scenario. If you hire a man to pastor, surely his wife will play the piano, coordinate the nursery, or direct the children’s ministry for free, right?
In other words, the pendulum needed to swing the other way, and, thankfully, in most contexts it has. Yet, at times I fear the pendulum has swung too far the other direction. We must protect our families, but we need not sequester them. Balance is hard to find, but perhaps these five principles will help.
Ministry is Life on Life
We must remember that ministry in the New Testament is life on life. For the Apostle Paul, the church was not a distant group before which he occasionally appeared. They were his spiritual family, with whom he lived and ministered.
Often times the most fruitful ministry is organic. It happens when church members are in your home, and you are in theirs. Maximum fruitfulness in ministry requires life on life—and often family on family—engagement. There simply is no shortcut.
If the church is so burdensome that you feel the need to erect barriers between God’s family and yours, it likely points to deeper issues of concern either in your family or theirs.
You are Inseparable from Your Family
The pastor is not an autonomous agent, hired by the church without consideration of his family status. If that is the case, the church merely wants a clergyman to deliver chaplain-like goods and services. The New Testament picture of the pastor is much more inclusive and robust.
Though the church does not hire our wife and children, it is entirely appropriate for them to expect us to lead biblical families. This does not mean we exhibit perfection, but that we handle our imperfections in biblical ways.
The simple fact is if our household is not in order then our entire ministry is in question. Our household cannot be fully in order unless they are actively engaged in the local church.
You Can Minister With Your Family
Many of my fondest family memories have been in the context of ministry, and many of my fondest ministry memories have occurred with my family present. I have made a thousand hospital visits, knocked on hundreds of doors, and shared the gospel countless times all with a child or two by my side.
Over the years my kids have heard me preach hundreds of sermons, have sat through scores of seminary chapel services, and participated in countless church outreach projects. We’ve always sought to make such outings enjoyable, so that they made the body of Christ more attractive to our kids, not less.
If we really believe in the glory of the church and of the splendor of God’s call to ministry, then it is not something from which we shield our families. We should expose them to it. I have learned that often times choosing between family and ministry is a false choice. Why not just bring them along?
Know Your Wife and Kids
The wise man is always observing, always learning his wife and children. Different life stages, particular ministry contexts, and the relative bandwidth of the minister’s wife will all impact their participation. If your season of life is particularly challenging, just be upfront and state plainly your needs to the church. Most likely they will understand.
Over the years my wife has been a wonder woman, resolutely supportive of my ministry. Yet there have been seasons—like when our five kids were ages five and under—that required unique energy and attention at home. That required me, and my places of service, to understand.
You Have More Time than You Think
Over the years I’ve learned that we have more time than we think. Adrian Rogers counseled pastors that the larger God grows your ministry, the less “me time” we will enjoy. Often times, the key to giving our ministry and our family more time is giving ourselves less. If you question this assertion, ponder how much time you have given social media, leisure, recreation, sports, entertainment, idle chatter, and various other distractions this past week. Make sure your ministry and your family win, even if you have to lose.
Brother pastors, if a church expects us to win at ministry while losing at home, we are right to push back. Let us not neglect our families, but let us not hide behind them either. We can have—indeed we must have—strong families and strong ministries. And let us be willing to die to ourselves, forgoing some of our personal pleasures and privileges, so that we can have just that.
*A version of this article previously appeared on 02/02/2016