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Married to the Ministry: Find the Balance Between Work and Family

Don’t make the mistake of having an illicit affair with your ministry. Here’s how to uphold the vows you made to your spouse and commitment to your family; and impact children and families in your church at the same time. (P.S. Take the quiz at the end of this article to determine if you are “Married to your Ministry.”) 


The sacred vow we took the day of our wedding was the beginning of a lifetime of making and keeping promises with our best friend. Equally sacred is the call we received when we accepted the ministry of shepherding children and their families. But more often than not, the commitment to our spouse takes second place when we have to phone volunteers well into the night, cut short a vacation for a work-related emergency, or stay at the church until the last child goes home.

Yet, on the other hand, Luke 9:61-62 rings in your ears; “Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'” We may waffle between a guilty compulsion to please God with a successful ministry and a gnawing compassion for our family.

I Take You (and You, and You, and You)

Can we be a success at our ministry and our marriage? Or do we even have to choose? Dr. Alan Loy McGinnis, author of The Balanced Life: Achieving Success in Work and Love, says that you can have it all! Our work and family actually need each other. Your home is generally happy and healthy when your work is successful and vice versa. Your ministry succeeds when you have a healthy home!

Dr. McGinnis notes four laws of success for career and marriage that form the basis of a balanced life.

Law #1: Commitment

We should avoid saying, “Who will I have to neglect today?” Instead, we must commit to making both areas of our life successful since we’re called by God to be faithful to our marriage and our ministry. The people who live only to work may excel for a short time, but they’ll burn out because they lack a support network. Yet those who live only for their family run the risk of isolation, moral superiority, and social stagnation.

You can endure a lot of stress in a highly intense work situation if you have a deep set of relationships outside the church. For most people, that’s a family to go home to which becomes the keel that keeps them steady. A commitment to ministry and home allows for God to be well-pleased with our well-doing!

Law #2: Discipline

Marriages often go awry because the spouses haven’t learned self-discipline. If you’re a workaholic by nature, ask your spouse to help you exercise more discipline over your work habits.

“Being a workaholic doesn’t just mean being a hard worker,” says Bryan E. Robinson, a psychotherapist and professor at the University of North Carolina who’s been studying people’s work habits for years. He’s also the author of the book Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them.

Robinson calls workaholism the best-dressed addiction because it’s often rewarded—at least in the short term—and is seen as a positive attribute by people who don’t understand the destruction it can cause. Sometimes staying long hours at the church can allow people to avoid issues at home. If your marriage isn’t going well or if financial burdens are dragging you down, it’s easy to work late because you don’t want to face the pressures at home. In The Time Bind, Arlie Hochschild notes that although people say they feel guilty about not spending more time at home, they actually view their job as an escape.

Okay, okay. That’s the dark side of overworking. The reality is that long hours aren’t a definite sign of an addiction. You may be putting in long hours because it’s crunch time on your church’s calendar. If so, it’s important to tell your family, “Look, I’m going to be spending a lot of time this week at church because of vacation Bible school, so I’ll make it up to you and we’ll head out on vacation in two weeks.” Families understand that they’ll often be called upon to be flexible just as churches are called upon to be flexible when there’s a crisis or crunch time in the family.

Law #3: Collaboration

Talk about your work at home. Having a mate who supports you is a powerful force in helping you reach your goals. Keep the conversation on a positive note so that dinnertime doesn’t become a gripe session about church problems. That’ll pull family members down. It’s great for your kids to hear about your accomplishments and see that it helps you to talk out your challenges with your spouse. That makes your children feel secure. If they see that you and your spouse support each other, that you’re there for one another in success and in failure, then they’ll learn a lot about how a healthy marriage and family work. Plus it might give you the solution that has eluded you.

Communication at home can and should occur on three levels, according to McGinnis. Each level reveals a more intimate and effective form of communication.

  • Level 1: Most couples limit their conversations to straight facts, the least-revealing level of communication. “Pastor Dan is presenting his new service proposal to the board next Tuesday.”
  • Level 2: The second level, which goes deeper, is sharing opinions, such as “I don’t think this new service is going to work.”
  • Level 3: The deepest and most meaningful talk involves sharing feelings. “If Pastor Dan’s new service idea is accepted, my opposition will cause the board to think I’m against progress, but it’s just that I’m afraid of stretching our already overwhelmed volunteers.”

Law #4: Adaptability

As your career and marriage grow, it helps to correct any faulty assumptions. People sometimes believe that if they marry the person God intends them to marry, then they’ll get the relationship they desire. Without the investment of new energy, though, any marriage will soon disintegrate. To prevent that, adapt in some way. Choose to change and do whatever you can to meet your mate’s needs as your relationship grows.

Joined Together

You can be successful at having a healthy and thriving children’s ministry and marriage. Here’s how…

1. Show your church that your marriage and family are a priority.

Because family systems are different, what you show your church will be different from what I show my church. Do you put family photos on your desk at work? Are your home and work keys on the same chain? Do you keep one all-purpose calendar for listing home and work events? Are your nights away from your family limited to no more than three per week? Do you put your family’s annual vacation in your staff planning calendar? (Not that your family vacation is up for debate; this is simply to inform your team far enough in advance.)

2. Show your spouse and children that your ministry is a priority.

When there’s a church function, include your family in the planning and execution of the event. Your family isn’t ornamentation to an event; they’re an extension of who you are. Model, very clearly, that your family knows you have a public ministry and that they’re a part of it.

3. Advertise your schedule.

Gary D. Preston, the pastor of Bethany Church in Boulder, Colorado, told in Leadership Journal how one of his pastor friends posts his schedule:

Office Hours

I’m here most days about 8 or 9 a.m. Occasionally I arrive as early as 7 a.m., but some days I get here as late as 10 or 11 a.m. I usually leave about 4 or 5 p.m., but occasionally I’m out of here around 6 or 8 p.m. Sometimes I leave as late as 11 p.m. Some days or afternoons or mornings I’m not here at all, and lately, I’ve been here just about all the time, except when I’m someplace else, but I should be here then, too.

Sound familiar?

Seriously, though, you could use the following format.

For your convenience in meeting with me, my schedule is as follows:

  • Monday: Office hours in morning; staff meeting 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; office hours in afternoon;
  • Tuesday: Office hours all day;
  • Wednesday: Study/prayer day;
  • Thursday: Office hours in morning and afternoon;
  • Friday: Day off (please call the church office with any emergencies);
  • Saturday and Sunday: Available by appointment;
  • Saturday evening reserved for Sunday preparations;
  • Weekday Evenings: Available by appointment, though limited to three evenings for meetings or appointments. (Please call the church office to schedule an appointment as “office” hours aren’t always spent “in” the office.)

4. Keep your hand on the pulse of your family.

We don’t fit the old saying in my home: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy! If Daddy ain’t happy, don’t nobody care!” My wife is my best friend, and it is she who keeps the emotional pulse of our family. She alerts me to the changes in our children so I can adjust to the demands of their mood swings. She gives me advice as to how to better meet my family’s needs.

5. Hang on to some good reads.

Three books I continue to review are Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Margin by Richard Swenson, and Daddy@Work: Loving Your Family, Loving Your Job, Being Your Best in Both Worlds by Robert D. Wolgemuth and Ken Blanchard.

Put Asunder

Did God call us, like Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, to surrender our marriage on the altar of ministry? The answer is no. To keep our marriage off the sacrifice altar, we may need to make any of the following shifts in our ministry.

Choice #1: Shift gears.

Doreen Mitchell, pastor to children at Grace Fellowship Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, has a lot to juggle. She is the wife of Scott, president of Mackay Envelopes, a large corporation in Minneapolis. Doreen has six children at home ranging in age from 15 to 23. She is also a children’s minister at a growing church of 1,300 with more than 800 children from birth to sixth grade. In her “spare” time, Doreen leads a Weigh Down workshop and has started taking flying lessons.

“As long as Scott and I are clicking, I am fine with all that I have to do at the church. When he is not happy or I am overcommitted at church, things begin to fall apart,” Doreen says.

Doreen is probably typical of most female children’s ministers when she states, “When I go home, it is not to relax! I have my own kids’ needs to attend to or clothes to wash, dinner to cook, or a corporate function to go to with Scott.”

So what should children’s ministers say when their church decides to add another service to that Easter weekend? (By the way, when was the last time you spent a normal Easter, Christmas, or Thanksgiving with your family?) What should children’s ministers tell their pastoral team when they want to add a Sunday evening service or a second morning service?

Doreen has the answer. “I have to tell my pastor that my priority is to my family,” she emphasizes. Fortunately for Doreen, her pastor and church leadership are all in agreement that families should take priority, but that isn’t often the case.

Choice #2: Shift jobs.

One children’s pastor recently left a large, growing children’s ministry because of the unbelievable amount of stress placed on him by his senior pastor.

“My pastor’s expectation was that if our volunteers had to be at church, so did I. Whether it was for setup at a children’s musical or preparing the rooms for Sunday morning education hour, I typically spent 60 to 70 hours a week at church. It was just the norm!”

While this man was probably wired to succeed at this pace, his family was not. His oldest son attempted suicide, and his wife threatened divorce.

“It wasn’t until I was staring at my son in the hospital that it hit me; I was not giving my family the priority it needed. The decision to leave that church and pursue another ministry had to be made. I remember the senior pastor coming to me and really begging me to stay. He said that I could work fewer hours. He even began to deride the new church I had decided to move to, but I knew the decision was right.”

Choice # 3: Change careers.

Early in her career, Karyn Henley’s music-writing career was thriving. In an interview for Today’s Christian Woman magazine, Karyn admitted that she realized she had to make a choice when she became pregnant with her son Heath.

“I knew I couldn’t be the mother I needed to be and pursue my career full-time,” she says of her decision to back away from a promising career. “If I couldn’t take care of my family, I had no business trying to take care of anything else. I told the Lord, ‘I don’t know what you want me to do, but I only want to do what you want me to do.’ My life hasn’t been the same since.”

Karyn changed her priorities and slowly found herself writing books to help her as a mom. One such project eventually resulted in the best-selling Beginners Bible, which has sold 2.9 million copies and been translated into 17 languages.

When making choices to balance your marriage and ministry, the key thing is that you, like Karyn, only do what God wants you to do. Listen to God and follow him into the balance you and your family need. You may not end up writing a best-selling book, but the story that God writes on the hearts of your spouse and children and the people at your church is the only one you’ll really care about in eternity anyway.

Take the Test

Work, Family, and Personal Needs

Use this exercise to measure the degree of balance you have between the demands of work, family responsibilities, and personal time.

Answer each question with a number from 1 to 5; with 1 = always and 5 = never.

At Home

_____ Does your family complain that you don’t spend enough time with them?

_____ Do you make your family sit in the front row during worship service so the church will see them?

_____ Do you often feel anxious about the demands of your family?

_____ Does the church’s Wednesday night meal double as your family dinner?

_____ Do responsibilities at home make you resentful?

_____ Does the fifth- and sixth-grade lock-in double as your monthly family night?

_____ Do you check your voicemail or email more than once a week when you’re on vacation?

_____ Do you expect your family to adapt to your career needs?

_____ Is your family vacation ever spent catching up on responsibilities at home?

_____ Have you ever cut short a vacation for an emergency at church?

_____ Subtotal

At Work

_____ Do you feel frustrated because your income isn’t enough?

_____ Do you feel guilty about the time you spend on your career?

_____ Is your “day off” constantly spent working?

_____ Do you resent having to bring work home?

_____ Do you worry that your work interferes with family needs?

_____ Subtotal

Personal

_____ Does it feel there’s never enough time for yourself?

_____ Do you feel guilty about taking a vacation?

_____ Do you wish you could get more exercise?

_____ Does preparation for your Sunday school lesson double as your daily devotion?

_____ Do you feel you never get to do what you like to do?

_____ Subtotal

_____ Total

The lower your score the better! Your total score indicates…

  • 51 to 100 shows that you’re barely managing the juggling act of home, career, and personal needs. You need to change your juggling act.
  • 41 to 50 indicates a fair balance. However, one or more of the areas of your life may be suffering from neglect.
  • 31 to 40 indicates a good balance with some need for improvement. You’re on your way to making every area a priority.
  • Less than 30 indicates that you’ve learned to balance family, career, and personal needs successfully. Good job! Keep it up!
  • A high score in only one area indicates a need to organize that one area so it takes less of your time and energy.

For more great articles like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


2 thoughts on “Married to the Ministry: Find the Balance Between Work and Family

  1. Andrew Brown

    It’s so hard and essential to get this right in ministry. Thanks for the reminder. This reading plan looks like it may help, too: https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/4855

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Married to the Ministry: Find the Bal...

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