Striking the Balance: Shepherding the Family and the Flock

They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept

(Song of Songs 1:6)

The PBS documentary “Carrier” is a fascinating look at life on board the USS Nimitz, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that bestowed its name on an entire class of ships. More than five thousand sailors and marines live in a floating armed city that the President can dispatch to extend the military might of the United States wherever in the world it may be needed. An aircraft carrier is a mobile four-acre expression of United States sovereignty in the global matrix of power and diplomacy.

Though the crew who serve on the Nimitz may perform radically different jobs, they all work toward one purpose: to maintain and launch aircraft that can deliver ordinance and demolish chosen targets. Food service personnel, pilots, and machinists are all there to make sure that the Nimitz does its job in any circumstance and at any place in the world.

Every day crew from various departments abandon their usual assignments and leave their typical tasks to participate in a curious but essential ritual called a “FOD walk.” FOD, an acronym for “foreign object damage” is anathema to the 85 aircraft that call Nimitz home. In three or four lines that stretch from one side of the ship to the other sailors walk over every inch of the deck. With their heads down and their eyes focused on the deck beneath them, they painstakingly search for an errant screw or a shred of metal because they know that the tiniest sliver of metal can damage and ruin a multi-million dollar aircraft and even cost lives. They have been made painfully aware that carelessness can do what the most sophisticated enemy weapons can seldom accomplish: take the Nimitz and its flight deck out of commission.

While we’ve all heard the horror stories of pastors who fall into sexual sin or embezzle funds, far more pastors lose their ministries—or, at the very least their joy—because they don’t vigilantly keep watch on the little things in their lives and ministries. In the same way that a nail or a piece of metal that is useful in its proper place can cause a crash if separated from its purpose, pastors who don’t faithfully guard against it can find that even a good thing out of place can wreak havoc.

Nowhere is the need to maintain a healthy equilibrium more important than in the balance between the public and the personal. Pastors often feel torn between church and home, between ministry to others and ministry to family. Though I would never deny the challenge that maintaining that balance presents, family and ministry are not in competition or contradictory to God’s perfect plan and will for our lives. Accordingly, when I feel like they are, then I’m doing something wrong! God doesn’t issue contradictory calls. If His Word is true then He has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We have all the time, resources, and opportunity we need to do God’s will.  No pastor can never claim a lack of God's supply as the reason he doesn't succeed at home.

While a pastor’s job is unique for many reasons, his family’s involvement and key role in his success or failure is certainly one of the ministry’s greatest challenges. He lives with a set of unexpressed expectations that may well make or break his ministry in a church. If his wife doesn’t attend services, for instance, her husband’s effectiveness may be compromised. If his children misbehave and disrupt the preaching, the pastor may find he has less authority to lead and less tolerance from church leaders.

Before we complain about the inherent unfairness of this phenomenon, we would do well to remind ourselves that God actually gives the church the right to examine the pastor’s family as part of his qualification for ministry. If an elder doesn’t rule his house well he can hardly be competent to lead the church of God. With so much at stake, ministers of the gospel must devise ways to strategically pour their lives and their time into their ministries at home as well as in the church. Though the complexity of life guarantees that ministers will always feel some tension, a few key principles can drastically reduce it and ensure that life doesn’t rip apart at the seams.


Make the Word of God Central

Through Moses God told the Israelites the ideal way to teach the Scriptures to the next generation:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).”

The primary task of a parent, therefore, is to train the heart of his child to love the Lord. The child’s life must be saturated with God’s Word. Instructing the child in the Word of God goes far beyond regular devotions. It means that every facet of life must relate to the Word. The child needs to see an evident love for the Lord and His Word that permeates every part of family life. Too many pastors spend time preparing sermons and lessons for church members while neglecting to impart a heart for God to their own children.

            The greatest theological education I received was not in seminary, but at my dad’s side. I was privileged to grow up in a pastor’s home and as a small child my father began to systematically and faithfully teach me the whole Bible. Before bed, riding in a car, sitting on the porch, or visiting with him in his study I would hear the most fascinating and dramatic stories imaginable. I can still recall the way he told me of Elisha striking the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle, crying, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” to see the waters part before him. I can still hear him telling me how Nathan confronted David, drawing him in with a story and pointing his accusing finger in the kings face, telling him, “Thou art the man!” My dad could make the characters of the Bible walk right out of the pages of Scripture and into my bedroom. He imparted an excitement and a love for the Word.

            One of the greatest compliments I ever receive from members of my church is “You make the Bible come alive.” What they can’t possibly know is that when they think they are listening to me they really hear my dad speaking God’s Word to my six-year-old heart. Now more than forty years later, that love for the Word overflows into my classroom and my congregation, but I owe it to a father who was never too busy teaching others to take time to teach me.

            In the same way, a pastor ought to relate the Word of God to the everyday occurrences of life. Children should be taught to value all people because they are created in God’s image. They should understand that the news on television is usually bad because men are sinners in rebellion against God ever since Adam sinned. They should be given a basic theological and biblical framework through which to interpret life.

            My primary task as a pastor is to teach my people how to feed on the Word of God so that they can glorify Him through worship and witness, obedience and devotion. If I make the Word central in both my home and my church, then those purposes will never be at odds. I might face strategic challenges regarding my time and influence, but never about what I am trying to accomplish. My intention in my home and in my church will coincide and overlap in wonderful ways.

Be Fun to Live With

“Joy” is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). If your Christianity makes you dreary and dull, you don’t understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit nor what Christ has done. If pastors would reflect the joy of the Lord in their ministry, marriage, and home, people around them would be delightfully drawn to the Lord.

While pastors often have to bear heavy burdens, they do their family a terrible injustice when they don’t learn to lay those aside when they walk in the door of their homes. I once asked my wife, Tanya, to tell me her favorite part of the day. She quickly said, “When you come home. You come in the door acting silly, imitating Ricky Ricardo, whispering something in my ear, or wrestling with the boys. It doesn’t matter what might have been happening, you elevate us. If we were in a bad mood, suddenly our mood changes dramatically. You have the power to lift our spirits in a moment.”

Feeling a little proud of myself, I asked her further what was her least favorite time of the day. “When you come home,” she said, shocking me a bit. “If you come in dragging and griping, in a bad mood and aggravated with someone or something, it doesn’t matter how great our moods have been, you drag us down. You have the power to make that moment either the best or the worst part of our day.”

Don’t Just Spend Your Time, Invest It

            A minister has to learn to invest his time wisely, rather than merely letting it pass. He must choose to be present for the events that matter. Some pastors pride themselves on “always being there” for their church members. Adrian Rogers used to say, “The pastor who is always available is seldom worth anything when he is.” Whether dealing with his church or his family, no minister can be there for everything. The key is to be present for the things that have the greatest impact. A pastor can overindulge his church as surely as he can overindulge his children. The key is to set an example of faithfulness, discipline, and integrity.

            Because of my schedule, I did not attend all of the ball games, school events, or performances of my children. We would have an honest talk about the event’s level of importance. If one of my sons said to me, “This is important to me. I want you there,” then I would do everything possible to make it happen. By the same token, I sometimes had to explain that because of a previous commitment I had made, I had to be away. I could not break my word.

            If children see that ethos consistently permeate their dad’s life, they will understand and support it. In 1995 when my oldest son was 12 years old, the Atlanta Braves won the World Series. Michael was a huge Braves fan, and I foolishly promised him that if they ever made it back to the Series, no matter how old we were or what we were doing, we would drop everything and go. To my abject horror, I watched the 1996 playoffs knowing that the World Series was scheduled the same week our church had scheduled an evangelist for a revival meeting. When they won the right to face the Yankees in the series, I knew I was going to have to keep my promise. Though I would usually never miss a revival meeting for a ball game, a promise was, after all, a promise. To this day I am not sure that the evangelist ever got over it or that my church understood (even though I did my best to explain), but I know my son learned that his dad was willing to keep a promise even when it cost him.

That kind of commitment made it easier for my family to understand when, at other times, I had to miss some events. I often brought them into the decision process, asking them questions like, “Which will have the greatest impact? What are the negative and positive consequences of each choice?” I believe that parents who pride themselves on being there for everything are little different than parents who buy their children everything they want. I want my children to know how high a priority they are to me, but I do not want them to ever think that they are the center of the universe around which everything else revolves. Some crises and needs are more significant than their soccer games, but in the same way I want my church to know that some needs in my family are more important than the WMU dinner.

In all candor, not everyone is going to understand the choices a minister makes. As much as I hate to admit it, pastors need to learn to live with someone’s disappointment. Someone will always have their own opinion about the way the pastor should spend his time, and they will inevitably complain about it when their expectations aren’t met. Sometimes a pastor just has to decide which criticism he is most willing to face: “He’s not always available,” or “His kids sure are bad.”


Include Your Family in Ministry Tasks

            A friend of mine used to tell me, “Wherever you go, take someone with you.” Following his advice, I always tried to take one of my sons on visits to homes, hospitals, or preaching engagements. I used those opportunities to teach them how to care for people, how to live a godly life, or just to listen to what was on their hearts.

            In the same way, I include my wife in my sermon preparation, frequently asking her for advice in crafting the sermon, searching for illustrations, or the best way to relate truth to a contemporary audience. A blessed fringe benefit is that Tanya has become a wonderful speaker herself, able to exegete a passage and present it in an engaging manner. Now that our sons are grown, she accompanies me almost everywhere I go. By including her in my ministry, we have grown closer and my church sees us as a team. I am less likely to face moral temptation or simply to grow distant from her. By including my family I cultivate trust, camaraderie, and competency.

            I have always realized that the windows of opportunity with my family quickly close, that I must seize the moment to share in their lives. My sons have grown and begun families of their own. Because I made investments in their lives, now I get to enjoy those Sunday night phone calls from Michael about what he preached, or Thursday night phone calls from Seth about how much his prayer group means to him. Because the Lord led me to invest in them, now I get to enjoy some of the fruit.

            No pastor can find the perfect formula for success, a failsafe recipe for balancing church and home, ministry and family, but if he is willing to take as much care for his calling as sailors take for the deck of an aircraft carrier, he can identify and remove the little things that would disable him. If God has called him to shepherd both family and a church, then God is most glorified when he sees that these ministries complement each other rather than compete.


Our Most Significant Spiritual Decision

 In 1980, the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church ventured far out on a very flimsy limb and called a 20-year old junior from Michigan State to be their Minister of Music and Youth. On my first day at the church, Tanya and I went on a date together for the first time. Thirteen days later, we bought the rings. Six months later, in March of 1981, we married.

            Convinced of a definite divine calling on my life since I was ten, on that very first date I explained to Tanya that I did not know where God would lead me, but I was committed to go wherever that might be. Though already certain that I would pursue a PhD after my undergraduate studies, I did not rule out serving the Lord in the jungle or some very remote place. Even from that first serious conversation she wholeheartedly and unreservedly said that she was on board and understood that the Lord came first in my life (yep, on the first date!). Though neither of us truly understood what that would mean, we were sincere in our desire to give the Lord our lives.

Wasting no time, we used our courtship and engagement, brief as they were, to make some key decisions. Tanya was working for a non-profit organization with special needs children at the time, and when the grant that funded her job ended in December of 1980, three months before we married, we decided that from that point on her job would be to help me in the ministry. She would plug into the church and work with students as though she were on staff. When we went on youth trips, she would be available to go. When young girls needed someone to talk to, she would have a listening ear and a word of encouragement. When summer camp rolled around, she would write skits, play softball, and love on kids with as much commitment as I, even though her name would never be on the paycheck. Whenever the Lord gave us children, she would stay home with them as well as continue to travel with the youth choir, teach a girls’ Sunday School class, and a thousand other things.

We made that decision when I was being paid $11,000 per year and living in a church parsonage. We had no idea how difficult it would be to maintain that commitment, particularly during the lean years in seminary, but neither did we know the harvest of joy and blessing it would reap in so many ways.

Now, almost thirty-three years later and with the perspective of history, we realize that no single decision we made as a couple bore more fruit or had greater impact than that one. Even more significant than my decision to go to seminary, more momentous than the calling to any church, with far greater effect than our move to Southern Seminary, our decision that Tanya would forego work outside our family and ministry was life altering. That single resolution shaped who we are as a couple and enhanced or actually caused all those other blessings.

            I hear the gasps and protestations already.

            Let me be clear: Tanya and I do not believe that Scripture forbids wives and mothers to work outside of the home. We know that a lot more is involved than a simple decision to live on one income. There are no shortcuts to sanctification, either privately or as a couple, and in many ways choosing to stay home will produce its own opportunities for conflict and spiritual struggle. A couple could make this decision and still be miserable and miss the will of God. We are not claiming that everyone who makes this commitment will find the fulfillment and contentment that we enjoy.

We are saying, however, that the benefits have far outweighed the costs. So much so, in fact, that we cannot think of any other choice we’ve made as a couple that has done more for our service to Christ, our holiness, or our happiness. We are convinced that this is a primary reason we are still deliriously in love, satisfied with one another, and delightfully fulfilled in ministry, even after so many years. That fact alone should merit some consideration from any young couple attempting to set priorities and a course of life that honors the Lord.

What It Has Cost

            To be fair, this decision has cost us some things. Everything in life is a tradeoff; you just have to be certain that the trades you make are worth it. We knew that this decision would come with a price tag, and it did. First and most obviously, it has probably cost financially. Who knows how much money Tanya would have been able to make? In fact, this commitment has been challenged from time to time by numerous job offers. When I was in seminary and unable to find a job myself, on an almost weekly basis business owners at our church were asking her to come work for them. That scenario has repeated many times. With Tanya’s natural beauty, communication skills, and a winsome personality that always fills the room, she would have been an asset and could have succeeded at many things. Every time she demurred, she was telling me that her investment in my life and ministry and in our sons was worth more to her.  

            For the first 15 years of our marriage we only had one car. During my years in seminary she spent her days with two little boys in a tiny row house in an Arkansas cotton field while I drove to the other side of the Mississippi River and sat listening eagerly to professors I enjoyed talking about subjects I loved.  While I was earning two Masters degrees and a PhD, she was spending her days teaching toddlers Bible stories, how to use the potty, and not to hit each other. At the end of the process I would be Dr. York and she would be, as always, Tanya. I do not judge our sacrifice to have been remotely equal. In fact, I would hardly use the word sacrifice for anything that I have contributed to this decision. Tanya, on the other hand, has sacrificed a monetary paycheck, a formal education, a certain social and peer approval, and any typical trophies of achievement. She has selflessly chosen the joy of seeing others fulfilled as her fulfillment.

What It Has Conferred

            The greatest gift that our decision bestowed has been a constant, unwavering shared and unified purpose in life. Because of Tanya’s commitment to completely immerse herself in our home and my ministry, we have found it far simpler to present a united front in our parenting, pastoring, financial decisions, ministry opportunities, social life, and missions commitments. Married couples who have separate careers may indeed still accomplish that, but surely with far greater difficulty.

            When both marriage partners work they inhabit separate worlds, usually to a great degree, during a significant portion of the day and week. They develop different sets of friends and acquaintances with whom they forge significant relationships and share powerful emotions and experiences. They struggle and succeed with others, they confide in others, they rely on others, and they relate to others in a sphere that a spouse can only share in the third person, never the first.

            In contrast, Tanya and I have closely shared the same sphere of life and work. She not only knows everyone I work with, but is closely connected with them through church or seminary life. She is as invested in my church as I am. She has enough margin in her life to expand and enlarge my ministry and influence largely because she is not occupied with budget reports, attending trade shows, or protecting profits in a business. She can take the time to meet with the wife who has fallen into sexual sin and walk with her on a road of brokenness and repentance, dealing with intimate issues that would be dangerous for me. She can spot a potential relationship challenge and prevent it from becoming a full-blown problem. If she owed that time and energy to another job, my ministry would be far more limited and my weaknesses far more exposed and vulnerable. What she contributes, precludes, prevents, and provides is incalculable.

            Most of the couples I counsel who have experienced a breach of trust or infidelity have done so because of work relationships. To be very candid, that is almost always the case with women who fall into sin (though Facebook and other internet sites have added additional opportunities for sin as well). I could not trust another human being any more than I trust Tanya, but I have also been grateful that she has been spared the inappropriate attentions of other men or a cause for temptation herself that she might have had on a regular basis if she worked outside our home. I realize that some might interpret that as fearful and jealous, but I can honestly deny that. I am not a jealous person, no doubt largely because Tanya has always been so obviously and passionately devoted to me, but I am also a realist and regularly exposed to lives shattered in very familiar patterns, patterns which I am glad we avoided. Equally true would be that Tanya's close and frequent presence in my ministry has also protected me from undue temptation. 

            That avoidance of temptation was not merely the evasion of opportunity, however. Because she stayed home, Tanya has taken the time to become a true student of the Word. Every day she spends significant blocks of time in the Word of God, gaining a strategic grasp of the Scriptures which shape and direct her walk as well as her discipling of other women. I’m sure she would have grown in the Scriptures regardless, but I am confident her knowledge would not be as deep and insightful. Seeing her spend time with the Lord thrills and gladdens this husband’s heart.

            I know I must say this delicately, but I do not believe that Tanya and I would have the unfettered intimacy and closeness we enjoy if we had done it differently and she had to face a separate set of anxieties and difficulties in addition to those we share. At every marriage conference we’ve ever led and in many counseling situations we’ve seen, being too tired for intimacy and too busy for relationship development emerges as a common major factor. Separate schedules, separate and independent goals, separate standards of success in life, and separate job demands all take a costly toll. And because many of those separate challenges can only be solved individually rather than as a couple, a subtle independence creeps in and drives them apart.

            If rearing children becomes the single shared purpose of a husband and wife, then they might do alright in the first half, but they will not the second. Tanya and I loved rearing Michael and Seth, but it was never the only thing or even the main thing we did together. During the early stages of parenting it certainly demanded more time, but we always realized that one day those little boys would grow into young men and leave us, just as God designed. We knew that if our home centered around them, we would find that we were each sitting across the table from a lonely stranger, lamenting the way things used to be.

            If Tanya had chosen a career in addition to the busyness of parenting and being a pastor’s wife, I am convinced we could not have cultivated the relationship we have. It might still be good, fulfilling, and even Christ-honoring, but I cannot conceive that it would be this free, joyful, and inextricably interwoven. As a result, when the time came for our sons to leave home, it took us less than ten minutes to get over empty-nest syndrome. I cried for a few minutes and then moved stuff into their closets!

            I could easily go on. When I get an invitation to travel to preach or minister somewhere, she can go with me. It’s not unduly stressful to have church members or students in our home. We never had to worry about daycare, or additional wardrobe. Our sons always had a parent accessible to them. In fact, if anyone wanted to verify the veracity of my claims, I would simply point them to my adult sons. Ask them if their mother’s decision made a difference in their lives and in our marriage. They truly arise and call her blessed.

            In the first half, Tanya sacrificed and devoted herself completely so I could have sons, get an education, pastor great churches, and pour into students’ lives. She studied the Word intensely so she could disciple and teach others. She made our home the sweetest place on earth.

            In the second half, I want to intentionally give her a greater return on that investment. I want her to reap the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a lifetime of wealth. I want marriage to me and service to the Lord to be so rewarding that she never even questions if it was worth it. I want to serve her, spoil her, bless her, delight her, cook for her, take her places, and make her a more radiantly beautiful follower of Christ than she already is.

By God’s grace our marriage enjoyed a good first half, so the challenge for us is to remain intentional and focused, to refuse to coast and content ourselves with having made it this far. I don’t know if we’ll get a full second half or not, but if, by God's grace, we do, I know what I want it to accomplish for the glory of Christ.