By Jay Engelbrecht
Jacob never won a “Father of the Year” trophy. When his boys were young, he was scheming, acquiring. Enough was never enough. You know the story, the tragic news, weeping for his beloved Joseph. By the time he was an old, old man, he had learned. Told that Joseph was back from the dead, Jacob said, “It is enough. Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die” (Genesis 45:28, World English Bible). Quality time.
Fast-forward thousands of years. Bitterness and grief poured out of the preacher’s daughter, who loves her dad and supports his ministry, sort of. “How come you can be there for everyone else? You make time for everyone else. Don’t I count?” She carries a mountain of resentment—the church stole her dad.
Some years back, just after the funeral of a prominent preacher in our movement, the funeral director confided, “It has been a long while since I’ve seen that level of dysfunction in a family.” His assessment was charitable.
A preacher friend of mine jokes, “I’m not a workaholic, I just have a lot to do.” At least I think he’s joking, sort of.
I feel sorry for my minister friends. On top of their day job, they have:
• Monday night leadership meetings (6:30–11 p.m.)
• Tuesday night men’s group for accountability and investing in others (6–10 p.m.)
• Wednesday night church (6–9 p.m.)
• Thursday night, twice-monthly mentoring meals (5–7 p.m.)
• Friday night—free, maybe
• Saturday elders/shepherding meetings or welcoming new families
• Sunday church (8 a.m.–1:30 p.m.); home group (6–8 p.m.)
• Add in miscellaneous ministry, and a scattering of Friday evening and Saturday activities
• And calculate in all the contributions from their wives.
Speaking of wives, one told me (her voice tinged with sarcasm and anger), “Take a look around. It is very rare to see a ministry family together in the church like other families.” Another wife, whose support for her husband’s ministry is wearing thin, said, “There’s constantly this nagging sense that we’re not doing enough.”
Blessings, from Blessing Ranch
Dr. John Walker has seen it all before—the tension of juggling church duties with family. He founded Blessing Ranch as a ministry to kingdom workers. Outfitted with empathy, experience, and a PhD in counseling psychology, he’s met thousands of church leaders at the intersection of psychology and theology, which is often just before a detour down the road of burnout and divorce. When I asked Walker how preachers can balance career and family, he took me back to when Elvis was king.
During the 1950s, ’60s, and half of the ’70s, Walker told me, many ministry families essentially said, “Dad’s ministry is a high calling and we’re willing to take it on the chin to support Dad.” Somewhere in the mid-’70s and ’80s, that changed. Now families said, “It’s just a job and we refuse to come in second place to Dad’s job.”
Walker noted the inherent conflict, “Either church trumps family or family trumps church.” His recommendation—churches and preachers (and their families) find a way to cultivate multiple high priorities, managing the dynamic tension of “Yes, ministry is a high calling, and God has entrusted you with a family. Both deserve your time.”
Referencing Matthew 10, Walker observed that when Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them, “You don’t need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment.” For the equipment to function, churches must recognize the high call of being a dad. Wives and children must share Dad with the church community. Dynamic tension devolves to tension if the church stakes an exclusive claim. Walker remembers one church leader boasting, “We know we are going to use these young preachers up in two years.”
Wives have confessed to Walker, “I have so much resentment toward the church, I’d applaud if my husband resigned.” Churches and wives, please remember, he is the equipment.
What Preacher’s Kids Say
• “I don’t matter.”
• “I’m not good enough, apparently; he can go to other kids’ games but not mine.”
• “He discipled a lot of other kids, but he never discipled me.”
A friend of mine has heard all these depictions, and more, from preacher’s kids. Coach Urban Meyer’s children, Nicki, Gigi, and Nathan have a lot in common with PKs. Instead of suffering in silence, they took action, forcing their father to agree to a family contract before signing on to coach football at Ohio State University. The contract stated:
1. My family will always come first.
2. I will take care of myself and maintain good health.
3. I will go on a trip once a year with Nicki—MINIMUM.
4. I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office.
5. I will sleep with my cell phone on silent.
6. I will continue to communicate daily with my kids.
7. I will trust God’s plan and not be overanxious.1
Churches perhaps should come up with a contract so the preacher’s children don’t need to. Something like:
1. We know you’re not perfect, so no need for pretense.
2. If we expected your wife to work here full time, we’d have hired her.
3. We want your children to turn out well; don’t neglect them.
4. When you go home, go home.
5. Once upon a time you loved Jesus. If that starts to wane, let us know so we can help.
6. Go to your children’s ball games, recitals, etc. No excuses.
7. Your job is to educate, train, and inspire. Lead us. We’ll watch your back.
The End Is Near
During the final days of coach Jim Valvano’s life, his cancer spreading, a reflective Valvano confessed, “I was an absolute maniac, a terrible husband and father. Everybody in the stands went, ‘Awwwwwww, isn’t that cute?’ when my little girl ran across the court in a cheerleader’s outfit and hugged me before every home game, but for 23 years, I wasn’t home.”2
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, hospice nurse Bonnie Ware saw the same pattern over and over. All of her male patients wished they hadn’t worked so hard. They regretted missing their children’s youth.
Albert Camus wasn’t a preacher or coach or hospice worker, but a writer who won a Nobel Prize in literature. Camus remarked, “I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.”
The prophet Malachi echoed that. Quoting God, the prophet wrote, “But also look ahead: I’m sending Elijah the prophet to clear the way for the Big Day of God—the decisive Judgment Day! He will convince parents to look after their children and children to look up to their parents” (Malachi 4:5, 6, The Message; author emphasis).
1Wright Thompson, “Urban Meyer Will Be Home For Dinner,” ESPN The Magazine, August 22, 2012.
2Gary Smith, “As Time Runs Out,” Sports Illustrated, January 11, 1993.
Jay Engelbrecht teaches lifetime wellness at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.