My Family Comes First

“I need to put my family first.” I have heard variations of this sentence given mostly as a reason to decline getting or staying involved in some volunteer activity outside of the home. The activity could be anything, really, but for this essay I'm focusing on church ministry. As a rather new ministry leader in my own church, I'm starting to hear this sentiment expressed even more often.

Is there really a conflict?

I've thought about it quite a bit myself. It sounds right and wholesome on the surface. I too am a wife and mother and have at some level internalized the notion that I am to dedicate myself wholeheartedly and sacrificially to the well being of my family. At the same time, I've always felt uneasy about it, like there was something missing. Part of the unease is that I must confess I fall way short of giving myself fully and sacrificially to my family. Having a family has certainly shown me a level of selfishness within me that I had no idea existed as a single and childless woman.

But I don't think that is all of it. On a more fundamental level I feel that the phrase and the sentiment it expresses do not work for me, nor would the guilt of not completely living out that principle ever motivate me to do so. I don't wish to criticize anyone who has taken this to heart–I believe there are times that this needs to be said and lived out and no one should be judged for it–but I want to explore some of the reasons why it doesn't exactly work for me and see if there is a better way to live out the whole balance between family life and ministry life.

I've heard horror stories of people getting so involved in a ministry that they neglect their families, and I think that will always be a temptation those of us in church leadership need to guard against. The reminder that “family comes before ministry” tends to be what people use to guard against succumbing, but is this really true?

Does it really need to be this epic choice where one gets pitted against the other? I know that God ordained the family and family life from the very beginning. Catholic teaching refers to marriage as a sacrament and the family as the Domestic Church. Marriage and family are very important.

But God also spoke the Great Commission. He also told us to go out and evangelize and make disciples, and I believe the proper context in which that takes place is through the Church, which means on a practical level we get involved in the life and ministry of our church community.

Sacrifice is part of the game

I believe that no matter what the command is, obeying God in any of them is going to involve sacrifice. In fact, some of that sacrifice does involve family. Jesus made it clear that anyone who puts family before Him is not fit to be His disciple. Since disciples actually do something, which we tend to refer to as ministry, there is at least an implication that in some cases at least, allegiance to the ministry is going to come in front of the family.

Obviously, the ministry itself needs to be examined in terms of how closely aligned it is with actually living out Jesus' commands including the Great Commission. For example, although at times necessary, I wouldn't rate a church committee in charge of replacing the pews and carpeting to be on equal par with a ministry that involves teaching and forming people in the faith. And ministries that do teach and form need to be consistently examined for maximum effectiveness if for no other reason than out of respect for the sacrifices people are making to be involved. From here on out for the purposes of this essay I'm making the assumption that the ministry in question is directly aligned with Jesus' commands and as such worth making great sacrifices, including that of family, to carry out.

But of course, we don't want to be living in a horror story where we are laboring for the salvation of all souls except those of our children. There is definitely a balance that needs to be struck somewhere.

I don't think that a true balance can be found in ranking family and ministry in order of importance or in pitting one against the other in an endless competition.

Asking the difficult but right question

For me, something I need to do is examine the totality of how I use my time. Just because I am at home does not mean I'm automatically investing into my family or home. Before I would want to cut out ministry from my life, even if I perceived my family was suffering because I wasn't with them enough, I'd want to examine where all my time was going. How much time do I spend in prayer? How much time do I spend taking care of myself (also important)? How much time is used profitably and how much time is wasted? I'm taking time away from my family to write article. Should I be?

I don't watch TV but the Internet can take up a lot of my time, and not all of it is profitable. I think the sacrifice I need to be making is in giving up some of that Internet time. I could say the same thing about other things I find myself doing that when I consider them honestly I find really do not contribute anything to either my spiritual life, family life, or ministry life. And yet I find myself chafing the most at making those sacrifices. Why? Because even admitting that I need to make them points out in full color the selfishness within me that would insist that these things are more important than giving of myself to God and the people He has entrusted to me.

Knowing this about myself, I wonder if maybe the reason we look at cutting out ministry first when we find our family feeling the stress isn't really because it lets us off the hook. I mean, it sounds so noble to say “I need to give up this ministry because my family needs me at home.” We all know good and well that no one from our church is going to be watching us and holding us accountable to what we really do inside our home, so we can maintain the illusion that every minute we spend at home that will not be given to ministry is going to be devoted to investing in our families. We will be discipling our children, so we're still obeying God.

I just don't think that's the reality. The reason this principle of family first doesn't work for me now is because I know that the real reason I want to be home and not actively involved in something outside of the home is because I want to drink a cup of coffee, put my feet up, read a good book or have fun with some Internet browsing or writing blog posts such as this one. I'm not thinking of all the great things I can be doing with my children because I'm not using the time I already have to plan great things for them. OK, some of it, but not all of it.

I'm not knocking Internet surfing or drinking coffee or reading good books or any other leisure activity we might engage in, just pointing out that those activities are leisure activities–things we all do to rest and recharge our batteries. We all need leisure time, but maybe not hours and hours of it. The same could be said of recreational activities we sign our children up for and therefore commit ourselves to–something that I don't struggle with overdoing as much as maybe some others do. All these things have a place, but what that place is can be hard to determine because I'm not sure there is much guidance going around today. I could probably look up information on how much time is spent on prayer vs. work vs. ministry in the monastic communities and see how I could adapt it to my own life, but no one is handing me that information or showing me living examples of how it should work. In the absence of regular teaching either from the pulpit or in catechism classes on the subject as well as discipleship (as in people discipling me) I think I and many people have simply absorbed and followed the world's standards concerning work, leisure and so forth. I haven't studied the differences in depth but it's pretty obvious the world has it completely wrong. Since the world does not value ministry as much as it values education (which includes all the extra-curricular activities of our children in addition to school), it's easier to give up ministry until we become more thoughtful about the whole thing.

Saying “my family must come first” is actually too vague for me, being that I like to have things more precisely defined–I used to be involved in meticulous laboratory research. I don't feel satisfied saying that until I have it more defined. And providentially, I actually have a recent example of a time in my own life where I did for a time set aside ministry for the sake of family which I think was appropriate, in part because I actually was specific about it when I briefly explained my reasoning.

It helps to get specific

I serve at the Sharehouse (an Evangelical ministry which gives out food and secondhand goods) about once a month. This past August two of my children auditioned for and were given parts in a local production of The Nutcracker Ballet. Rehearsals were all held early Saturday afternoon. Although I could put in my time at the Sharehouse Saturday morning and still get my children to their rehearsals (they weren't actually conflicting) I decided I didn't want the intensity (I really hate being rushed) and chose to sit out of helping at the Sharehouse in the last quarter. I intend to start helping out again next month now that The Nutcracker is finished. Because the experience of being involved in The Nutcracker was so positive for both me and my children, it is very likely that I will do it again next year and also sit out that time serving at the Sharehouse. I believe that The Nutcracker is a good way to invest in my children and is worth making sacrifices for, including that of ministry involvement. I also feel that I (or another parent) could just as easily make a different decision. One is not superior to the other.

Why do I feel very good about my decision to set aside a worthy ministry for a time so my children could perform in The Nutcracker but can't feel good about expressing that I have to put them first? It's because I feel that with The Nutcracker, I made a conscious and well thought out decision about where I would be putting my time and energy and why. Once I signed the contracts for my children, I was committed to specific rehearsal and performance times and those all went on my calendar. If there was a schedule conflict (that happened twice, I believe) I had to make arrangements so that we all could be where we needed to be. There was no chance at all that instead of investing in my children through running them to their rehearsals, I would be frittering away the time at home doing something pointless but vaguely calling it “family time.” There was also no question in my mind that this investment in my children was a good one, or that if it turned out to not be true (if our experience was negative), I'd be doing something different next year.

So I guess my take home message from this experience is that not only do I need to be prayerfully conscious and intentional about which ministries I will involve myself in, I also need to be equally prayerfully conscious and intentional about how exactly I'm going to be ministering to my family and making disciples of my children. I don't want to mindlessly follow the ways of the world in terms of what I do with my family, but really think it through and then choose and commit to do those things that I decide (in collaboration with the other family members, especially my husband) are truly worth doing. Those things could involve family prayer and Bible reading, activities, homeschooling choices, leisure time, time to just be together and much more. I'm not saying every moment should be scheduled (that would truly drive me crazy), but I do believe there should be a purposefulness about most of the moments and especially the decisions I make about what to do with those moments.

Will my conscious decisions about how to invest in my family sometimes conflict with ministry opportunities? Absolutely. But in that case I will have something specific to bring to God in prayer as it comes time to make a final decision as to which path to pursue (prayer of course is part of the entire process), and when a decision is made I can own it without having to rank my choice as somehow spiritually superior to the other choice.

I also know there will come times when my ministry obligations will trump wonderful ways I'd like to invest in my children. But if I actually know what I'm giving up, what they're giving up, it's easier to find suitable alternatives. So in my example, if I had chosen to instead keep serving at the Sharehouse and forego The Nutcracker, I could have looked for a different performance my children could have been involved in that didn't present a conflict and my children would still be invested in. And then I could continue to pour myself out in ministry with a clear conscience.

Ultimately, I do believe that it is OK to place ministry in front of family at times. But as I've said I don't believe that it is a one time choice of ministry first and family second either. There will be a give and take between the two. I'm the Director of Religious Education (DRE) at my church. One of the usual nights we hold religious education classes, I opted not to be present because my children had a dress rehearsal at the same time. In that case, the children clearly came first. However, I made arrangements so that the ministry wouldn't suffer from my absence. I knew specifically what was needed and that on that one evening, other people could do it in my place.

In a more general sense, I don't believe there has to be a conflict between family and ministry. I think the key is being mindful about both.

Valuing my time and others' time

One of the things I have to do working for my church is keep track of all time I spend as Director of Religious Education. Although I find that burdensome at times, it has done wonders for me in terms of my ability to focus on my work when I'm doing it and be as efficient about it as possible. After all, someone on the other end might read over my log and discover that it took me an entire hour to write one email! If half of that time was actually spent checking Facebook, well, I could get caught, so what happens is that I don't check Facebook while I'm working unless there is a work-related reason to do so. Besides having prayerfully considered the decision to take on this position in the first place, I am now very prayerfully conscious of the way I use my time while doing that work.

I'm now considering keeping track of how I use the rest of my time in a similar way–perhaps as a Lenten exercise. I hesitate because I know what it will reveal about the fallen ways in which I currently spend my time could be painful, but that is the whole point of Lent–repentance. I know the exercise can give me the tools and the motivation to change because I've already seen how it's helped me in my ministry position.

As a leader in a specific church ministry I am also realizing very quickly that because serving in my ministry is a sacrifice for everyone who does step forward, and that in some cases they will be putting my ministry in front of their precious families, it is imperative that I hold their sacrifice with the utmost reverence. This means more than simply telling them I appreciate their service. On a practical level it means making sure that I am making the best use of what they offer, which includes their time, talents and spiritual gifts. It will take me a while to get a handle on all three, but I can certainly demonstrate that I value their time.

Professionalism in ministry

Most of my experience with ministry has not been all that respectful of people's sacrifice, including my own. No one was malicious or anything, but people I worked with seemed to want to hold long meetings that weren't very productive, time spent in ministry wasn't always very well organized, resources weren't always provided and the end result often was that serving in ministry was a rather harried and not super effective affair but which ended with us all patting ourselves on the back about what a great job we did anyway. If it was obvious that something didn't go well, we would reassure each other by saying “We did our best and God will even use our weakness.” It is certainly true that God does use our weakness. However, I feel that was often used as an excuse for poor planning rather than an affirmation of God's ability to work through genuine human frailty.

I'm not sure that I would know that ministry could be done any other way had I not had what I call professionalism in ministry actually modeled for me. The coordinator of a different ministry I serve in is very professional. In addition to volunteering in this ministry, I have set the schedule for all the volunteers since it began. The coordinator gave me some guidelines for scheduling which helped make it an efficient process and if someone didn't give me needed information on time, he got on it right away. He worked with me to streamline little details to make the process work better and take less time. When he runs a meeting it is short, sweet and to the point, and he doesn't waste anyone's time. At the same time, if you need to talk to him about something, he'll give you as much time as is needed for you to feel that the conversation was complete and not rushed.

Interestingly enough, the position of volunteer scheduler is one I hope to resign from in the near future. It felt like the right thing to move towards and taking on the DRE position lent itself as a logical reason. But the honest truth is I could easily continue to schedule the volunteers and be the DRE indefinitely because the scheduling process has gotten streamlined enough that it truly is not a major undertaking or burden. Now I realize that the reason I want to resign is the result of a slowly growing conviction within me that God has used my involvement in this ministry to teach me the lessons and grow me in the ways that I needed and that the time has now come for me to hand it off to someone else so that God can teach that person the lessons they need to learn and help them grow in the ways they need to grow through it. In other words, it's God's will that I resign. I feel that this is really the only truly right reason to either take on or resign from ministry, though God can express His will through various circumstances. When a ministry is run professionally, or at least when that is a clear goal–no one expects everything to be perfect all the time–there is the freedom and ability for me to make decisions about it based on what is God's will for my life, and not on other negative underlying circumstances that I may find the need to rationalize in some way.

The subject of professionalism in ministry by itself would make a complete essay, and I'm still figuring out what all the specific components are. Suffice it to say that I have seen and experienced it and very much want to emulate it. I'm starting to think that a huge reason for ministry burnout (which leads to the grandiose statements of “I must now put my family first”) is actually lack of professionalism. People feel like they give and give but their time and effort don't go very far and the people in charge do not try to improve the way their human resources are utilized, being content to instead pat them on the back and tell them what a great job they've done and that God will use what they have given regardless of how ineffective it was.

In the same way that I should be mindful and specific about what my choices in life are, I should run my religious education program in such a way that the expectations are clearly laid out for the volunteers, that their time is used in the most efficient way possible and that everything they give can be truly effective and valued. When that is the case, then I feel it is appropriate to also make clear that I expect them to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the people this ministry serves, and that sometimes they will be putting this ministry in front of their families. But they will know very clearly and specifically what it is they are being called upon to do and sacrifice. Then it will be easier for them to truly integrate it into the rest of their lives.

Getting there one step at a time

Being able to run my religious education program in this ideal sort of way means that I myself need to rise to the occasion. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, implying that in order to be able to love our neighbor we need to first love ourselves. In a similar way, in order for me to be able to truly respect my volunteers' time, I need to grow in the area of respecting my own time and my family's time. Since I can only do that through the grace of God, I need to be very much opening up myself to God and His work within me and place a high priority on my prayer life.

All these things fit together. I believe God sees it all as a whole and so should we. Our lives are not meant to be fragmented and conflicted but peaceful and holistic, lived in close union with Him. To get there starts with the simple act of coming before the Lord in prayer and then responding in obedience to whatever He asks me to do. That sort of prayer can lead to reflections such as this one, or maybe the reflection can even be part of the prayer itself. There comes a time where a moment of clarity is reached, the feeling and assurance that even though I have much to learn and understand, I know what I need to do next and the general direction in which He is leading me at the moment. Next, by God's grace comes the courage to follow through and obey.

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