Ministry needs, family values, and balance

balancePerhaps the two best-known leaders in the Christian movement from the 1950’s into the 1980’s were Billy Graham and Bill Bright. Both men influenced countless pastors who grew up in those generations and left an enormous impact, especially on the American evangelical landscape.

Both men’s (auto)biographies also reveal a fair bit of tension between family and ministry needs. A couple excerpts…

From Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am:

As we drove into the yard, I saw a beautiful little child wandering out to greet us. Even after I got out of the car, it took some minutes before I realized that it was Ned [Graham’s son]. I hadn’t seen him for many weeks.

Yes, it took him a few minutes before he realized the beautiful child was his son. Graham talks about the difficulties of being away from home for weeks and months at a time and says the “traveling ministry was a costly investment of [his] time as far as [his] sons were concerned.”

Bright’s authorized biography, Amazing Faith, also talks about the “sacrifice” for Bright’s sons, Brad and Zac:

There were, however, all too few father-son activities for these growing boys; it was in fact a sacrifice for them to do without Dad. By God’s grace they came through with balanced lives. Their mother’s example was especially helpful. Both Brad and Zac would later say they could recall no occasion when their mother bemoaned Bill’s absence. Eventually they concluded that if she could handle his absence patiently and quietly in dependence on the Lord, so could they.

I also recall a prayer Bright said while he traveled the world – something to the effect of, “God, tend to my flock at home while I tend to your flock around the world” – but I haven’t been able to locate the exact quote.

By my observation, a nation of ministers largely grew up with a similar mentality about family and ministry: “God, I pray you take care of my family while I go about the call of ministry.” I’ve seen a number of examples of pastors who have “sacrificed” family, friendships, and/or health for the sake of the call.

Changes in views of ministry and family balance

Also by my observation, several prominent ministers in the next generation have largely rejected these “sacrifices.” In his book Choosing to Cheat: Who Wins When Family and Work Collide? (affiliate link), Andy Stanley says there will always be someone not getting as much of your attention as they want/deserve. He urges leaders not to cheat their families. His solution is simple:

Simply put, you must choose to cheat at work rather than at home.

That’s quite a turn from what we saw and heard from Graham and Bright.

Rob Bell has never been shy to say that he doesn’t do night meetings. He’s busy having dinner with his family at home. And he talks about Sabbath frequently, asking people when is the day they totally disconnect from the world and are present at home.

In my humble opinion, Stanley and Bell are providing far better guidance and influence on this topic than Graham and Bright did. (That’s not meant to discredit the truly great work those men did.) I hope these kinds of influence will lead to a new generation of pastors that prioritizes family, personal health, friendships and Sabbath more than most of the past generation seems to have.

Pastors, whatever your calling, if God has blessed you with a family, you cannot neglect them! That goes, too, for other church leaders and volunteers. Please don’t choose (or let the church convince you) to give more of your time and energy to tending the flock of the church than to tending your own flock.

Doing pastoral ministry and caring for family well – the rub

I recently heard Tim Couch, a former University of Kentucky football player, asked if he had considered coaching. His response (paraphrased as I remember it): “I would love to coach. But I also have two young children, and working in TV lets me be home with them a lot more than coaching would.”

I’ve often wondered how college football coaches take care of their families well, especially if they have young children. From what I understand, they work incredibly long hours, spend a lot of time on the road recruiting, and move more often than young Methodist clergy. Tim Couch’s comments seemed to confirm that it’s tough to do the job well and also be there for family. The requirements of some jobs just don’t lend themselves to being there for family at the most important times.

Andy Stanley and Rob Bell aren’t your typical American pastors. As I understand it, both of them have/had roles with very little pastoral care and almost no work with volunteers. That’s very different from the majority of pastors I know, whose roles require quite a bit of pastoral care and work with volunteers, at least if the job is to be done well.

When you desire to provide good pastoral care and need to meet with teams of volunteers, not to mention any of the other typical church programs and events, you’re usually talking about a lot of nights and weekends. And if you’ve ever had young children, you know that night-time, especially dinner time and bed time, is probably the most important time to be home.

There’s the rub.

And this at least has me wondering — how well can one balance pastoral ministry and family values, especially with young children? The two seem to have conflicting prime times.

What do you think?

You would also be interested in my Modern Pastor Series.

15 thoughts on “Ministry needs, family values, and balance

  1. Thanks for this post, Teddy. Crucial topic to discuss. Here are a few reflections in response:

    1) How do you reply to those who turn to Matthew 19:29 (And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.) in this discussion?

    2) Sometimes I wonder if God imparts special graces to those he has given a particular calling. In other words, can God’s call and grace be nuanced? I look at Charles and John Wesley as examples of what you speak of in this post. Charles was a family man, did not travel anywhere near as much as John, and remained in a local parish for the majority of his life. I have often heard John criticized for the lack of care he gave to his home, but in the same breath have heard it stated that the Methodist movement would not have existed without all the sacrifices John made for it. Another way I have heard it stated – If John stayed home, the Methodist movement would have died. If Charles would have traveled, the Methodist hymnody would have been stifled. (This may not be true, but it is an interesting idea to at least entertain for a moment.) For some, is the sacrifice sometimes necessary?

    3) My father has been a Methodist pastor my whole life. In his ministry he has often had to spend late nights at church in meetings or time away from family to travel to conferences. I have never felt neglected because of his ministry because of an interesting approach he has taken – many times he has included me in his ministry. I have countless childhood memories of attending conferences with my dad, sitting in meetings with him, going on visits to homes and hospitals. In fact, I don’t remember ever not doing those things. I believe this has been very formative in my life both for my understanding of ministry (certainly our particular denominational practices and procedures) and my spiritual growth as a Christian. Perhaps that won’t work for everyone and can’t be done in all situations, but I think it was a good balance of family and ministry my father was able to maintain.

  2. I appreciate what you’ve written here. It seems to me that there have been profound cultural shifts in the role of the father in the household during the last 20 to 30 years. The Boomer generation primarily grew up with absent fathers. It was normal and doable, and Bill Bright and Billy Graham reflect that normality. But family/father expectations have changed radically–and Bell and Stanley speak for them. The way the current pastorate is structured for most in the UMC (solo pastor, high expectations of such a one, minimal staff, volunteers keep the work of the church going), “balance” really can’t happen. Your generation will need to reshape congregational expectations of the pastoral role AND the way the church functions.

  3. Teddy, you know me well enough to know I mean no disrespect here, but my first reaction to some of the statements about missing dinner with the family, or long days on the road or being away from home for weeks at a time, or how tough a job coaching football is, is that a great many people here need a large dose of perspective.

    Missing dinner? How about missing multiple years? Per Friday’s Herald Leader, I know of over 3,000 people who would love to have to face the “challenges” mentioned by Tim Couch.

    FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — More than 3,400 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell will deploy to Afghanistan during the next several months. Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, commander of the 101st, said it will be the 4th Brigade’s third deployment to Afghanistan……

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your response. I know you mean no disrespect here. You’re right to point out the terribly difficult challenges faced by American soldiers. Those men and women are putting their lives at serious risk, and for those who have families, they will miss years, not nights. That’s a sobering perspective for all of us.

      If we choose to only present challenges as severe as those faced by our active-duty armed forces, we probably won’t be able to talk about much at all, will we? But I think we should talk about others’ challenges and potential hazards, too, even if they pale in comparison to those of our soldiers. And so I write here about legitimate challenges and hazards that those in ministry face. Though less time may be lost and (perhaps) less damage done, I’ve seen a number of pastors’ children hurt by their fathers’ (could be mothers, but I’ve always seen fathers) consistent choice to put ministry before family. So yes, those missed dinners become important and hazardous to the life of the family. I make no apologies for treating them as a serious issue for consideration.

      1. Thanks Teddy. And for anyone that might have (quite understandably) misinterpreted my intent, I was reacting more toward the coaching comment than the ministry. The common denominator of ANY service job is indeed sacrifice, the only difference is the level. And thank you for setting me straight – I absolutely have to agree that on a very personal level, the missed meals are every bit as heartbreaking as some of the things I listed. And I’m quite sure you and I would both get some loud “amens” from physicians, law enforcement, et al. And finally, I continue to be impressed with your ability to bring focus to these very important topics. Thanks for lettingf me participate.

  4. “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. . . . Those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. . . . The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” 1 Corinthians 7:27-34

    Matthew 19:11-12: “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

    1. Yes, and also this:
      1 Tim 3:2-5: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”

      1 Tim 3:12: “Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well.”

      1. Hi Teddy, stumbled upon this thought today…”In the case of celibacy, there is something often overlooked in addition to the practical pastoral matters that celibacy helps the Church face (divided wills, the trouble of playing favorites with family members, domestic distractions, et cetera): the fact that the priest is an eschatological witness… like Jesus, the priest is a witness to the life of the world to come. That is why it is nonsensical to speak of getting rid of celibacy so that the priest can get on with helping people get to heaven. By his celibacy, that is precisely what he is doing.” I think this also relates to your post today about the ‘attractiveness’ of leadership roles in the Church.

      2. Thanks Lauren. That’s a good quote. I think celibate priests can serve as an eschatological witness. I obviously don’t find it requisite that all pastors be single and celibate (see my own life and quotes from 1 Tim above), but I think most of the attacks I hear against it miss the mark and misunderstand the eschatological witness this can be. For that, I don’t object to the RC for maintaining a requirement of celibacy — just so long as they don’t treat it as if that’s the only option God finds acceptable.

      3. Thanks Teddy, I agree. As you suggest, it is important to remember that priestly celebacy is a discipline and not a doctrine of the Church.

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