Whether we like it or not, the pastor is not an autonomous agent, hired by the church without consideration of his family status. If a church is willing to do that, they merely want a church mascot, not someone to fulfill the full calling of pastoral ministry. The New Testament picture of the pastor is much more inclusive and robust.
In 1 Timothy 3:4, Paul insists that a pastor “must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity.” He then adds this word of explanation in verse 5, “If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?”
Within evangelical circles, there are differing views on the full meaning and scope of the household qualification. Does this mean that pastors are responsible for the sins of their adult children, who no longer live at home? If the expectation is for every child to be converted, by what age must they follow Christ?
We must take care not to speculate on the passage’s meaning and instead respect the plain sense of it. Its purpose is not to place an expectation on our children, but to place an expectation on our leadership of them. The household should reflect a biblical pattern and be flavored with the presence of Christ.
The wife should be a believer, endorsing and supporting her husband’s ministry. The children themselves should clearly reflect Christian-parental oversight, not given over to rebellion and thus damaging the minister’s witness.
While the pastor cannot microwave conversion or obedience in the hearts of his children, he must faithfully nurture them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. The point is not for the church to search for blemishes in our children. The point is that your family’s orderliness is a reflection of your leadership. One child out of four going wayward probably reflects more on the child than on your ability to disciple and lead. Three children out of four going wayward may reflect more on your leadership.
Admittedly, there is a level of subjectivity to this qualifying point. If you are in ministry, you should be in conversation with your lay leaders to help you interpret this qualification in light of your particular family’s season and the expectations of the church. If you are contemplating ministry, and your family is in such disarray as to be an obvious liability to your ministry, then you most likely should not be pastoring.
Balance and wisdom are essential. We don’t want our ministry pursuit to become a weighty expectation for our family where they are more actors than people, living in a legalistic bubble of religious decorum. The point is that a well-ordered family reflects our ability to lead, disciple, and manage a church. Be honest with yourself: are you taking proper care of your household? (And if you aren’t married, are you taking care of yourself ?)
PROTECTING YOUR FAMILY
I want to digress here, briefly, from the qualification for ministry to an expectation of ministry: your family’s involvement in the church. A few years ago, while interviewing a potential staff member for a church ministry position, I was struck anew by the sensitivity of the matter. The interview was going smoothly until a committee member inquired about the role the candidate’s wife would play in his ministry. The young man became defensive, insisting the church was hiring him, not his wife. That brief exchange nearly torpedoed his candidacy, and it left me puzzled.
In the previous months, I had gotten to know the couple personally. He was a great guy, and his wife seemed to fully support him. In fact, in many ways I viewed them as a model couple, well balancing ministry and family. That is why I was surprised by the young man’s response.
After further conversation, I discovered that it wasn’t that the couple was reticent to give themselves to the church—both were eager to serve—but that the man had been coached by others in ministry to protect his wife. It was an appropriate concern inappropriately expressed.
That scenario was indicative of a long-standing question for pastors and churches alike —how do we rightly balance ministry and family expectations? This tension is felt by all who serve the church. It resides just under the surface in many congregations. Sadly, many men leave the ministry due to erring one way or the other in what is often a delicate balance.
In the mid-twentieth century—during the heydey of programmatic and event—driven ministry churches prioritized pastoral presence. In many churches, the pastor was expected to be virtually omnipresent. The dutiful parson was always roaming hospitals, making house calls, and presiding over every church function. In addition to limiting his time for sermon preparation, it often compromised his ability to lead his family. In its most excessive forms, congregations expected their pastors to lead ever-growing ministries, even at the expense of their families.
I know of one pastor who said, “A man has to choose. He can have either a great family or a great ministry. He cannot have both.” Other more budget-minded churches expected a “buy one, get one free” scenario. If you hire a man to pastor, then surely his wife will play the piano, coordinate the nursery, or direct the children’s ministry for free, right? The pendulum clearly needed to swing the other way, and thankfully in most contexts it has. Yet at times I fear the pendulum has swung back too far.
We must protect our families, but we need not sequester them. Balance is hard to find, but it must be sought. Many of my fondest family memories have been in the context of ministry, and many of my fondest ministry memories have occurred with my family present. Often I’ve made hospital visits, home visits, or shared the gospel with a child or two by my side. Over the years, my kids have heard me preach hundreds of sermons, sat through scores of seminary chapel services, and participated in dozens of church outreach projects. We’ve sought to make such outings enjoyable so that they made the body of Christ more attractive to our kids, not less.
If we really believe in the glory of the church, and of the splendor of God’s call to ministry, then it is not something from which we shield our families. We should expose them to it. I have learned that, oftentimes, choosing between family and ministry is a false choice. Why not just bring the family along?
That said, there are of course times when you ought to especially guard your family’s time. The wise man is always observing, always learning more about his wife and children. Different life stages, particular ministry contexts, and the personality of the minister’s wife all influence their participation.
If your season of life is particularly challenging, just be up-front and state plainly your needs to the church. Most likely they will understand. Over the years, my wife has been a wonder woman, resolutely supportive of my ministry. Yet, there have been seasons —like when our five kids were ages five and under—that required unique energy and attention at home. That required me, and my places of service, to understand.
One last comment: don’t be discouraged if the first time you raised the subject of your ministry calling with your wife, she had misgivings. The Bible calls us to lead and love our wives in an understanding way. Fear of the unknown might prompt initial reluctance. Pray for her and with her, share your heart, and include her as you seek wise counsel. The good news is, if God is calling you, He will call her, too.
Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know For Sure and What to Do About It, by Jason K. Allen, and originally appeared at JasonKAllen.com.