This Friday marks a unique date: 11-11-11. For me, the whole year has been remarkable for a lot of reasons, most of which relate to family. Our son graduated from college and our daughter from high school; we are now empty nesters; our children are each in a wonderful relationship with a godly young lady or man respectively; my wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary.
None of this makes me any sort of expert on marriage and family, but nothing gives me greater joy in this life than to see how God has been faithful to our home as we simply tried to live in light of His glorious good news.
Recently in my Foundations of Student Ministry Course I spoke to the students about raising a family in the context of ministry. While I focused specifically on the many pressures of a student minister, these principles apply to all in vocational ministry.
Ministry, remember, is about pressure-not avoiding it, or surviving, but thriving in the face of the pressures of ministry. It is about seeing the gory and story of God lived out in our lives as we fulfill our calling. Read I Timothy 3 where Paul gives helpful instructions regarding the pastor. In verses 4-5 he specifically addresses the home.
That leads me to the question i hear often from young ministers, student pastors, seminarians, etc: how do you thrive in ministry while not destroying your children? Here is what I told my class, and I would welcome your thoughts.
First, be a growing, passionate, genuine Christ follower. Do not roll your eyes and think, “Well, of course.” The destruction that comes to a minister’s home comes from neglecting this more than any other factor. Admit you are at your best a sinner in need of daily grace. Peach the gospel to yourself daily. Be marked by prayer and devotion to the Word. Be in accountability to others. You will not be perfect, but you must be consistent. You will fail your spouse. You will fail your children. Your children will fail you. Do not create added pressure that comes from an inconsistent life.
If you walk with Jesus simply because you are on staff at a church, your children will know. The most devastating impact on children of ministers is the inconsistency of their dad. If Jesus is not more vital to you than anything else, He will become unimportant to them.
2. Be husband and dad first, minister and leader second. I remember early in ministry hearing priorities like this: God first, then ministry, and if you take care of your ministry, God will take care of your family. That approach has failed in many a minister’s home.
You do not have to sacrifice your family on altar of ministry. Student pastor, you do not ha to put the children of others ahead of your own. In fact, you must not.
I think of a student pastor i will call Jack. Jack is a classic people pleaser, so he fit in well in the youth ministry culture of today. But his wife got seconds, and then so did his children. So she left. I recall John, the workaholic. John did not finish his football career or his education. So he felt he constantly had to prove his worth. He neglected his family in pursuit of approval. He is no longer in ministry.
Third, at the same time, do not make your family an idol. Don’t be like Jim, who grew up in tough home. He wanted to be a good husband and dad. But he was lazy. He obsessed over his family and ignored others he was called to serve. He used his family as excuse for not working. And he got fired.
We must help our children know that they are more important than any other people in our lives, but that they are still not as important as Jesus. The glory of God and the worship of King Jesus, and sacrifices that come with our submission to Him must be seen as valuable to our children. I was gone a lot in our children’s lives, yet they love ministry. My wife is the main reason.
Once when Hannah was young I was laying on her bed before leaving on a trip. She said “Daddy, I am gonna glue you to the bed.” I told her how much I loved her and how I would rather be home always, but how Jesus was going to let me help some others for a couple of days. And, I explained to her that if I did not consistently obey Jesus, one day that would really bring her harm. I wasn’t sure if she understood then. But she does now.
Fourth, know the pressure points of your family. Your family is not exactly like mine. You must know your family and their needs and their strengths and weaknesses. For me, travel has been a place that naturally causes pressure; Michelle and I have sought to make it a positive. For you, it may be long hours at church building night after night. Be aware of the places to be most on guard, for instance:
1) you and your spouse must be devoted to the message and the mission of God. A workaholic husband is no worse than a stubborn wife. I am so grateful that Michelle loves God deeply and believes in the ministry to which God has called us both.
2) you must be aware of the intersection of life stages and the pressure points of ministry. When Josh hit 6th grade he needed me more. I traveled far less that year. During Hannah’s senior year I took a break from writing books and traveling so much. There are seasons they need us more.
3) compensate for the more hectic seasons. Plan a week long vacation after the busiest season. Build in an extra day off. Be there for the field trip. In all my traveling I would never miss the birth of our children or their birthdays. Be there for special occasions. I missed almost none of our kids ball games (and I was usually the loudest dad in the stands!).
4) when a difficult time comes, drop other stuff. My wife can call me pretty much anytime. My kids also. I am available for them.
Fifth, cultivate your family relationships.
1)Every day do something in their world.
2)Seek to make the two best places on earth your home and your church.
3) Find what your kids do and do it with them. This is HUGE.
4) Note that sometimes a person, usually a coward, will try to hurt you through your children, or simply to hurt your children, and some will succeed. Help your children see that Jesus is as real in times of pain as He is in times of joy, and sometimes more so.
5) Do special things with them. Josh and I have been to a lot of ball games, and when Hannah turned 16 I took her to Times Square.
Sixth, lead your family spiritually. Family worship, gospel outreach, family conversations, rites of passage, and your own life before them contribute to this.
Finally, get your children involved in ministry they love and thrive in. Help them, especially by their high school years, to own a ministry. Josh began traveling with me to play drums as a 14 year old. He still does, and I love it. He has become a great drummer, but more than that, a great young man of God. He also loves cities and has been on mission trips to several great cities. Hannah has mentored middle schoolers, and in her senior year began singing with the praise team ( with her brother which is cool for their Dad and Mom), at our church. She has also been on mission trips to four continents.
God has been very good to me in ministry, often in spite of me. But nothing I will do matters as much as seeing our children walk with God. That does not just happen; we must be strategic as parents to see ministry become a wonderful place to raise children.