Written by Marcus Honeysett
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
The following is the text of an address given to the All Souls Langham Place School of Evangelists in November 2011. The talks weren't recorded to allow for more personal interaction.
The main audience was evangelists but the talk is equally applicable to other leaders in local churches.
On one occasion an evangelist’s wife came to me in tears, to ask if I would speak to her husband’s boss to ask him to force her husband to examine his ministry priorities and spend more time with her. I knew her husband and was well aware this wasn’t a selfish request. For a long time he had used doing the Lord’s work as a justification for patterns of life that were dishonouring his wife and eroding his family and marriage.
I went to see his boss to discuss her concerns. His answer was that it wasn’t his responsibility and that the wife, not him, needed to talk to her husband.
I began to supervise two women evangelists who regularly worked between 250 and 300 hours a month. They were often unhappy, struggled with low-level illness, had no time for recreation, family or friends, they resented the work they were doing and maybe to some degree resented the Lord.
I suggested that 200 hours a month was much more sustainable only to be told that they couldn’t do their job in that amount of time, along with lots of high sounding claptrap about it being better to burn out than rust out, with Hudson Taylor being wheeled in to defend their choice of life and ministry patterns.
So I tore pages out of their diaries and after a term had cut down their work to around 200 hours a month. They were happier, healthier, enjoying the ministry and the Lord, and had time for recreation, family and friends. Most interestingly they were doing almost exactly the same work. All the rest had been law-of-diminishing-returns, desperately trying to stack up the hours because it felt like that was the only measure by which they could assure themselves and their prayer supporters that they were doing a good job.
Two examples of ministry idolatry – or justification by ministry – driven by wrong expectations or others or by the fact that, unlike most other people, we have very few reliable measures of success for what we do.
In both cases expectation was key and expectations were wrong. These wrong expectations were driven by two factors: internally the felt need to prove our worth and externally the comparison with others, particularly in that situation in team life where it was easy to compete to try to outdo others in gospel effectiveness. The comparisons game in Christian leadership is foolish and spiritually deadly. (There are few things more depressing than comparing yourself to 25 year old, single, male evangelists who want to have a super-ministry and who think the way to get it is to demonstrate to their elders how busy and tired they are in the work, as if that was some guarantee of godly ministry. I hasten to add that not all 25 year olds fall into the trap.)
Maybe you do the thing I do sometimes and construct my idea of the perfect ministry. Someone with the capacity of Hudson Taylor, the preaching skill of Don Carson, the theological rigour of the Apostle Paul, the ability to win thousands for the Lord of a George Verwer and the holiness of Jesus. And then I measure myself against this picture, fail catastrophically in every area and go away thinking that my heavenly report card probably reads “must do better”.
Ministry and Home
Many of us have a much stronger theology of ministry than we do of home. And therefore feel the pressure and incentive of ministry more keenly. And the casualty is frequently home life, family and friends. One observation in my work with Living Leadership is that a common cause of people giving up ministry prematurely is spouses who feel that they have been persistently neglected in favour of ministry, and who haven’t been able to say anything about it without feeling like they are being unfaithful to the Lord.
About 6 years ago I started to make a note whenever a Christian leader told me they were wrestling with discouragement and pressures on family and home life and the gradual undercapitalisation of spouses recur frequently on the list. Rarely enough in a single incident to cause a radical re-evaluation, but enough that leaders’ families often feel they are the least spiritually fed people. Spouses regularly carry the greatest burdens in return for the least input. Let the patterns persist unchallenged for 15 years and you have a recipe for disaster.
The goal of evangelism is Christ being formed in people’s hearts by faith. It is union with Christ. People becoming worshipping, witnessing disciples with us in his body, the Church. What is the clearest picture we have on Earth of Christ and the Church? Marriage.
Let’s turn to Ephesians 5, which we know so well. Read Eph 5:18–32
There is an intimacy here between husbands and wives that is almost as close as it is possible for human beings to get in this world to the intimacy enjoyed between members of the Trinity. I say almost, because there is one experience of intimacy that we experience which is closer even than that, and that is the union between Christ and the church. Marriage itself, even gender – male and female – were created to illustrate that union as profoundly as it is possible to illustrate it this side of Heaven.
Don’t trade off ministry and family
If union with Christ is our goal, and this marriage picture is the clearest illustration then I contend that as soon as we get ourselves into a position where we assume that we have to make tradeoffs between ministry and investing in our families - and for those who are married, our marriages in particular – we have taken a huge false step. All the alarm bells ought to be ringing.
Following the picture of marriage illustrating union with Christ, it should subsequently come as no surprise to hear the church described as God’s family. Families are created to illustrate and make us enjoy God’s family, just as gender is created to make us long for the Great Wedding. Eph. 4 says that leader – including evangelists – are given to the church so that it grows up from spiritual childhood more and more into Christ. So that it is connected in intimate family to Christ and builds itself up in love.
It should come as no surprise to hear in 1 Tim 3 and 2 Timothy 2 and Titus 1 that family is a cradle for faith and that leadership in the family is the clearest indication of suitability for leadership ministries in the wider family. Or to hear leaders referred to as fathers among the flock 1 Cor 4:15 or both parents in 1 Thess 2 – as a mother gently caring for children, a father exhorting children.
There are clearly lots of parallels between being a father at home and having leadership ministries in the family of God. Giving attention to our home life, therefore, is not only a proper and vital thing to do for its own sake – though it is that – and not only is it crucial for us and our families living God-directed lives, it is also critical for biblically functioning churches. It makes sense of the office of elder. It models marriage and family to others. It prevents prayers being hindered and satisfies the soul. And it is a vital apologetic for the gospel because it uniquely displays the mystery of Christ’s love for the church. People are meant to look at our lives, look into our homes, and see the difference union with Christ makes there, right in the nitty gritty and messiness of everyday life.
Respecting and honouring our families is non-negotiable
So let me ask how is your home? I pray that it is well with you. But if, as we ponder this morning, you find the Holy Spirit prodding you, it is critical that you spend time after this conference examining your patterns to see if they are godly. Respecting and honouring our families is not negotiable. It is at the heart of ministry. Perhaps more than anyone evangelists can be prone to compulsive work habits and find it easy to justify a busy-is-best mentality. It might be that the Lord says to you this morning that it is time to ask for some external accountability not for your work but for how you care for and enjoy those closest to you. We are created for intimate relationship that is not satisfied by any amount of ministry achievement. We are called to ministry, but we are created for family.
I have read 30 or 40 books on Christian leadership in the last few years. Do you know how much attention is given to leaders’ home and family life? Almost none at all - which is quite illuminating. (Lots talk about vision because they are written by leaders with strong gifts in that area. Few talk about character and family - draw your own conclusions!) There are a few books on being a minister’s wife which range from helpful to excruciating (there is a very good one out by Ann Benton, Val Archer and others this month from IVP). People who write books for leaders about leadership are more concerned with the task of leading than they are with the life of the leader, whether that is their prayer life, their marriage, family and friends. There are books for non-leaders on all those things, but little to help full time workers.
is married read that verse and think that their marriage is second best). But secondly, don’t let that tip over into workism that has no home life. Friends are peculiarly important for you. Friends in ministry maybe, but really just friends. It wouldn’t be quite correct to apply Eph. 5 to friendships, but there is plenty in Acts and the pastorals enjoining us to friendships of depth, that constitute home life in your situation.
Peter Brain expresses the pressure of ministry on home life well
A good case can be made that the first church is the family. We are born before we are born again. Creation takes place before regeneration. God is the author of both, os it would be ungodly and therefore unwise to exalt the one and disregard the other. If this is the case, pastors would be wise to keep the balance by maintaining the priority of the family. It is easy to neglect one's biological family in order to invest energies and time in the church family. Sometimes churches can actually promote and applaud the pastor's affair and "adultery" with the church. This is called "spiritualised adultery" by Paddy Ducklow, which he explains as "the daily reality of the church becoming the paramour" which "seems to lead the list in clergy marriage complaints" - when the pastor loves his work more than his home life. When this happens, says Dr Dennis Guernsey, "the pastor's wife is put in a terrible bind when the church becomes The Other Woman - but her husband isn't unrighteous for sleeping with her. No one considers this obsession immoral; he's doing God's work.
It is easy to see how all this happens. It is rarely a case of intentional neglect. It tends to be a gradual process that flows out of a desire to be wholehearted in Christian discipleship, and faithful in the pastoral vocation.
(Going the Distance, p102-103)
Leader’s flourish when home life flourishes
Now, we are called to be workers with others for their progress and joy in the faith, so that they overflow abundantly with joy in Christ. That is the heart of all biblical spiritual leadership. That is what we plan for, work for, exhort witness and disciple for. So that people come to Christ and grow up into Christ and delight in God through Christ. It is extremely common, however, that those like us who are commissioned by the Lord to be workers with others for their joy don’t receive the same encouragement of people doing it for us. And in many cases our close families receive it least of all. George Carey said this:
Churches die when leaders die. Churches die from the top downwards.
I would add to that that ministries die spiritually when families and home life dies spiritually. Ministries die from the inside out. Churches flourish when leaders flourish. And leaders flourish when home life flourishes. Yet most of our churches have no idea who spiritually feeds those who feed them, or even when it is happening at all. They assume it goes on behind the scenes. In very many churches that is an unwarranted assumption. We tell others “Jesus says come to him and take his yoke which is not burdensome and enjoy being connected to him”. We know that is where spiritual energy comes from. We neglect it for ourselves and our families at great peril.
The question we have to ask ourselves is:
Living in the love of God at home
The Bible parallels building godly home life and building godly church life in a whole host of ways. Don Carson lists, for example:
We could add all kinds of other things: protection, provision, spiritual counsel, witnessing to lost family members, teaching kids to be worshipping disciples, learning to practise hospitality together. We might want to say that all of these come under the heading of living in the love of God at home. Magnifying the blessings of God at home. Finding imaginative and creative ways to delight in the fatherhood of God and the Lordship of Christ and the work of the Spirit at home. Eph. 5 again sets all its exhortations for home life against the backcloth of being continually filled with the Spirit.
Living in the love of God at home. There is one thing that makes it possible above all others – planned time. I plan time for ministry at church, ministry away, for meetings, demands of others and for me. I find it easy to set boundaries in those areas. But much harder to plan time for home. For relaxed relating. And often our families and friends will find it easier to let us get away with that because they would feel guilty about stopping us. It is very hard to say “no” when good evangelistic ministry is calling. And it is what we are called to do so it always feels like the line of least resistance. We assume those closest to us understand and therefore graciously accept our busyness. And therefore find it easy to build in patterns that take home for granted, especially those of us who work from home, where we can tell ourselves that at least we are physically present even though we may be tired out and preoccupied with ministry.
One fundamental mistake goes like this:
The error is that we actually have a whole variety of callings and ministries. We have a ministry to ourselves before the Lord, to delight ourselves in him. We have God-given responsibility to family and friends. If we fail to recognise it we won’t balance living in the love of God out in our public ministries with living in the love of God in our home life. And the disconnect will gradually drain out our spiritual fuel tank and that of our families and lead to regret and in the worst cases the slow disintegration of affection. I was speaking to one evangelist who has stepped out of ministry following an affair. He said that over the period he neglected his marriage, his wife accepted it, over time distance increased between them little bit by little bit until he finally realised he was starved of affection and tragically went looking elsewhere for it.
So, planned home time. Do you do it? How often during your week do you do things with family and friends that simply demonstrate you like being together? Our diary is what demonstrates whether we honour our home life because diary demonstrates intentionality. Lack of intentionality is the big killer. Do you make appointments for home that are as sacrosanct as ones you make for ministry? If you don’t then you don’t think home life is as important. You may be a slave to your ministry expectations, thinking that you have to be all things to all people, responding to every demand. Most of us work over 60 hours a week. Why do we do that? For sure we are engaged in the most important work in the world for which we want to fling our lives away. But most of us, deep down, do it because we have to to get everything done or because we think we haven’t done enough.
I remember at the end of a weeklong conference being asked how many hours we thought we had worked during the week – and therefore how many would have to either make up afterwards if it was on the low side – or give back to our families if it was on the high side. Answers ranged from 20-70 hours from people who had all been at the same things, according to whether they had enjoyed it or not. But the next question came: how many hours would your spouse think you weren’t available for them?
So here are a few things my wife and I have found useful. None of them are rocket science:
Rest is often the result of being genuinely proactive. When we aren’t, other things always seem more pressing than care for home and self and soul. Let’s strive for patterns that honour rather than neglect the God-given gift of home life.
Our family and home life will outlast our ministry. We need to live in the love of God here. If we don’t we surely won’t do so elsewhere. We nurture home for its own sake, for our sake, for the church’s sake and for honouring God. We are wise indeed to attend to our family and home responsibilities carefully. How goes it in your home?
© Marcus Honeysett.