Sometimes, dads need to be proud. Why? Because their children deserve it.
Last week, I had the privilege of ordaining my youngest son to vocational ministry. He wasn't the first. My oldest son was ordained the year before.
And as for my daughters?
My oldest is serving in full-time vocational ministry with children at a church in Minnesota (and hopes to continue in ministry when she and her husband move to Indianapolis this summer), and my youngest daughter is serving as a graphics arts designer for a church.
Four children in vocational ministry.
And each one grew up in the church as part of that infamous fraternity known as PKs (Pastor's Kids). Which means, according to conventional wisdom, they should be rebellious, resentful of their role, and now fiercely anti-church; and, perhaps, even antagonistic toward Christianity itself.
Yet they are not. They love Christ, love the Church, and love the church they grew up in with their father as their pastor.
When fellow church leaders find out about my kids, the question is almost always the same: "How?" As my wife and I look back on over three decades of ministry, with all of our children now married and grandchildren on the scene, we see now with more clarity than ever what made the difference.
They Never Knew
First, they never knew they were PKs because we never treated them that way (or allowed anyone else to, either).
It reminds me of a story I once read of a teenager who had a large and disfiguring birthmark over much of his face. It didn't seem to bother him in the slightest. He was well-liked, his self-image seemed secure, and he didn't seem self-conscious in the slightest.
Someone once asked him about it and why it didn't seem to bother him. He said, "When I was very young, my father started telling me that the birthmark was there for two reasons: one, it was where an angel kissed me, and two, the angel had done that so my father could always find me easily in a crowd. My dad told me this so many times with so much love that I actually began to feel sorry for the other kids who weren't kissed by the angel like I was."
That's the way we raised our kids in relation to their "birthmark" as PKs. We never told them that because their parents were in ministry they had to act a certain way or go to certain events. We never made it a liability or a weight that they had to carry. We tried to make it something wonderful and a privilege; a perk that others didn't have.
Which led to a second thing.
No Command Performances
One of the more important decisions we made was letting our kids interact with the church's activities like any other set of kids. We knew the fishbowl our kids could have experienced and the expectations that could be placed on them - be here, do that, attend this. We also knew that such a regimen could create not only burnout, but resentment.
So we decided early on we were not going to make our kids do anything other than attend the weekend services and accompanying children's ministry. But this changed as they got older. Some of my kids were heavily involved with middle school and high school programs, some were not. It was their decision. We encouraged, but never demanded. As with many things, the more you demand, the more they will be resented.
We Served Together
Another dynamic we found to be critical was to serve together as a family. In the early days, when the church was being planted, we would go to the elementary school on Saturday mornings and mop, vacuum, place chairs and set up nurseries. I would go by the local donut store and load up on donut holes as a treat for them and the other volunteers, and then we would work as a family. We would laugh, play, horse around… we made "church work" family time, and the kids learned to look forward to it. They associated going to church with pleasure.
This set a precedent for the ensuing years, as together we continued to serve in the church. Some of our fondest memories as a family were loading up on Saturdays as Susan would go early to set up the children's ministry with our oldest daughter, Rebecca; my sons, Jonathan and Zach, would work with the facilities team as the campus prepared to host the first of multiple services; my youngest daughter, Rachel, would be rehearsing with the band as a vocalist; and I would be doing my own preparation for the first of several talks.
We arrived as a team, and together had a sense of ownership and investment. There was joy in serving together and then talking afterward about people we had met, stories we had heard, increased crowds we had witnessed. We had community as a family but then entered the community of the church as a family. Our kids were so deeply involved that they felt it was their church as much as I did.
Gifts and Passions
Related to this was allowing each of our children to discover – and then chase – their individual gifts and passions. Rebecca was the creative programmer and up-front personality, which eventually channeled into children's ministry; Rachel was the artsy songstress whose gift in creative communication spilled over into graphic arts as well; Jonathan was off-the-charts gifted with children and children's programming, and serves in that role to this day; Zach was the writer, musician, and "artist" in every sense, and today is one of the finest worship leaders I know. Each was encouraged to chase their gift in the life of the church, and I ensured that they were able to (as we do for anyone's spiritual gifts). So the church became the place for them to express themselves, spread their wings, take bold steps and even a few risks.
Protect the Home
One of the banes of ministry life is the evening meeting. It wasn't for our family. Protecting our home life, and particularly the evenings, was paramount to me. Fellow pastors are shocked at how rarely I had (have) any kind of evening engagement. Apart from evening services, I can count on one hand the number of evening engagements I have allowed to enter my life. The evenings are simply family/home time and deserve to be kept that way.
You may think, "Then when did you meet with non-staff leaders and volunteers?" Easy. We either set up a daytime meeting at their convenience, or met over breakfast or lunch. And most preferred it that way, because they wanted to be home with their family, too!
One Last Value
My family took precedent over the church.
I have no doubt that Meck would be much bigger today if I had prioritized it over my children. I have no doubt that I would have a bigger staff, a bigger budget and bigger attendance.
I am so glad I don't.
If I had, I might have had a bigger church, but would have been less – not only as a father, but as a pastor.
Sounds counterintuitive, but the Bible says that one of the prime qualifications of a pastor is to be a good father to your children. It instructs us that if a pastor doesn't care for his family, how can he care for the family of the church?
The idea is that it's basically the same skill set. If I had cut corners with my family at home, you can count on the fact that I probably would have cut corners on my family at church.
I recall one time I made a very big decision related to a ministry commitment for the sake of my family. It involved resigning from a very important position. I didn't know it on the front end, but after a year it became very clear that what was being asked of me from that ministry would be highly detrimental to my children (specifically, a geographical move).
I resigned from that position.
I recall a board member standing up, angry at me for my decision, and saying, "I want to know where in the Bible it says that your family comes before your ministry! What happened to sacrifice? To commitment?"
Another told me I was committing career suicide.
I was so floored I was almost speechless.
I know now what I wish I would have said:
"My commitment to my family was made long before my commitment to this role. I am a father first, and a leader second. The Bible makes that commitment a prerequisite to even serving in ministry. How many men look back on lives spent in ministry, only to see children who are far from Christ, with vacant, bitter hearts because of an absentee father? You can get any number of people to lead this institution. I am the only father my children will ever have. God has placed me in that role before any and all others. My commitments begin with Christ, but then Christ calls me to be committed to my wife and to my family. My ministry is a distant third. You are right – I am called to sacrifice – and I will gladly sacrifice myself, but not them."
Now, years later, I can tell you that it was the best decision I ever made.
My four children will tell you the same.
And the churches being served by their lives would join in on the chorus.
James Emery White
You can find a full discussion of this in James Emery White's What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary (Baker).