“You are a husband and father first, before you are a pastor.” With this declaration, based on 1 Timothy 3:4-5, my wise friend and mentor began my ordination charge. He then shared how his failure to build this priority into his own ministry had cost his family dearly. Years of unintended neglect had sown seeds of bitterness and dysfunction in his home.
More than a decade after hearing his heartfelt challenge, the wisdom he shared that day continues to anchor my conviction that effective, God-honoring ministry requires managing the tension between work and home.
Doing so requires a mental shift from thinking about “balance” as a goal we reach, to recognizing it as a gauge we constantly monitor. In other words, we need to come to grips with the reality that we will never achieve a completely balanced life. Attempting to obtain the mirage of perfection only adds frustration and shame to our already-too-full lives.
A more realistic approach measures the work/family balance across a continuum, consisting of a range that moves from “healthy” to “unhealthy.” By utilizing a few diagnostic questions, marriage partners can learn to identify whether or not their current lifestyle falls into the range they deem to be “healthy.”
Some example diagnostic questions are:
- How are we doing? (Yes, this is ridiculously simple and vague, but it usually is enough to get us talking.)
- How would you feel if I committed to/ added _______ to our schedule?
- How satisfied are you with our current schedule/ pace/ lifestyle?
My wife and I have also learned that different seasons generate different needs. Some seasons require a short, intense burst of energy and attention, while other seasons are less demanding.
This is just as true of the workplace as it is the home. A few times throughout the year, I recognize an intense period of ministry is approaching, and I have learned to talk to Rebekah about the duration and requirements of the upcoming season. We are then able to make adjustments in our expectations and schedules together.
For example, the numerous parties and activities of our church during the Christmas season required extra demands of our family. By discussing the demands of the season in advance, we found a way to meet the needs of the moment.
We follow a similar pattern to meet the needs of our family. When facing demanding family seasons, I try to scale back my ministry commitments. After each of our sons was born, I took a short paternity leave, and I also limited my ministry activities to the bare minimum for a month or so.
While these particular adjustments may not be possible for everyone, most of us have some degree of latitude within our schedules to harness for our family’s benefit. Such adjustments usually require intentional planning and communication, but provide a huge return on investment. Different seasons generate different needs, and knowing what season you are in is crucial for setting your expectations appropriately.
One final way that I manage the tension between ministry and family life is by remembering what I call the “Yes versus No” principle. The basic idea is this: saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else. For example, if I say “yes” to staying up late, I am saying “no” to being well-rested the next day. If you want to say “yes” to financial security, then you need to say “no” to frivolous spending. While this concept is embarrassingly simple, leveraging this idea could be a game-changer for many ministry families.
Many men and women find themselves in constant chaos because of their reluctance to say no to the requests and demands of others. While no one enjoys disappointing people, the key is to recognize that a strategic “no” enables you to say a significant “yes.”
When you have clearly defined and prioritized values, it provides a framework for evaluating the opportunities that come along. So, whenever an exciting prospect or heartfelt request is presented to me, I try to identify what that “yes” will require. Anything that hinders me from saying “yes” to my established priorities is usually told “no.”
Like all convictions, the commitment to put the needs of your family before ministry makes for a beautiful ideal, but a gritty reality. You can expect to be misunderstood or even rejected at times because of your pursuit of a healthy life. Some supervisors and some organizations will not appreciate or support your efforts to balance the demands of work and family.
But if faithful ministry begins at home, then we must not abandon our principles simply to appease our detractors. We must continually manage the tension of our calling, knowing that we will each give an account of our efforts to the One who created both the family and the Church.