The Battle for Balance

by Eric Litke

He's a rebel. He wears the wrong clothes, says the wrong words and hangs with the wrong people. His steely, penetrating gaze belies a deep-seated hatred and sadness. A child of the streets? No, a child of the pews.

But that wasn't me; I was a good PK. It's not that I forgot to rebel, I just never felt the need to. I already had my dad's attention. Yes, I was a child of the pews, but for me that phrase has only positive connotations—because my dad understood that while the congregation had many spiritual leaders, I had only one father. He took the time to make me feel loved and to demonstrate that he had two ministries: one at church, one at home.

It is a sad irony that the men entrusted with leadership of our churches are often the ones whose own homes often suffer from lack of leadership. A pastor can get so wrapped up in doing the Lord's work, helping the hurt and abandoned, that he does not see the hurt and abandonment in his own wake. The neediest family of all may be his own.

Even if a pastor seemingly does everything right at home, there is no guarantee his children will react as he would hope. The words of Proverbs 22:6, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it," are more of an admonition than a promise. This passage does not mean that every rebellious child is wholly a result of parental failure. Nevertheless, it is important to take every step one can to ensure balance between ministry at home and away. The problem cannot go unaddressed.

A 1998 Barna survey found that 49 percent of all pastors say their family life has "suffered significantly" from the pressures and demands of their ministry. In a 2001 Pulpit and Pew study, 43 percent of pastors' spouses expressed resentment about the time ministry takes from their partner. This number increased to two-thirds in congregations of more than 100.

"If we fail at home and succeed' at church, I don't think God is impressed," said Michael Easley, senior pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va. "If the pastor holds his job before his family, I think it's sin, and I think there will be consequences."

The temptation to become overly absorbed is present in all levels of ministry. It may take different forms in a larger or smaller church, but it is always there. "It's something all pastors deal with at some level," said Jason Hess, pastor of student ministries at Fellowship Bible Church in Pearland, Texas. "For the most part, pastors' number one mistress isn't another woman—it's the church."

The dangerous disconnect between leadership in the pulpit and in the living room has repercussions not only in the family, but ultimately in the ministry as well. As 1 Timothy 3:5 says, "If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?"

Why Does the Dangerous Disconnect Exist?

When my dad would come home from church, often tired and emotionally drained, he knew the question was coming: "Can we play catch, Dad?" And almost always, if he was back before dark, there would be time. My dad had many roles—preacher, teacher, administrator, counselor—but only one of them mattered to his 10-year-old boy. I wanted a dad. He took the time to show me that I was important, that I was worthy of his time. Even then I understood—in my own limited, grade-school way—that my dad had an important role at church, but I also understood that he saw "dad" as his most important job.

There is intense temptation to view ministry and its effectiveness through a worldly lens. Success is often looked at in terms of church growth rates, number of baptisms, and community visibility, said Mike Waldrop, pastor of Christian ministry at Fellowship Bible Church in Pearland, Texas. Pastors find their identities in these numbers, becoming so absorbed in the pursuit of ministerial success that they forget the pivotal role of discipling their family as a model to the church.

What Are the Effects?

An improper balance between church and family can have devastating consequences in both spheres of influence. The family will obviously suffer if too much time is spent at church, but this also hurts the church. Credibility as a pastor and as a father are intimately interrelated. My dad had credibility as a pastor because he put in the necessary time as a father. He was then able to present himself to the church as able to lead (in accordance with 1 Tim. 3:4-5) and as a model of parenthood. His being there for me didn't mean he answered my every beck and call. It simply meant that if he was going to miss my baseball game or be gone for a weekend, he would take the time to explain why he couldn't be there even though he wished he could.

When a pastor's home life isn't in order, "the effects come to roost after there has been a lengthy time of on-going neglect of the marriage and the children," said Page. "As communicational and relational issues enter into the marriage and behavior issues with the children, the pastor has to begin focusing on these issues to the detriment of his ministry and perhaps to the loss of his credibility."

At the same time, however, care must be taken to not overcorrect and give family too much priority. Dr. Peter Dybvad, who for six years served as chairman of the board for the Great Lakes district of EFCA, observed that "in the past the church was often-times over-consuming and the family came out with the short end of the hours. In the last five to 10 years, though, we've shifted the pendulum in some ways too far the other way. In many cases the church is being short-changed."

Dybvad, who now teaches Christian Ministry at Northwestern College in St. Paul, said he has observed a disturbing trend. "I have students telling me that when they go into ministry they're not going to do more than 35 hours a week because family comes first. I think that's a problem." He continued, "We have to ask the question, Am I sold out to Christ—am I sold out to ministry—or is ministry just this little thing I do on the side?'"

How Should This Problem Be Addressed?

There is no three-step method to successfully balancing family and ministry. You can't simply admit that it's a problem, believe it will get better, and confess the times you've fallen short. What is needed is a constant awareness that the evil one will attack through any available means. Since the most dangerous enemy is the one we do not see, the first step in avoiding or remedying this problem is simply acknowledging that the problem needs to be addressed.

Pastors know that it is a constant struggle to serve the two masters of family and church. "I've learned that the problems, work, people, budgets, and meetings will always be there," said Easley. "They will never all be done. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and I want to be in for the long term."

Sometimes it takes a dramatic event to remind one of the importance of family. Hulten recounted such an event from years ago, when his children were 7 and 5. He was hospitalized with the flu, pneumonia, and a secondary bacterial infection in his lungs. He was placed on a respirator and not expected to live but he survived. "It changed my outlook on life and how important family is," Hulten said.  "I found that a lot of things kept going whether I was there or not.  So I have invested much more time in my family."

Even without such a vivid reminder, it's possible to build a sense of how precious family time is. Following are some simple—but not necessarily easy—ways of acknowledging and addressing the balance between ministry and family.

Being in it for the long term means making a conscious decision to address this particular facet of time management. "I think pastors make the mistake of thinking that they only have to re-balance their lives once—not continually," said Hess. Balance is not merely attained, it must be maintained. 

Perhaps the most difficult part of time management is learning to say "no." Easley said that he had written down as a goal to "say no' more often and more graciously." Page pointed to this as something he has gotten better at over the years. "When my family was younger, I didn't say no' as often as I should have," he said. "As I've gotten older—and hopefully wiser—I've learned to build margin into my calendar so I don't overload myself as much.  And thus I graciously say no' in order to protect myself and my marriage."

Pastors must maintain perspective, rearranging priorities as circumstances require. Dybvad noted: "The questions I have to ask myself when I wake up each day are: Do I love Christ more than anything else? How do I advance His kingdom?' It may be that it's family that day or it's ministry that day, but my passion is still Christ, I love Him more than anything else or anyone else."

Accountability is also crucial. "In my experience," said Easley, "men who fail in ministry—be it immorality, pornography, in marriage, with their kids, or personally—have one main weakness: they have no truth-speaking love-you-closer-than-a-brother' friendships."

Creative time use can go a long way in establishing and maintaining balance. Easley meets with his wife for lunch every Wednesday, and Waldrop eats lunch with his kids at school or takes them out on a dinner date. One-on-one time is irreplaceable in helping a child understand he is loved and he is important.

Sometimes the right thing is to leave a ministry when it begins to exact too high a price on one's family. Page said his second daughter shared that she felt she was abandoned by him while she was in high school. Years later, then, when he saw himself beginning to repeat that pattern and spending too much time away from home, he left that ministry for another that would allow him to spend more time with his son.  Sometimes a family situation can even mean stepping down from ministry entirely.

Maintaining balance requires communication with both the church and one's family. Waldrop said, "There have been times when church needed more attention, at the family's expense, and times when family needed attention at the church's expense." The key, he said, is to explain to family or church that the other is requiring more time at that moment. Hulten concurred: "I have used 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and told (other leaders in the church) that if my family is not healthy, I disqualify myself from being their pastor. So I need the time necessary to keep my family healthy."

Most importantly, do not lose hope. As pastors develop a greater awareness of the need for balance, balance inevitably improves. In a sentiment echoed by Easley and Dybvad, Page said, "I am encouraged that many of the younger pastors I see seem to be doing a better job of balancing ministry and family than I did when I was their age."

May it be our fervent prayer that every PK can look back on the time as a child of the pews and see it, as I do, as a blessing.

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