Avoid the Ministry Mistress
Making Family Your Primary Ministry
By Bob Brown
The pastor anticipates Friday all week. He works hard to finish his sermons and Sunday School lesson. He visits every sick church member. He makes sure volunteers have everything they need and double-checks to make sure nothing is left undone. Finally, Friday evening arrives—supper and games with the family, a few quiet hours alone with his wife. He looks forward to a relaxing Saturday, with plans for a picnic and sightseeing. Then, it happens.
At 3:00 a.m., a church member calls from the emergency room. The pastor groggily gets dressed and drives across town to the hospital. When he arrives home at daybreak, he needs a few hours of sleep, so the family day starts later than planned, but off they go. Yet, continually throughout the day, his phone buzzes with phone calls, texts, and emails. The special day with the family ends up being another day at work—counseling, putting out fires, and unsuccessfully trying to juggle work and family.
Sadly, this scene plays out in parsonages on a regular basis. Pastors allow the church to become a ministry “mistress,” taking the place of family and stealing time that rightfully belongs to his wife and children. If the pastor is not careful, his choices regarding the ministry can destroy his family and ultimately his life. With this in mind, pastors must be deliberate to shepherd their families as well as the church.
Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest pastors and theologians, modeled faithfulness as a husband and father. He often spent time in private prayer for his family and in prayer with his family. Caring for his children’s souls was vitally important to him, and his faithfulness to shepherd their souls was affirmed by the long-term Kingdom-fruitfulness of his 11 children long after his passing.
Yet, can a pastor balance this career that has become much more than preaching, evangelism, and visiting the sick? Today’s pastors find themselves managing leadership conflict, cleaning the fellowship hall, balancing the budget, and fielding crisis calls at all hours of the night. While it is impossible to allow these demands of the ministry to go unheeded, we must protect our marriages, our families, and ourselves. Pastors with healthy marriages and family relationships learn to manage time pressures and competing responsibilities by implementing effective boundaries. They prioritize time with their families and avoid the “fishbowl experience” by refusing to give in to the unrealistic expectations of the perfect pastor’s family.
Build a Family Ministry Team
Because isolation is a reoccurring theme for most pastors, the pastor’s primary source of support must be his family, especially his wife. Within marriage, habits such as praying together, praying for one another, and reading the Bible together are essential.
Wives shoot down the unrealistic expectations a congregation sometimes places on the pastor. On the flip side, wives occasionally bring the pastor back to reality and remind him he’s “not all that.” She knows her husband better than anyone else on earth. She helps him see his flaws when others put him on a pedestal, yet she also points out his best qualities when criticism and the rigors of ministry tempt him to walk away. Our wives should be our best friends, our ministry partners. Learn to laugh together, cry together, play together, and pray together.
Pastors who take the “long view” in ministry remember children and wife are more important than any other aspect of their work. Pastor, set family priorities and stand by those priorities with no apologies. Build a home that is an oasis of trust, the place where the family can find warmth, security, and love they don’t experience anywhere else. Allow them to relax, to be themselves, and to retreat from the physical and emotional difficulties and responsibilities of church work.
Embrace your role as the spiritual leader in the home, responsible for the spiritual wellbeing and nourishment of your wife and kids. We lead from our own lives and instruct those in our family. Deuteronomy 6 provides this pattern for spiritual leadership in the home. With these things in mind, consider four simple suggestions for avoiding the ministry mistress and maintaining a happy home life:
- Just be there. Spending time with the family shouldn’t require some earth-shaking event. Learn to enjoy routine family responsibilities. Set the example by completing the mundane tasks that make a household run smoothly. Working together creates a bond that cannot be found in leisure activities. “There’s no place like home,” wrote poet J.H. Payne. That statement can be either positive or negative. Work hard to make your home a place your children will remember fondly. Their experience as a preacher’s kid will have a profound impact on their spiritual health and the future health of their own families.
- Take time off. When you have a day off, take it. Guard it. Schedule days away and stick to them, come what may. Even today, though my children are grown and gone, I rotate days off according to my wife’s schedule so we can spend time together. If you must choose between being a good pastor and a good father and husband, choose to be a good father and husband. You may be surprised to find it also will make you a better pastor.
- Date your wife. Make it clear you have more interest in her than your ministry. Call her regularly. Buy her flowers. Send her cards. Take her out of town, away from the demands of ministry. Give her your full attention during conversations. Do everything you can to build up your relationship. You cannot make too great an investment in your marriage.
- Take time with each child individually. Pray for him and with him. Read to her. Sing to him. Take an interest in what she enjoys doing. And, while I know this one is difficult, be careful not to put your children in the spotlight at church, especially as the subject of every sermon illustration.
The demands of ministry fluctuate over time. Shepherding God’s flock can be exciting, enriching, and satisfying on one hand. On the other, it can become exhausting and all-consuming, with trials, disappointments, questions and doubts from within and without. Yet, the pastor bears an even greater weight of responsibility, to provide spiritual watchcare for those God has placed in his care. Yes, a pastor is called to lead the flock, protect it, care for it, and feed it. But the primary flock is at home.
Pastor, avoid the ministry mistress. Make it your priority to build a home with a heart for ministry. Then, together, your family can face whatever challenges life may hold.
About the Writer: Dr. Bob Brown pastors Harmony FWB Church in Lake Butler, Florida. Article adapted from his recent book: The Pastor’s Relationship to the Bride of Christ.