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Balancing Act in the Parsonage

By Gail Johnsen

One thing most ministry wives would agree on is the struggle to balance family life and church life. Balance is hard to find and more easily lost. My husband and I have come a long way in our 20-plus years of ministry. Over the years our lives and ministry have changed dramatically. With each change, there has been a need to reachieve balance.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR BALANCE

From the beginning, our ministry has been a team effort. In our first position as youth pastors, I jumped in with both ministerial feet. I couldn’t have been happier. I quit my job, though money was tight, to have more time with the youth. It was a glorious 4 years of hard work and endless activity. Then came children. Time and energy were in short supply and family interests vied for priority and attention. Balance became an issue, and a decision was in order. In an effort to adjust, we transitioned from youth to senior associate pastor. We were able to reign in our nights away from home and focus on nightly mealtimes, striving to achieve a healthy balance between the work God had called us to and the family He had given us to nurture.

One thing most ministry wives would agree on is the struggle to balance family life and church life.

We now have four children–preschool to high school. We home school and are now senior pastors. Change has been constant, and with each new change has been the struggle to adjust and achieve balance. Achieving and maintaining balance in the parsonage is not a one-time event but a constant pursuit. Here are guidelines to help you keep your balance while in the ministry:

Establish values.

While most ministry couples will acknowledge, at least cognitively, that family comes first, how do they maintain this priority when the demands of ministry have their lives speeding out of control? Early in our marriage and ministry, before children, we decided that when it came to a nose-to-nose choice between ministry and family, we would choose family. Thus, when my children were sick, I stayed home. A championship basketball game meant a missed baby shower. This also meant I have had to shelve some ministries (such as writing) for a later time. I’ve had to say no to ministry that would take me away from home for extended periods. More was gained, I perceive, than lost in those decisions.

We explained to our congregations this issue of priority. Not only did they honor our decision, but understood that the example we set held true in their lives as well. We would expect the same from them.

The value we placed on ministry has had far-reaching consequences. I worked full-time (outside the church) during our first year of marriage and ministry to save for a down payment on a home. With that accomplished, I quit my job to spend more time in ministry. With that decision was the understanding that finances would be tight. Being a one-income family meant we would not share the lifestyle of many of our peers. Our kids often wore secondhand clothes. A new car was out of the question. But it was a value we shared and willingly made the adjustments to pursue it. Although this is not always possible or desirable for every ministry couple, it allowed us to live our lives purposefully.

Values determine priorities. Priorities keep you focused and balanced.

Accept the realities of ministry life.

Ministry is not a 9-to-5 job. The demands of people on your time, the financial burdens, and the constant juggling between family and ministry can leave you exhausted. Sometimes it seems more like a give than a take; the bad outweighing the good. Sometimes a 9-to-5 job sounds tempting.

Proper perspective in ministry is crucial. Having a heart for ministry is the key to perspective; understand that you are in the people business, and people take time and energy. It’s more than a job; it’s a passion for people. It’s a calling to tired, hurting, and lost souls. In reality, there is a certain imbalance that naturally comes with ministry. Office hours are flexible, ranging from early-morning crisis calls to late-night counseling sessions. Days off are subject to change, according to needs that arise. Staying flexible goes a long way in keeping your balance.

Be faithful to what God has called you to do.

If we are not careful, we can compare ourselves to others. When we do this, we always come up short. In our first senior pastorate, my predecessor was a mature, stately lady. The epitome of grace and elegance, she never had a hair out of place. She had the appropriate words for every occasion and was a minister in her own right. I was young, had two small children, and was 8 months pregnant. I was anything but "put together." No matter how much I would have tried, I could never have been like my predecessor. So I didn’t try. I was just myself. Our congregation loved me, and I flourished in the ministry God had called me to do.

Ministry will look different on every person. For one wife, faithful obedience to her calling is supporting her husband at home and caring for their children. For another, being a part of her husband’s ministry means just being there for him. Part of keeping your balance is being faithful to where God has placed you and being obedient to the things He has given you to do.

Resist the expectations others place on you.

Everyone has an idea of what a pastor’s wife should be and do. (And they usually express it.) This is one of the greatest causes of imbalance in our lives–trying to please everyone. I have learned that expectations carry a weight I don’t want to carry and bring deadness to my soul. I spent most of my early years in ministry doing it all in a desperate attempt to make my husband look good; or, feeling that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. Wiser now, I have learned to minister where I am gifted, not expected.

Achieving and maintaining balance in the parsonage is not a one-time event but a constant pursuit.

It may be even necessary to resist your own husband’s ambitions for you. Several years ago my husband established the tradition of inviting the senior citizen group to our house for a barbecue in the summer. He loves people and his motto is, "The more the merrier." Although hospitality has always been a stress point for me, somehow I managed to pull it off each year. As the church has grown larger over the years, the senior group has also grown. Last summer was especially hectic, especially around the time the picnic was scheduled. I have always wanted my husband to be proud of me, and I supported him in any way I could, but I knew I was at a breaking point. Finally, in desperation, I had to admit to him and myself that I couldn’t do it all. It was humiliating and freeing. The picnic was canceled, and I regained balance.

MINISTRY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE AN EITHER/OR SITUATION

It is not true you must lose your family to have a successful ministry. As one pastor’s wife explained, "Ministry is a lifestyle. It is a calling as a family and we do it together as a team." Yet, achieving balance in ministry and home is not a one-time event but requires constant refocusing and adjusting. As Lorna Dobson said in her book, I’m More Than a Pastor’s Wife, "Contentment comes in knowing struggle is normal and that you’re not alone in walking the narrow balance beam."

Gail Johnsen is a pastor’s wife who lives in Pasco, Washington.

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