Your Family is a Problem

In my last several articles on leadership in the local church, I’ve addressed some of the unique challenges facing pastors and others in Christian ministry, specifically (1) you personally;  (2) church culture, most notably the prevailing metaphor of the church in the church:  we are family; and (3) the challenges of pastor-led churches versus elder- or board-led church government.  Each of these articles is archived on my website under Leadership & Ministry.  Another ministry challenge is your family!


If you’re in full time vocational ministry, your family is a problem.  No, I’m not suggesting you have a problem family, or that that your family has problems.  It just is what it is:  everyone with a demanding career has to find a way to balance his or her professional life with their primary family responsibilities.

Paul writes famously in 1 Corinthians 7.7 and 32-35,

7.  I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that ….

32. I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34. and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

Here’s the way I summarize Paul’s statements:  (1) If you want to be in the ministry, don’t get married. (2) If you’re married and then go into the ministry, or if you are in ministry and get married, don’t whine!

In other words, it really is best for ministry work if a person is free of family demands.  But if you have a family, you can’t just ignore them, or think of them as a burden.  As a spouse and parent, you must give your family the attention and support they need.

In 1 Timothy 3:4-6 Paul affirms the importance of family first:

[Every church leader] must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)

Catholics and Protestants

Catholics have arule.  For centuries they’ve insisted on celibacy for ordained clergy.  On the other hand, we Protestants have an unwritten rule:  If you’re in ministry, you should be married.  An unmarried pastor, we think, is a liability, right?  Especially if he’s a pastor to young adults, many of whom are lovely, swooning women.  That’s just not good, we think.  Yet the Bible is very clear here:  there should be an honored place for single men and women in ministry.  In fact, Paul calls it a gift, charisma in the Greek New Testament.

If you are married, though, your family will ramp up the pressure of ministry, and you have to face that realistically.  It is what it is.  For me, as hard as I worked as a senior pastor and as much as my identity as a successful leader was important to me, I kept close to my wife and children.

I have a particular regret, and my wife Marilyn will never let me forget.  I had a youth Bible study scheduled the night of our first wedding anniversary–and I went to the meeting. Dumb.

I’m not a perfect husband and father.  I’ve made other mistakes along the way.  More than anything else, the stress of church leadership lowered my patience capacity, especially in the evenings at the end of long, stressful days.

On the other hand, I worked a fairly set schedule, took off Fridays and Saturdays (I worked in the office on Mondays), attended virtually every special school event (sports events and concerts), and regularly we took long road trips together.

My kids often felt pressure because they were PKs (pastor’s kids), and sometime I had to remind them that their behavior mattered, but I never gave that a religious twist.  I just told them that people had unrealistic expectations for all of us, and we had to do our best.  I also made it clear to them that my expectations of them were not going to be unrealistic!

As my kids got older, I also discouraged them from getting involved in leadership positions in our local church.  My son, who is now in full time ministry (he’s president of the Barna Group), at my strong urging, served as a youth worker in a friend’s church.

A few years later, I was dismayed when someone on my staff hired my daughter without me knowing!  At the dinner table one night she started complaining about her boss.  I reacted.  I told her I would never have those conversations with her.  “You took that job, and I refuse to allow the members of my family to become sources of information on the inside of the church offices.”

A pastor with an aversion for religion

I’ve been in full-time ministry for nearly forty years, but I have an aversion for people who have a religious persona.  I hate it if people who don’t know me can guess I’m a pastor.  I prefer if they’re shocked when I tell them.  In fact, I find it difficult to admit to a stranger that I’m a clergyman, not because I’m ashamed of what I do, but because when I tell them, the tenor of the conversation changes.  Suddenly we can’t be “normal” with one another.  My daughter just texted me a couple days ago:  “I’m sitting here in a meeting listening to a pastor pontificating with pastor speak.”  LOL.  My kids just didn’t get that from me.

A couple years ago, one of my son’s employees at the Barna Group, a woman who grew up in a pastor’s home, was stunned when my son told her that I rarely talked about religious things around the house.  I was even careful about how I used the Bible to nurture my family.  Virtually never did I quote scripture to justify my actions as a father, or to goad my children into changing their behavior.  Yet they knew the Bible was my book of life, and they saw how genuinely serious I was about growing the church and helping people in crisis one at a time.

One-armed families

Another reality: every family is dysfunctional. Some are just more dysfunctional than others!  If you have unusual challenges in your family, you have to accept this realistically and make special sacrifices to live with and work through those dysfunctions.

Jim Abbot was the first and only one-armed pitcher in Major League Baseball.  In spite of being born with a genetic deformity, he played ten years for the Angels, White Sox, Yankees and Brewers.

Throwing with his left arm, he held his baseball glove against his chest with his stubby right arm.  You’d think every hitter would bunt, because he couldn’t field the ball.  Not so.  After releasing each pitch, in almost the same motion, Abbot grabbed his glove with his good hand ready to field the ball.  Catching the ball one-handed, he’d drop the ball and glove on the ground, grab the ball out of the mitt, and throw to first base.  He had to bat, too.


The lesson here:  Because of his disability, he had to work on his skills harder than other “normal” players.  He had to learn how to live with and beyond his “dysfunction.” He didn’t give in and he didn’t give up.

What are you facing in your personal life?  In your church or ministry team?  Do you feel that your challenges are unique?  That it seems you have more problems than faced by others in ministry?  It is what it is.  You will simply have to make significant adjustments in the way you work, the way you spend time with your family, and the way you live out the life God’s given you–and the way you relate to the God who’s given you life.

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