Over the last several weeks I have been pulled aside by several young pastors asking me for advice. They want to know how to balance the demands of ministry and the demands of their family. These are younger guys in their 20s and 30s and they are stressed out. They’re feeling the pull to produce and be effective in their churches, but they are also trying to avoid an explosion in their family that can come with being distracted by too much work. Some of them are also still in school.
These are good men who want to know how to succeed in family and ministry. The question they’re asking me about balance is one I’ve asked many ministers as well. In fact, for years I’ve made a habit of asking older men with long and flourishing ministries how they have accomplished the balance. Most of them express that they don’t have easy answers, and that they have experienced a lot of frustrations and disappointments as they’ve tried to sort it out in their homes and churches.
This response testifies to the fact that the Bible doesn’t have any quick or canned answers to this question. There is no place in the Bible with a formula for success on this matter: x hours in ministry + y hours at home = success.
That doesn’t mean the Bible is void of things to say or that we can’t help young guys (like myself!) who are trying to figure this out. There are five categories that I speak about when answering this question that flow out of my own life. I don’t think these five principles are the final word on this matter, but they have helped me to think through this critical issue in the context of my own life and ministry.
1. Biblical Priorities
It is true that the Bible does not have a formula for how to parse out our schedule between family and ministry. The Bible does, however, establish an order of importance in these two. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 says that the minister must, “Manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
The simple truth of this passage is that men are not allowed to care for God’s church until they have learned to care for their own home. There can be no success in caring for God’s church until there has been success in caring for your home. This means that men who are committed to having successful ministries must be committed to having well-ordered homes. You cannot have the former without the latter.
I think this means a couple of very practical things. First, it means that your children are obedient and submissive. This is the very thing the text says. Men, if your children are disobedient and unruly then you need to spend more time at home with them.
Second, it means that your wife feels close to you. If your wife senses that your relationship is distant, then it is. Period. You need to get home and spend time with your wife.
Incidentally, you can be honest with your church about this. If you’re humble, open, and interested to point your church in the direction of the Scriptures on this matter, then a godly congregation will be sensitive. Even if your congregation is not understanding, your priorities do not change. It’s better to have an angry congregation or no congregation than a broken home.
2. Ministry Capacity
After you have put your family first, then you need to reckon with your ministry capacity. God has given all of us different callings and distinct giftings that are appropriate to those callings.
When I talk about ministry capacity I use the analogy of plate-sizes. This issue has to do with how much ministry we can handle, and not all of us have the same plate size. Some people have the ministry capacity of a large serving platter. I have the capacity of a saucer. That’s okay.
In addition to my leadership at ACBC I have the honor of being a professor of biblical counseling at Southern Seminary and Boyce College. I work with a lot of intelligent and talented people. Many of my professor-friends kiss their wives good night and then descend into their studies where they read and write until the wee hours of the morning. I wish I could do that. If I could I would be so much more productive. But I can’t. My body starts to shut down by 9:00 and by 10:00 I’m nearly unconscious. If I regularly stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 I would probably kill every single person I know.
I am much more productive in the morning when I am rested and the day is fresh. This is also the time when there are classes to teach and meetings to have, so I end up not spending a lot of this time in isolated productivity. I might wish that it were different, but it’s not. God didn’t make me like my very gifted friends, and I’m ok with that. I don’t have to be able to read as much, write as well, and have as many gifts as other people. I just have to be faithful with what God has given me.
We don’t usually get to decide our plate-size, but we are called to be faithful with what we put on it. This means we need to be honest about who we are, and how God has gifted us and not covet other people’s giftedness.
3. Unique Situations
Beyond our ministry capacities each one of us face varying circumstances that we have to deal with.
For example, I get a lot of requests to travel and speak at various events. I have never done the math, but I probably have to decline 65%-75% of the invitations I get. I don’t like doing this, but I have a young family that needs me at home.
Other men are in a situation where they can travel more freely than I can. There’s no sense wishing it were different than it is because it isn’t. In fact, I don’t think of this as a weakness, but a strength.
I choose to live by the principle of happy wife, happy life. I like that my wife wants me home. It means she loves me. I want to nurture that. I don’t want to stoke my wife’s frustrations and have her be unhappy in 20 years. I want her to be thrilled that I’m her husband. I want her and my kids to know that I choose them over tons of ministry experiences that I could have said yes to.
Other people have disabled family members, sick children, or crises at their church that will require adjustments that other folks don’t have to make. God requires you to be faithful to deal with all the unique situations he has placed in your lap, not pine for someone else’s situation.
4. Seasons of Life
Another issue effecting your balance between ministry and home is the unique season in life you’re confronting. A while back I was having a phone conversation with another minister who is about 30 years older than I am. I was talking with him on the phone in my living room and he heard my kids playing in the background, and asked how old they were. I told him they were 8, 5, and 3. He began to talk about the time in his life when his kids were that old and said that he felt as though he never got any work done. At his current stage in life he is able to be far more productive because the demands of a young family do not weigh on his schedule.
All of us will face the ebb and flow of the cycles of family demands. I am in the stage right now of young kids that require a lot of time and attention. One day they will grow up, and move out and I expect to have more freedom to do ministry. After that, if the Lord gives me years, age will doubtless take its toll and I will struggle with the trials of decreased health and productivity will take another dip.
All of us need to realize that the phase of life we’re in right now will likely not be the phase we’re in ten years from now. We need to be sensitive to that as we think through our ministry productivity.
There are countless other issues that may impinge on you as you try to balance the call to flourish in your life and ministry. There is no way all of them could be recounted in any series of blog posts. There is also no way for you to account for all the factors as you try to weigh this in your own life. You need help.
In my own life I have always relied on others to help me know how I’m doing in this area. My family has always been blessed to have people we trust helping us think these matters through. It’s helpful to have brothers and sisters in Christ serving as “neutral third parties” assisting in seeing when I need to be spending more time with my family or when ministry demands my attention.
In fact, I think this issue of accountability is the secret weapon to this entire issue. I admit confusion when it comes to understanding the details of how to balance family and ministry in every situation. If you’re honest, you don’t have this figured out either. If you will find people who love you and will be honest with you, and if you will be committed to heeding their counsel I promise you this issue will be easier.
At the end of the day there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to this complex issue. Plenty of people have been trying to figure out how to do it well long before any of us were on the scene and people will still be trying to figure it out after we are dead and gone. We will experience seasons of success and failure as we work these issues out. I think these principles, however, can give us some guardrails and set us up for success.