At a recent pastors conference hosted by Insight for Living, one pastor’s wife asked me an insightful question. I’ll share her question with you, as well as my thoughts on it, so that you might pass it along to your wife, if appropriate. This woman asked, “What is the greatest contribution a wife can make to a man in ministry?”
Wonderful question. Let me respond directly . . . to your wife.
I don’t want to intensify your guilt—not at all. But let me go ahead and say that it’s probably true that some of you are neglecting the home, and the ministry has become your mistress. Believe me; I understand how that can happen. I confess that there were periods in my own life when that occurred, which I have shared with you before.
Having been there, I’m telling you: it isn’t worth it.
My word to you is to learn the difference between being engaged in ministry and being controlled by it.
As committed as you are to your church, there are others. You are not indispensable there. God can lead you to another church . . . and some day He will. But you cannot get another family . . . and they cannot get another you.
Your family members are the people who love you and need you the most—I mean that in a healthy way. Your wife and children want to be with you. They want as much time as possible to enjoy you. If you’re an empty nester, even your grown children still need you. So do those grandkids. Mine do too. They don’t want to lose us just because we are engaged in ministry.
If your ministry enlarges and begins to include other orbits (as mine has)—perhaps a radio ministry, a broader speaking ministry, a music ministry, or a publishing ministry—keep in mind that all of those things have voracious appetites. Just as Sunday comes every week (even during holidays) and you have to stand and deliver whether you’re ready or not, so your other commitments can suck the life out of you. Every publisher wants the next book, every blog or podcast audience wants the next post. My wife, Cynthia, reminds me often, “Radio never takes a holiday.” Those trains keep on moving, and they are hard to stop.
Now, I’m not saying don’t ever write, or speak elsewhere, or expand your ministry. I’m saying to think first and evaluate if it’s really God who is leading you. Needs will always outrun your energy. Even Jesus didn’t heal everybody. He purposely limited His ministry (Mark 1:35–38). The Judgment Seat of Christ will be about quality not quantity (1 Corinthians 3:13). Think before you add to your plate.
Practice saying, “No.”
See also A Pastor’s Relationships–His Family, Part 2
I’ve been in ministry more than five decades. During that time I have discovered what might sound basic and obvious—but believe me, it took years to learn. In fact, I’m still growing into the reality of what it means. I have learned that relationships come just below one’s walk with God.
Even Jesus illustrated this principle by the relationships in His life, didn’t He?
- The Lord ministered to the multitudes.
- Within that crowd He had His followers.
- That group narrowed further to the Twelve, then to the three (Peter, James, and John).
- Finally, Jesus had John, the beloved disciple.
I have found that a minister of the gospel has at least four key areas of relationships.
4 Key Relationships for the Pastor
Picture these people as concentric circles around you—somewhat like those whom Jesus had around Him. Let’s start with those closest to you and work our way out.
- Your immediate circle is your family. Obviously, if you are married, I’m referring to your relationship with your wife. But prior to marriage, and now in tandem with it, you may have a continuing relationship with your parents. And then you and your wife have a relationship with your children, your grandchildren, your in-laws, and even further relationships within the family.
- The next circle out would be those who serve with you on a pastoral staff. You may serve in a church with a multiple-staff, or perhaps you are the only staff person. Maybe you employ someone on a part-time basis, or you may have volunteers. All of us have those like these who serve faithfully and consistently. Those relationships are unique.
- The third circle would be fellow leaders in the church. Perhaps they are elders and deacons, or you may have other titles in your denomination. These would be those leaders who serve alongside us.
- Finally, the fourth and largest circle represents those in our local congregation. And I’ve divided those into five categories: the attendees, the friends, the attractive, the troubled, and finally—the most difficult of all—the troublemakers.
A pastor’s relationships are essential.
I want to take my time in addressing these with you over the weeks ahead. We’re in no hurry. Relationships take time to develop . . . and talking about them does as well. These are the lives that touch us, shape us, minister to us, mean the world to us, or drive us nuts if they could.
Relationships come just below one’s walk with God. So easy to say . . . but so challenging to live.
My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston. As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school—and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn’t matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.
The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond. Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows—and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses. Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on “newsreels” that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:
“Uncle Sam Wants YOU.”
Draped high across the front of our classroom was a huge American flag with its 48 stars and 13 stripes. We began that Wednesday as we did every other day in school, standing erect beside our desks, repeating the Pledge of Allegiance and then bowing our heads as our teacher led us in prayer. Hanging just below the flag was a large picture of our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She always remembered to pray for him—and our “soldier boys” who were serving their country in dark, dreary, and dangerous places a half a world away from my fifth-grade class.
Eli was a great preacher, a seasoned priest. As the high priest, he was responsible, once each year, for entering the Most Holy Place and offering an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the nation. No one else had that privilege. He judged, he instructed the people in matters of worship, he gave counsel, and he devoted his entire life to serving in the tabernacle of God, ministering to the needs of His people. But he was also a passive, inactive father who indulged his sons (1 Samuel 3:1–18). Those boys of his were reprobates!
According to the law of Moses, priests were to burn the fat as an offering and take whatever didn’t burn from the altar. In this way, they were to receive only what the Lord provided. But Eli’s worthless sons defied God’s instructions and reserved the choicest cuts of meat for their dinner table.
Along with their audacious disrespect for the sacrifices of God, they were perverse men who took sexual advantage of the women who came to worship. And they did so without shame, within the sacred spaces of the house of God. And Eli knew it!
You would think that a genuine man of God like Eli would be outraged. Remember, he also served as Israel’s judge, meaning that his responsibility was to carry out justice on behalf of God. These rebellious sons of shameless lust should have been carried to the edge of town and stoned to death. Instead, they receive a mild scolding. How pathetic is that?
God has preserved these stories to leave us with enduring lessons. Fathers, listen up! Take heed! It has been my observation that Eli’s paralysis of leadership is not uncommon . . . even among those in ministry. As a father whose vocation is service to the Lord, I have intentionally sought to avoid the failure of Eli. I’ve often reminded myself: passivity is an enemy. I urge you to do the same.
Each one of us today must recognize that our family could very easily end up like Eli’s. Let’s face it: any family can come unraveled—an elder’s family, a pastor’s family, an evangelist’s family, a missionary’s family—even one whose father walks with God and faithfully pours his heart into a congregation. And that includes your family.
Please, my friend, do not be passive. It is an enemy.
Good leaders are enthusiastically affirming. Paul writes,
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–11)
Ever spent a Friday night on hard bleachers, in front of the father of the high school quarterback? He’s his own cheering section. Why? He’s a dad! The kid on the field is thinking, “Dad, come on, knock it off.” But his old man is standing up there, yelling at top volume, loving every minute of it. There’s no question who he’s pulling for.
Perhaps you’ve longed for more affirmation from your father. Let’s face it; encouragement goes a long way in preparing a child for life. No one should be getting more encouragement from us than our own children.
Pretty convicting stuff, isn’t it?
Good leadership balances the tender nurturing of a mother with the loving affirmation of a father. Encouragement is like an oasis in a hot, barren desert. It brings needed refreshment to weary individuals whose souls are parched from time spent in the desert of self-doubt. There’s the desert of failure when we’ve tried so hard to succeed. There’s also the desert of no progress when we so want something to happen but it doesn’t. And there’s the desert of family rejection, abuse, and a thousand other arid, monotonous landscapes of life.
In those desert experiences, we all long for an oasis where we’re able to get a cool drink of water. Though it may not have come from your father, determine it will come from you. Give the affirming words of a father, who, in speaking, dips his ladle deep in ice water, and as he pours them out, they cool the spirit and refresh the soul.
Affirming leaders create loyal followers . . . in the church and in the home.
The temptation of any child of vocational Christian ministers is to see the work of the ministry as just another thing, just another religious occupation. Breaking through the wall of “public religion” must be the intense responsibility of the parent-minister if his or her children are to understand that this isn’t big business, a slick profession, or an entertainment arena where Mommy or Daddy puts on a performance.
The key word is authenticity. Not perfection, for no one gets it right all the time. But being real. Admit your faults, own them completely, ask for forgiveness, be quick to give it, allow children plenty of room to fail, and let them see you live your life behind the scenes with love, grace, and humor. All of that takes time and effort, both of which will cost you productivity on the job. Consider it a priceless sacrifice . . . a permanent investment.
Disintegrating families have parents who refuse to face the severity of their children’s actions. Eli knew how horrible his sons had become, yet did nothing! I’ve seen parents in such denial that they cannot bring themselves to admit that their child has a serious problem with drugs or pornography or sexual promiscuity or stealing—behavior that most others would consider a red flag. Yet they act as though the crisis will resolve itself if given a little patience. Wrong.
If you have children who are young, you have those around you who are impressionable. Now’s the time to make your most important investment in them. If you wait until they’re as tall as you, you will have already allowed them to sow seeds of self-destruction.
If your children are nearly adults, take responsibility for your part in their poor choices, then do whatever is necessary to save them. Because you’ve waited so long, there are few options that don’t have grave consequences. So consider the long term, and do what you must.
It is never too late to start doing what is right.
Did you feel the tightening squeeze this time of year brings?
On top of an already demanding schedule of preaching, teaching, counseling, and calling, you had to add Christmas parties and programs, a creative Christmas series that you’ve never preached before—and still another eloquent sermon for the Christmas Eve service.
Such a schedule has a tendency to turn us into Scrooge-like characters, doesn’t it? (We secretly think: Humbug!) Work, work, work . . . nothing and no one will get in our way.
May I assume the role of one of old Scrooge’s ghosts for you? Let me escort you to your home. Peer into the window. Look closely. Is your chair empty at the dinner table?
Okay, that was a cheap shot.
We in ministry don’t like to talk about it, but too many of us sanctify workaholism. And the holidays can be the busiest time! We can allow ourselves to be so involved in “the Lord’s work” that our family is neglected. And I do mean “we.”
This may sound like heresy, but we have to learn to adopt the attitude: “I’m more committed to my home than I am to my ministry.” Try saying that out loud. I doubt any pastor’s final words will be—and I know mine won’t be—“I should have put more time into studying supralapsarianism for that sermon on election.” No way! But I will regret not spending more time loving and laughing with my wife, children, and grandchildren.
Are you feeling adequately guilty yet? Me too. So let me suggest some positive things for us to consider. Here are six rewards that represent huge dividends for yourself, your family, and even your ministry if you make your home your priority. You will enjoy:
- the sustained cultivation of a great character
- the continued relief a clear conscience brings
- the increasing personal delight of knowing God intimately
- the rare privilege of becoming a mentor
- the priceless treasure of leaving an unforgettable legacy
- the crowning reward of finishing strong
It took three ghosts and a sleepless night to convince old Ebenezer Scrooge that work without regard for others amounts to foolishness—and a wasted life.
I have a pastor-friend whose wife often tells him, “I don’t want your presents as much as your presence.” Let’s give ourselves to our families today, okay?
I don’t think the Lord gives mates to us pastors to frustrate us.
God gives a pastor a wife for life, knowing full well that it will take time to cultivate that relationship. In fact, when we give our time to our spouse, we are demonstrating devotion to Christ. I don’t think we’re missing out on anything God has for us to do at the church.
A passage we’ve read many times—maybe even preached—also applies to those of us who are engaged in ministry:
One who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. (1 Corinthians 7:33–34)
Unfortunately, we live in a day in which people think if our activity is not at the church, it lacks devotion to Jesus. As pastors, we can believe that lie if we don’t continually guard against it.
One of my cherished mentors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, once made a tremendous statement: “Your marriage will either make or mar your ministry.”
It has taken years for me to get my arms around that significant statement . . . and I’m still learning the truth of its implications.
Does spending time with your wife take away from your time with God and your work for God?
In a word: Yes.
And it should.