Can you be an effective leader without destroying your family?

brokenfamilyIt is a poignant week to consider this question—which quite separately a friend raised with me yesterday by email.

I’m leading a workshop on ‘Living in the love of God at home and with family’. As I’ve prepared for it I’ve found very little theological and pastoral reflection (in print) on a theology of pastors/leaders as parents and spouses and how those 2 relate, ie a thoughtful look at a theology of home and family and leadership.

As it happens, there is a great resource in the Grove Leadership series, written by Katharine Hill of (appropriately enough) Care for the Family, called The Leader and the Family: Being Effective in Ministry Without Family Losing OutKatharine starts by setting out the reality of the challenge by means of some stories from individuals:

I can remember her so clearly. I had just finished giving a seminar for church leaders and people were leaving. She sat motionless, seemingly oblivious that the room was now almost empty. The team began clearing away books and stacking chairs, but still she sat there, in another world. I walked over and sat down beside her.

She began to tell me her story. In some ways, she did not really need to—I had heard it time and again. Unable to balance the competing demands on her life she felt guilty, isolated and alone. The words tumbled out through her tears, ‘It’s such a relief to discover that this is not just me, that others feel the same.’ This young woman was a church leader under pressure. In the seminar, I and my fellow speakers had unpacked some of the particular issues that church leaders face. We had not given any easy answers; we had simply offered encouragement and hope, combined with some practical coping strategies.

Whilst many others in different walks of life identify with the tension of balancing work and family, the particular demands of ministry can mean that if we are not careful the bias is weighted in favour of the church. If we do not intentionally prioritize the claims on our time the bias kicks in, with our family taking subordinate place. One wife (it could equally have been a husband) wrote this:

I don’t know that I can go on any more. He has become so preoccupied with the demands of the church that distance has come between us. It’s as if a third person has entered our marriage. The church has taken over every aspect of our lives—conversation about church even takes place in the bedroom. We have no time together any more, just for us. (pp 3–4)

Having look at the stories, Katharine then stands back and considers the reasons that these pressures can build, including the nature of the call to Christian ministry, the fact that the longed-for ‘slower day’ never actually comes, the demands of those who shout loudest, unlimited expectations, the sense that we as Christian leaders are somehow indispensable, and the corrosive effect of criticism. The one that stood out for me was: ‘Success’ in Ministry is More Easily Measured than ‘Success’ in Family Life:

As a society we seem to love to rank things in order of merit: best sportspeople, best-dressed women, the fittest men, best films, books and even churches. But the problem with rankings is that the process can be riddled with subjectivity and bias. Who and what we measure have everything to do with the people we ask to make the selection and the criteria they put in place.

What is true, however, is that in life we tend to measure what we value. Whatever criteria we choose to measure ‘success’ (or fruitfulness) in ministry—and however random—it is possible to find a measure that will mark our progress and, in so doing, bolster our sense of achievement. Whether it is the number of toddlers at the pram service, the number attending home groups or the amount of money given to mission, we find things we can measure. It is right to do this, and to take encouragement from growth, but the problem is that success in our family life is much more difficult to measure—and it means that ministry is where we default to investing our quality time.

There follows a fascinating exploration of the resources in Scripture, and a story about a slightly unexpected insight.

Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, Georgia, has some personal insights on this issue. Married and with young children when his church was launched, he found that there was never enough time to do and be everything that was needed of him at church and at home. The demands of the fast-growing church found him giving it his best time, with his family having whatever time was left over. He felt like a failure at both church and home.

Two passages from Scripture had an impact on his ministry priorities: Matthew 16.18, where Jesus promises that he will build his church, and Ephesians 5, where Paul exhorts the Christians at Ephesus to ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (v 21), and commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church (vv 22–26). Stanley speaks of the freedom that came with the realization that in his call to authorized ministry he was not commanded to build the church, but that in his marriage he was commanded to love Sandra, his wife. (And if Sandra had been the leader there would have been a corresponding command.)

Katharine then moves on to seven practical strategies for getting the balance right between family and ministry. These include keeping a sense of perspective of where we are, fostering relationships, especially ones of accountability, how to set boundaries, and investing in positive parenting. But her first principle is about setting our priorities.

A colleague at Care for the Family used to keep a large glass jar on his desk full of stones. It served as a daily reminder of the story of the professor who presented his students with a jar and a pile of big stones. He put as many of the large stones as he could into the jar and asked the students if it was full. The students, surprised at such a simple question, replied, ‘Yes, it’s full.’ The professor then began to tip handfuls of smaller stones into the jar, which fell into the gaps between the larger stones. He asked the students the question again. ‘Yes,’ they replied. The professor picked up a bucket of sand, poured it in until the jar was full to the brim, and asked the question a third time: ‘Is the jar full?’ Thinking that nothing else could possibly fit into it, the students replied that it was. But the professor had one more thing he could add. He poured in some water, as much as he could, until it found its level. The jar was finally full.

The point of the story is, of course, that the order in which the items were put into the jar was vital. The big rocks had to go in first. Only then could the smaller stones, sand and water fit around the edges.

It’s an illustration I came across many years ago, and have used it in all-age services. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People used to make use of it in his training sessions. The video from one of these is well worth watching, all 12 minutes of it, since the ‘guinea pig’ he has chosen is absolutely perfect for the part:

There is, of course, one important qualification to this: you won’t fit it in the jar if there are just too many rocks. Some of us probably need to try and fit less in. But we all need to put the most important (not necessarily urgent) things in first.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 23.31.54Katharine ends by focussing on the positive: most situations of ministry allow a remarkable degree of flexibility and freedom, and control over our own time—which is probably why clergy tend to live so long! The booklet is geared very much to those who are married, and probably with children. For a complementary resource (which speaks more widely) then do look at Kate Wharton’s Single Minded.

But this booklet—available post-free from the Grove website—meets such an important need. If you are achieving the perfect ministry/family life balance, can you think of someone who might value it?

Follow me on Twitter @psephizo

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

16 thoughts on “Can you be an effective leader without destroying your family?”

  1. Thank-you for drawing my attention to this booklet. As someone married to a vicar I have been frustrated to find so little theological guidance concerning marriage and ministry. In fact having studied theology to masters level I have been writing my own theology of marriage and ministry just to help myself figure out what I should believe about being married to a minister! There are plenty of books with practical tips and advice but very few with a robust theology of marriage and ministry. I will definitely be buying this as well as copies for friends who will be starting curacies this year.

  2. We went through this ourselves, notably when we lived and worked as mission partners in Nigeria. It was vital for us to learn that Christ commands husbands to ‘love their wives as Christ loved the church’ and to remind ourselves that the command was NOT ‘husbands love your ministry … ‘ It was a fundamentally important lesson and when we came back to UK and were both ordained, we were able to agree immediately on our priorities as a way of nurturing our marriage and family life. The temptation to consider oneself indispensable is exactly that – a temptation. It takes courage to leave the answerphone on instead of leaping up immediately to answer the phone – but it does mean that you can have one uninterrupted meal together each day. And it helps to go out for your day off. If you’re not at home you can’t deal with it – and switch off that wretched mobile! What is it – master or slave???

    I suspect these lessons need to be learned in every generation and it’s encouraging to know that this is being taken seriously again and help is being provided.

  3. I would also add that this can be an issue for those taking on lay leadership roles, often voluntary and whilst also balancing paid work and home life. It can be hard to ask for or receive pastoral care from an organisation you play a part in running. And all this too can lead to spouse and children being pushed out. Thanks for the post, I’ll look forward to reading the booklet.

  4. Is there a wider question, maybe around ‘what is the culture of church that is being developed?’ Having worked in a large charismatic church, the culture of Christian Celebrity was an unfortunate aspect to its life. With this came the expectation that you were to be working all the time. To the extent that church became your whole life. I’ve also found that church life can exist around the leader, with very few churches changing that, this means that the church can’t function without its leader. There are also leaders that encourage that type of model. So while i think that this is a great article, perhaps its just the starting point to the church exploring the culture that it is developing?

  5. Gill makes an important point about the need for each new generation to work this through. As a clergy kid who grew into a psychotherapist, working with ministerial families frequently, I have done quite a bit of research in this field. Now, as a late in life ordinand, I am pleased to be involved with a group of spouses at college who are wanting to explore this more fully. One aspect which is seldom considered is the impact of our own family background models. This involves attachment patterns, personality, and ‘drives’ that are often determined in childhood. Sadly far too many clergy seem to lack what Elaine Storkey called ‘intinacy with the self’ which involves critical engagement with our past. Yes, we need a good theological understanding of the role of church leader – but if we are to be truly effective in living well with our families there may be more to explore than is at first obvious.
    This discussion has reignited the possibility of me doing more writing on the topic. Thank you.

    • I found this a very interesting read: Holy Matrimony? An Exploration of Marriage and Ministry, Mary Kirk and Tom Leary, Lynx Communications 1994 but it is a bit dated now. I would be very interested to read more from a psychotherapy point of view as you are right, theology is not the only discipline with wisdom to offer on this issue.

  6. I reckon, the big problem is that folk confuse “love God First” / “unless you love me more than you love your wife / children you cannot be my disciple” with “put whatever my god given ministry / calling is first”. This misunderstanding is backed up by Jesus pouring himself out to death, the example of Paul. Plus contemporary high achievers. It applies to any job or profession.

    I’ll probably be buying the booklet! It should be easier for me to put into practice now. I had to retire due to serious virus (not through overwork) but after two years literally laying on a sofa 23 hours a day with the resulting CFS, recently became totally well. With twelve usual working years left, I’m going for the big rocks first!

    • Dave, thanks. Glad you are better now.

      I think some of these texts are hard to read, and I sometimes wish Jesus had not taught in a context which was so used to these kinds of binary polemic as part of its rhetorical arsenal. We really need to take a careful look at all that Scripture says about this, rather than just picking on one or two slogans.

  7. Family on a Mission by Mike and Sally Breen is another great resource. Their story and reflections on the journey of their family in ministry is full of great directions and help on this topic.


Leave a comment