By Jill Briscoe
Have you ever realized that ministry is something you do primarily at night? I don’t understand how a couple can go all the way through seminary and not have that figured out. But I do know that once you get out of seminary and into the ministry life, stress and problems between couples erupt, often because of the time the wife spends alone in the evenings. I hear it all the time: “He’s out every night of the week.”
“But what did you expect?” I ask. “after all, you’re dealing with volunteers—with lay people. When are they going to be there for your husband? At night. So the very nature of the job requires that there will be a good amount of evening work.” You can get very frustrated about that, and the tensions can spill over into bad attitudes toward the church, towards those who are keeping your husband away from you or the family.
Eventually, you will have to temper such demands. I have had young women say, “We need him home at six or seven in the evening to help put the children to bed.” Or, “Since he’s a pastor, maybe one night or even two nights a week are all right, but absolutely no more.” As ministry wives, we need to be very flexible. There are some very practical things that go along with being called into Christian partnership, and one of them is a schedule that has to be regularly reorganized. Priorities will need to constantly re-evaluated.
Another special challenge to the vocation of ministry life is the emotional investment necessary. There is an enormous energy drain as you give to others. Other professionals, such as psychologists, doctors, teachers, and counselors, also have a lot of emotional investment in the people they serve. But most of those professional go home at night, leaving their clients behind them. There is a separation between work and home for them, however fine the line. I know that some of these good people put in plenty of overtime, and many, in fact, care much more than their professions require, but it is never really “expected” of them to be on call day and night, all hours, indefinitely. In the ministry, it is expected. Why? One reason is that the church is a family. Your relationships are more or less permanent. Let me clarify that. As far as God is concerned, the people to whom you have gone to minister to are a permanent part of your life, sort of like your spiritual family members. You never get away from them completely. You can take vacations and put a little distance between you, get away to clear your head and your heart, but until you move away to the next full-time, all-hours, all-days ministry, these people consider themselves closely related to you. In their minds your own family is just part and parcel of the bigger extended group you all belong to.
The best advice I ever got on this point came from Ruth Graham. I asked her how she had balanced family and ministry life. She thought for a moment and then said, “The problem, Jill, is that we have two families! God’s family—the church family—and our own.” Jesus experienced the struggle too. Shortly after going into ministry after staying home with His earthly family for 30 years, He began working so hard He didn’t have time to eat! His mother and brothers came to take Him home by force! When someone told Jesus they had come and couldn’t get near Him for the crowds, He said, “Who are My family?” Jesus then looked at those around Him and said, “Here are My mother and brothers and sisters” (se Mark 3:33-34). How hurt His earthly family must have been! Yet Jesus showed us we need to listen to God, who will tell us on a daily basis which family must come first that day!
Before you get too discouraged over this and decide that life in ministry is not for you, or that you don’t know if you even like this family that God has foisted on you, let’s remember that God promises you that His strength will always match any responsibility, however overwhelming it might seem. He says, “The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24), and he encourages Paul by saying, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul adds, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
God’s faithfulness will uphold you in the best and worst times of your ministry. He’ll never let you go. Sometimes I think he wants us to feel inadequate so He can show us how steady and strong He is. One of the circumstances he has used most in my ministry life to keep me dependent is change, and there’s always plenty of that in ministry.
Just Between Us (JBU) is privileged to have listened to the hearts of many women in Christian ministry. We invite you to spend time reading these articles as women, just like you, share their experiences, advice and encouragement for a life in ministry. Our prayer is that God will use the sharing of these women’s experiences to strengthen your faith and deepen your trust in Him as you continue in your own ministry journey.