As we see some of the tweets from prominent pastor’s kids who are actively leaving or have left the faith, we need to be reminded of something Paul told Timothy.
“in my view, the Church is always more important than your family.”
For over 100 years pastors have been sacrificing their families on the altars of ministry. In 1993 and ’94, a study done found that 20% of clergymen and 24% of clergywomen had been divorced at least once. As of 2020 it was hovering around 19.9%, even with a pre-pandemic, The State of Pulpit Survey released at the beginning of 2020 showed signs that pastors were spending more time with their families. Given the current state of pastoral ministry it is entirely possible all the gains that survey showed will be lost. Consider too the amount of pastors kids who have left the church completely because they have seen how their parents are treated by church members and feel as though they have lost their parents to the Church. There are a few high profile examples, such as the son of apologist Francis Shaeffer who are now devout atheists, and tweets from Abraham Piper (John Piper’s son) show signs of deconstruction. In my personal life, the amount of pastor’s kids I have known who are still believers exceeds the number of pks ,like my wife and myself, who are actively still engaged in ministry. With the advent of the “family chapel” model of the Church in the last fifty years, the ‘marry us, bury us and otherwise let us be” model that makes up a majority of churches in America still today, it is little wonder pks leave the faith, especially since these are the churches that often become the meanest when the pastor does not do as they will.
In book two of “The Desperate Pastors Wife” Trilogy by Ginger Kolbaba and Christy Scannell we get a glimpse into how treatment of the pastor can affect the family, especially the kids. Lisa, one of the four pastor’s wives , has a 14 year-old daughter named Callie. Their church in Red River Ohio is in open rebellion against Lisa’s husband Joel and is spreading incredible rumors around town. Callie sees the way here dad is treated, and the way she is treated (her Sunday School teacher is the leader of the rebellion) and she slips into depression and begins to act out. She is angry at seeing how her father is treated and it angers her and she acts out accordingly. It is not until Lisa takes her out for a girls day that they get a chance to talk through everything and pray together. Had Lisa not had that conversation, it is entirely possible that Callie would have walked away from the faith. It has to be said, this pattern is repeated over and over again, and it’s an all too common story.
But the treatment of the pastor by the Church does not just affect the kids. When my wife and I entered ministry after seminary my wife joined several support groups for pastors wives. Within two weeks she had left all of them. Why? Because almost everyone she encountered was either hurting badly or had left the faith and those that seemed to be reaching out in genuine love and care instantly started pushing MLMs after they had crossed a certain relationship threshold. I am grateful to know that my conference is developing a resource for PW’s, because it is so desperately needed. It is hard to watch your husband work for the Gospel only to be attacked the moment he does not do what the people want.
And that was all true before the pandemic.
Since 2020 it is true that many pastors have found themselves in increasingly difficult situations with increasingly angrier church members. Last year pastors were attacked over their approach to COVID, their responses to police shootings, acknowledging the results of the 2020 Election (or not acknowledging those results), lack of support for the former guy (or support for), ,condemnations of White Supremacist Violence and Christian Nationalism (or support for it) and the list goes on and on. I have had friends who have had red-faced church members screaming at them, and now I have experienced that myself. Add to the fact that a vast majority of pastors reported working more hours through the pandemic, not less.
Somewhere in all of this, the pastor is somehow supposed to “manage his household well with all dignity” (1 Tim 3:4). Somewhere in the midst of all that has happened in the last year we are called to manage our households well. We are to be good stewards of the families God gave us. There is a reason for this: “for if someone does not know how to manage their own household, how will they care for God’s Church” (3:5). The point here is clear. If an overseer or pastor cannot be a good steward of his family, they will not be able to be a good steward of the family of God. Part of caring for one’s family though is caring for oneself. If the parents of the family are unhealthy, then the family system will be unhealthy and they will take that lack of health into their reactions outside the family. If a pastors life is in chaos, his family in chaos, then his church will be in chaos. The leaders of the Church in Ephesus that Paul is writing against clearly had failed their own families and were spreading that family failure around to other households. The result was an extremely unhealthy church led by unhealthy leaders.
That is why one of the seven guiding values of the Conservative Conference of Congregational Churches is healthy pastors. It is true that: “As the pastor goes, so goes the church.” That is not always true. Sometimes church systems themselves are unhealthy, and a healthy pastor will either help root out the reasons for the lack of health or get dragged into unhealthy behaviors by the congregation. Still, it is generally true that the health of the pastor will determine the health of the Church.
Pastoral Ministry is hard. There is a lot to do, especially if you are in a small town and the only staff person. Small town pastors are also often missionaries to those small towns, that is, it is increasingly possible that to have any type numerical church growth you are out evangelizing and ministering not just to your own congregation but to the town. It is also true that because of small town dynamics there is historical baggage associated with the Church that has to be dealt with before the community will take the church seriously. That is on top of taking care of their own flocks and guarding and protecting/managing their own households well.
That is what I want to focus on from here on out. It has to be said that this is a command to Church Overseers, one of many in 1 Timothy 3:1-16. It is given as one imperative verb in a sea of imperative verbs that begin with: “must be above reproach.” Everything that follows is an imperative command intended to help us keep that first imperative command. You will be “Above reproach” if you are married to one person at a time (without scandal), Sober minded, hospitable and so on. This is the context in which the imperative command to find someone who manages their own household well falls. It is not something that someone gets the choice in doing or not. If an overseer or pastor cannot manage their own household well, they are not going to be able to manage the church well. It is just that simple. An overseer or pastor who neglects his family and spends more time with the church than with them (the model for the American Church for the last 300 years) they are actually disqualifying themselves from service. The family is a gift given by God (Ps 121), the family is one of the primary vehicle for populating the Earth (Gen 2,3,9) and the model for the relationship between the church and Christ (Eph 5). To neglect the family for the sake of the Church is to neglect a gift from God which brings about the population of the earth and which represents the relationship between Christ and the Church. It also opens up the door for moral failures and pride. How many pastors have fallen because they turned to someone else other than their wife for support? Too many, and those women are still hurting. Interestingly enough, this is one of those cases where the Greek is pretty clear. One must steward their own household well or they are disqualified from stewarding the House of God. The order is lain as well, household management comes before church management. Household management qualifies you to manage the Church.
What this requires for the overseer or pastor is “balance.” I know that is a four-letter word in our society today, we are encouraged to indulge completely in everything we do, burn-out be damned. But if that is the way of the world, shouldn’t the churches way be the opposite? If workaholism is encouraged in the secular world, shouldn’t the Church find balance between work and life? Not in the way that the “mindfulness” folks talk about, but in a godly way that follows the way of Jesus in scriptures who worked, rested, prayed and feasted. Before He died on the cross he saw to the care of his mother through the Apostle John. We often try to paint Jesus as anti-family based on some of his teachings in Luke, but that seems to have been furthest from the truth. He never married, but he did build a family of followers who viewed themselves as a family and treated one another like family. Later in 1st Timothy Paul uses family designations as the blueprint of how Timothy is to treat older and younger men and women (1 Tim 5:1-3). Not in the cold terms of “pastor to lay person” but in the loving and caring terms of a family. That is at least one reason Paul wants overseers to be able to manage their own households well, because when they come to lead the church, they are not leading a business like a CEO, but as a leader in a family.
One of the books that has stuck with me almost 10 years after I read it was Nathan Foster’s “Wisdom Chaser.” Michael is the son of pastor, author and speaker Richard Foster. In the book he describes growing up with a dad who spent more time doing ministry than he did caring for his family and how that caused both spiritual and emotional struggles. The book follows the true story of how they reconnected while climbing fourteeners in Colorado. “Whenever dad and I were together” Foster writes: “It was usually for some express purpose, usually revolving around some activity or accomplishment. We weren’t together just to be together until our seventeen day trip to England a month before my second attempt at Longs.” This was after he had graduated college, completed an internship at a church and found the “perfect job” as a counselor at an addiction treatment center. In the afterward Richard Foster acknowledges that he had to learn from Nate, had to hear some hard truths about what a life of ministry had done to his son and his family. Nathan records that he “accepted Christ as savior at 16, without my parents knowledge and started attending a local church.” If this is not heartbreaking, then I do not know what is.
This is not what I want for my family, I don’t want to get to know my daughters after years on the road or 15 hours a day devoted to church work that keeps me from ever seeing my family. I set the boundaries in my ministry where I did so this would not be a problem. If anything, I hope my daughter writes a book of her own entitled: “Blocks with Daddy” or “Life as Wiggle” about how we had a strong and healthy bond. I want the lines of communication to be opened to one another, for both her and her sister to look back on our years in ministry as hard, but not destructive to her life, mental, emotional and spiritual health. If I lead 1 Million people to Christ and my family is in disarray, the gift God has given me is in tatters. If I sacrifice them on the altar of ministry, perhaps it was not Christ I was serving? That is not a thought I want to have in 20 or 30 years.
Listen pastors, our families are gifts from God. We have an obligation to them in Christ. But here is the thing: in 1 Tim 3:14 Paul writes that: “I am writing these things to you that you may know how one ought to behave in the house of God.” When I teach my master course on 1 Timothy I always place special emphasis on 3:14-16 for this reason, everything from 2:1-3:13 flows into these three verses and everything from 4:1-6:21 looks back on these verses. Since the Body is one, this book teaches us how one should act in the body of Christ. If you are member of the Church, 1st Timothy teaches you how to live. Starting with prayer and the Gospel witness (2) to the expectations of leaders (3) to the pastors responsibilities (4) to the family responsibilities (5) to the rich (6). And it does this as a corrective to the incorrect behavior of the false teachers (1) and the damage they were doing (4,5). It is not a model for how to do church as some have supposed, but a model for how we are to live within the Church. This is important, Paul is not telling Timothy that these men and women should take on these traits in chapter 3, but that they were to already be examples of this kind of behavior because the entire church was working towards this behavior as people who had “grow(n) up into Christ” (Eph 4). All these things should come naturally as we seek to produce the fruit of the spirit, if they do not, we are still in the flesh and bearing the fruit of the flesh. We should naturally be able to manage our own households well by the Holy Spirit, as people living in the new life, and that will translate to managing the church well.
So pastor, put your family before the Church. You may find that you are better equipped to do ministry, not less, and you will reap the blessings of a peaceful family life and get to see your kids grow up in such a way that you will not have to get to know them later in life. You will also be able to shepherd them towards Christ, discipling them to live Jesus Life in the Jesus Way.