Seventeen years ago I went on a two-week trip to India and Korea to teach in a Bible college and some churches. Security at the airport was not as tight pre-9/11, so my family accompanied me to the gate. As I left my wife and three young children in the midst of a Michigan winter, my youngest daughter cried out "NOOOOO!" so long and so loud that the echo followed me down the jet way into the plane itself. She wasn't the only one who cried that day.
As I sat on the plane and tried to catch one last glimpse of them, I wondered, "What was I doing to my family? Was this trip really worth it? Was I right to do this? Couldn’t someone else have taught this course and preached these messages?" It was not the last time I would ask those questions.
Serving the church is not merely a job; it is an all-consuming responsibility that can threaten a family. The emergency hospital trips and the frantic calls from a heartbroken spouse never come when you are sitting at home, caught up on your to-do list, bored stiff, and hoping for a crisis to break the monotony. For most of us, our bodies may be home, but our full attention is slow to arrive.
There are always more visits to schedule, more people to counsel, more calls to make, more meetings to attend, more functions to pray at, more books to read, more emails to answer, more blogs to write (and read), more classes to take and teach, more work for the sermon(s), more degrees to finish or pursue, more, more, more, meaning that your family will get less, less, less. How many times have you come home late knowing that while you were trying to save your church, your wife was left alone trying to save your kids?
Can we really be effective pastors and good husbands and dads? Do we really have to choose between the church and our family?
In this article I’ll argue it does not have to be an “either/or.”
HOW TO LEAD WELL IN THE CHURCH AND HOME
Leading a church well and leading a family well are not mutually exclusive: “[An elder] must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3.4).
However, Paul is not only saying that an elder can lead both family and church well, but that he must. But how? Through the gospel! The gospel protects you from taking yourself too seriously and exposes the idols of your heart.
Don’t Take Yourself so Seriously
The gospel reminds me that I am a sinner prone to self-centeredness and self-righteousness. The fact that I am a pastor does not mean that I don’t have to confess my sin with my family when I have blown it. In fact, I need to take the lead in confessing when I have sinned against my family.
Your kids know that you are human. They see your underwear in the laundry and smell your breath in the morning. They’ve watched you try to fix that faucet, replace the water heater and drop your cell phone. You are not a perfect parent. You are going to overreact, over-promise, and forget. You are going to fail. You are a sinner. On many occasions, I’ve had to go into my kids’ bedroom and ask forgiveness for being a jerk. They forgave me. Some of my most humble moments in life have been sitting on my kids’ bed, while being patted on the back, hearing one of them say, “It’s okay, Dad. I sin too.” Respect is best earned through relationships built on love, rather than rules that can only make demands.
Christ Is a Better Savior than my Image
I am tempted to believe that if I am a perfect pastor, then others will think well of me, and I worship that approval. And in order to be a perfect pastor, I need to have perfect children. Therefore, I need to get my children to cooperate with my desires to be respected.
Thankfully, neither God nor my children have gone along with my desires. When my son was about four, we went to a funeral home to visit the family of an influential lady in the church who had died. After looking at her body in the casket, my son announced to her daughter that the lady had died because, “She ate too much.” That evening I updated my resume, believing that I would need it shortly. There were many situations with my children when I was forced to ask, “Am I more concerned about my children and the gospel, or about how their failures will reflect on me?”
Again, the gospel is clear. Christ alone is my hope, not my children. If I expect perfect behavior from them, I am demanding from them what only Christ can provide, and that expectation will crush them. They need to have the freedom to fail, so they too can experience grace. Along the way, my church family has seen our warts and imperfections. They did not have a perfect pastor, but that’s okay. They have a perfect Savior.
FOUR MORE PRINCIPLES TO PONDER
With those two things in mind, here are four more specific matters that have helped me navigate the leadership of my home while leading the church.
1. You Can’t Please Everyone.
First, you can’t please everyone. It is tempting to listen to a visitor tell you how terrible that “other church” is. They seem so sincere, so hurt. And so now, I am going to rush in and show them what a real church, a real pastor should be like. I will impress them with my sacrifice, my availability, and my attention to their needs. I can be a hero. I can restore their faith and rescue them. Really? Now, obviously, there are plenty of people who truly need care. But there are some people who do not want to actually deal with their issues; they just want attention from you. They don’t care if you sacrifice your children for them. They will take all that you offer and demand even more.
One summer, while I was on vacation with my family in Florida, a church member called to ask if I would do his aunt’s funeral—three and a half hours across the state. My wife was stunned. I am ashamed to admit that because he was new to the church, and I wanted him to think well of me, I agreed. I had to buy a suit, shoes, shirt, and tie, leave my family, and drive across the state, all to make a good impression. A few years later he left the church because he did not get to sing enough solos. Remember, if Jesus isn’t good enough for some people, what makes you think you will be?
Related to this is the reality that only God is omnipresent, not you. You simply cannot be in two places at the same time. It is tempting to break a promise to your family because, after all, “they will understand” that something has come up. The truth is, they will understand—they will understand that others matter more to you than they do.
2. Your Family Is Part of Your Church—or by God’s Grace Will Be.
Second, remember that your family is part of your church—or by God’s grace will be. Often people ask, “What is more important: your family or your church?” Yet as our kids were growing up, Cathi and I attempted to integrate our family and the church, and did things to involve our family in the church. For example, when appropriate, I took my children with me on home or hospital visits. One evening they sang to a lady who was dying from cancer in her home. Her husband never forgot this.
I discovered that while my children may have to share me with many people, they get to share in many things as well. They get to see the reality of death more than others. They get to see how a church family serves one another. They get to meet missionaries and other pastors. They get to unlock doors, turn off lights, fill the baptismal, fold bulletins, and make copies. They get to see so many things that others may take for granted, which can help them have a greater sense of ownership as church members.
If your children have professed faith in Christ and have become members of the church, they are part of your church in the fullest sense. If they are not members yet, you are preparing them for the day when, you hope, by God’s grace, they will become members of the church. In both cases, you are seeking to instill in them a love for the church.
Yet they are in the spotlight to some degree. You cannot prevent that. They are part of your qualification as a pastor (1 Tim. 3:4). But you can also help the congregation try to treat them like they would treat any other members’ children. I attempted to minimize the spotlight on my children by not using many family stories in sermons, and by ensuring that they had to play by the same rules as everyone else.
A word of caution: some people in the church will hurt you. It may be tempting to feel sorry for yourself and gossip in front of your children. There will be times when you feel taken advantage of and are tempted to play the “victim” card with your family. Please, guard them from that! In spite of the difficult days, it really is a privilege to carry water for the church and wash her feet. Let your children know what a privilege it is to serve the church. This is—or, Lord willing, will be—their family too.
3. Your Church Can Get another Pastor, but Your Kids Can’t Get another Dad.
Third, your church can get another pastor, but your kids can’t get another dad. There are times when we have to choose between an important event for our kids and an event for the church. When facing those decisions I have often asked, “Is this church event something that someone else can cover?” I also ask, “Is this event something that my child really needs me to be at?” Not every event in my child’s life is a really big deal. But if I knew the event was important to them, I did everything I could to be there.
4. Little Things Really Do Matter.
Fourth, little things really do matter. Every night when I would say goodnight to my children, I would usually pray with them and then my last words to them were, “I love you. I will always love you and there is nothing that you can do that will ever make me stop loving you.” (There were times I would have to add, “But don’t push it!”) I did this night after night, year after year, until when I started in they would say with a sigh, “Yeah, I know Dad, and there is nothing that I can do that will ever make you stop loving me.” And I would respond, “And don’t you ever forget it.”
I wanted them to know that what I attempted to do imperfectly was done for them perfectly by God through Christ. I wanted them to know their acceptance and security was not rooted in their grades, awards, achievements, and success as the world defined it. They heard this before solos, piano competitions, spelling bees, basketball and soccer games, final exams, college entrance exams, and every night before bed.
One day I was at a track meet for my youngest daughter. I was screaming loudly as she ran her event when my other daughter called from college in great distress. She was facing a test of monumental importance that would determine the success or failure of her entire degree program, and she felt that she was cracking under the pressure. Four years was resting all on this! I reminded her that she was not sufficient for this, but that her confidence and rest was in Christ. I was eleven hours away. With my fist pumping the air for my youngest who was crossing the finish line in record time, I cried with my other daughter and prayed with her to rest in Christ. Then I said again. “Remember, I love you, I will always love and there is nothing that you can do to ever make me stop loving you.” She knew I would tell her that and just wanted to hear it.
When I became the pastor here, our son was two, Cathi was expecting our second child, and our third was several years away. Now, our kids are basically grown and gone from the house. It is a bit odd that after years of frenzy, loudness, laughter, and chaos, the home is rather quiet. We used to be the young pastor’s family but are now viewed as the seasoned warriors.
Any time with our children is a joy, but there is something that is even more delightful. Recently two of our children flew halfway around the world to serve on a team attempting to reach people on an island in the Mekong River in Cambodia who had never been exposed to the gospel. They left the day after Christmas. Sure, it took away “family time,” and perhaps someone else could have done it. But on that trip, they were able to get to the island and were some of the first believers ever to do so. Today, fourteen months later, there are a couple dozen believers there.
Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.