Three of the greatest moments in my life were when I got married, when I had children, and when I began full-time pastoral ministry. Since all three of these happened within a short period of time, there was much I needed to learn and to learn fast. My education was very beneficial, but no class lecture could prepare me for the pressures of balancing my marriage, my pastoral ministry, my children, and my church. It was going to be a process, and through those early years I learned many lessons.
The truth is, a minister’s credibility is assessed by how he relates to his family and how they respond to his oversight. Godliness in the home is as important as godliness in our private lives. In fact, as Alistair Begg and Derek Prime point out:
The proof of godliness is our godliness in the home. This may seem an extremely high standard, and it is. But the home is the most strategic sphere of witness because it is there that we demonstrate how genuinely we do what we tell others to do. . . . If we neglect our families, we eventually undermine our entire pastoral and teaching ministry.1
This can be a frightening thought. The truth is that we can no more make our families holy than we can make the members of our church holy. Besides praying, faithfully leading them spiritually, and actively modeling and instilling in them biblical values, there is nothing that can be done to ensure that they will embrace Christ and live spiritually mature lives.
So, what is a minister to do? To fully answer that would require a book-length treatment, but let me point out one important principle that is often overlooked. Pastor, you must protect your family: first, from yourself, and second, from the church. In this post, we will look at the first, and then we will address the second in another post.
Protect Them from Yourself
The temptation, given your position (especially as you first begin), is to force holiness (or moral conduct) on your family (wife and children) so that they conform to an outward pattern of spirituality. This mind-set is verbalized every time you remind them, “Remember your husband/dad is the pastor, so you must act like. . . .” Of course, sinful behavior is not to be tolerated, but that is true of your family members because they are Christians, not because they happen to be related to you, a pastor. True, there are activities and social settings that you, as a pastoral family, may not be a part of because of your position, but that’s not the point. What I am warning you against is pressuring them to put on a spiritual facade—a moralistic cover-up. It is amazing (and alarming) how easy it is to preach abounding grace from the pulpit but resort to only law in the home.
I can recall a comment by my daughter (who gave me permission to share this) when she was in sixth grade. We confronted her about her behavior and her lack of concern for doing her Scripture memorization. She said to us, “All I do is study the Bible.” I laughed, but then I thought about it. She attended Sunday school and the morning and evening worship services. She attended our Christian school during the week, which included attending a Bible class every day. On Wednesdays, she went to youth group, and at home we did devotions at dinner. The evening ended with Scripture memory and prayers at bedtime. She was right. She was most likely studying Scripture more often than anyone in the congregation, and yet I was angry because she didn’t memorize a verse that would show her teacher how spiritual she was.
If I’m honest, too often my desire was for my congregation (or her Christian school teachers) to think my four daughters were holy, not that my girls would actually possess genuine holiness. We must be careful to protect our children from our sinful motives.
There is no easy answer on how to balance this, particularly as it relates to your children. But over the last twenty-five years of ministry, I have learned that a pastor should never require or expect their children or wife to attend all the church programs. For many, this is a temptation when they first begin in pastoral ministry. It was for me. It is, however, not healthy. My children were expected to go to church. They didn’t have a choice but to participate in family devotions. However, although I wanted them to wake up every day desiring to go on every mission trip, join every Bible study, and attend every youth meeting, I did not require it.
When pastors do not require their families to attend every church activity, several things are accomplished.
First, it instills the importance and priority of the corporate worship service. Other group activities are good, and praying and studying the Word (and catechism) outside of Sunday is necessary (particularly together as a family), but what is most important for our kids to learn is that corporate worship is required by God and essential for spiritual growth. If you require your children to attend every church activity and trip, you can unwittingly communicate that every activity is of equal importance as long as what you are doing is “Christian.” Where you draw the line on which church activities are required of your family will be a decision you and your spouse will need to make. It may be that Sunday school and youth group are nonnegotiables. That is fine, but be careful with confusing them with the idea that the mature Christian is the one who attends the most church activities.
Second, not requiring your children to attend all church activities allows your children to take some ownership of their own spiritual lives. By the time a child reaches the age of 14 to 16 (each child is different), they need the freedom to make some important decisions, even spiritual decisions. They also need to experience the consequences of those decisions. I’m not speaking of letting them cross clear moral lines or allowing them to violate household rules. I’m talking about giving them an opportunity to learn to schedule their time wisely, balancing it between school, leisure, church activities, chores, etc.
This can be unnerving for any parent, and the pastor is no exception. In fact, it may be more daunting for the pastor because many in the church are looking at the pastor’s family with an eagle eye. However, if we do not allow our children any room to develop discernment and the ability to make wise choices, they will never grow up. I would rather they choose poorly while I am there to help direct their path than for them to choose poorly when they are off at college without a parental guide close at hand.
Third, not requiring your family to attend all church activities communicates that despite what people in the church might think if they decide not to attend youth group, their pastor/father/husband has not written them off as a child of the devil. My children’s (and wife’s) mental, emotional, and spiritual growth is more important to me than if someone in the church is upset that they failed to attend the ladies’ tea breakfast.
Finally, I think this decision not to require your spouse and children to attend every church activity benefits the family. It is unhealthy for any family, including the pastor’s family, to always be divided up—one going to adult study, another to youth group, one to the nursery, etc.—and never spend time together. If we are not careful, church activities can consume our lives, leaving little time for each other. This is my pet peeve with so many church programs; they sap so much time away from the family and from Christians just being Christians in the marketplace.
Dr. R. Kent Hughes explains:
The pastor’s busy schedule can take a toll on the family [imagine if you add to that your kids and wife attending all their respective events]. “Normal” people unwind on weekends; pastors are getting keyed up. For others, Christmas and Easter are relaxed family times; for us, they’re intense work periods. Since I cannot escape such liabilities, I’ve tried to balance them with one key asset of ministry: I can virtually schedule anything I want. The pastor’s schedule may be abnormal, but it’s also flexible.2
Use that flexibility to schedule quality and quantity time with your family. It doesn’t have to be a Bible conference or a mission trip (although that isn’t a bad idea); it just needs to be time for your family to know that although they do share you with the local body of Christ, ultimately you are their personal loving and caring shepherd. This will not only protect them “from you” and your schedule, but it will also protect them “from the church.” More on that in my next post.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the pastor’s family was first published on May 14, 2018. Next post.