Early in my ministry, I learned the value of a two-letter word: no. My wife, Teresa, and I were expecting our first child nine months after we married. I had answered God's call to ministry and was attending Dallas Theological Seminary at the time.
By the time our son, Roger II, arrived, I was a zombie: I worked two part-time jobs and went to school during the day. Teresa and I had talked early in our marriage about our commitment to family, so even with my whirlwind pace, I built in time for my wife and son.
But after seminary, the plot thickened. I was hired for my first ministry at Oakcliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and we had a second child, Jennifer. I was one of only six staff ministers expected to oversee weddings, funerals, programs and services for 3,500 members.
That's when Teresa and I made a choice: Thursdays would be my untouchable day. From any Friday through the following Wednesday, I could be on call for ministry, but Thursdays were my day off. Save for a member's severe sickness or death, I would let nothing pull me back into that church office. Of course, deciding that was the easy part; the difficulty came when I had to utter that two-letter word long before deleted from my vocabulary.
"No, I don't take work home." When I walk through the door and am greeted with a hug from my wife and four children — Roger II, 8; Jennifer, 5; and 2-year-old twins, Saul and Sarah — I want to be totally available to them. I can't do that if I'm thinking of a proposal I need to write or shuffling through office paperwork. So once I leave the office on Wednesday afternoons, most things stay.
When at the church, I focus on finishing tasks such as preparing lessons. If I fall behind, I go in early on my regular workdays rather than saving the work for my day off.
"No, my ringer isn't on." After spending the day together, my family gathers on the evening of my day off to sing, act out Bible stories or do special activities (e.g., make our favorite dessert).
During that time, we turn off the ringer on our phone. That way I can't be tempted to let other things interrupt. If someone must get through, he still can — we leave our answering machine on with the volume turned down.
"No, I can't come in today." My church staff knows that I guard my day off, but they also know that I'm available in an emergency. But an "emergency" is not when a staff member needs help planning next week's rally or can't find a phone number.
When someone wants me to run down to the church to fix such things, I simply tell them, "That can wait until tomorrow," or I walk them through a quick solution over the phone. On the flip side, when I am at church, I have an "I'm interruptable" policy.
"No, I can't do it all." Saying "I can't" on your day off is easier when you know another qualified person can step up to a challenge when you are out. That's why I train others on my staff to do ministry work, and then I trust them with that responsibility when I'm away.
It would be tempting to never release "my" responsibility to someone else if I didn't remember this principle: The ministry won't rise or fall based on my involvement, Yes, I should do my job, but that doesn't mean I must do it all alone.
Both spouses have jobs in more than half of ministry homes. How can they keep their lives in balance? In most ministry couples, it is the minister's spouse who is asked to be flexible. But more often, it is easier for the minister to adjust his schedule.
The ebb and flow of ministry doesn't need to swamp your marriage. God gave me a wife with whom I could be a partner in ministry. Together we led a weekly Bible study. We entertained church leaders and new members in our home, sharing in the planning, cooking and cleanup. We loved each other. We loved our congregation. We loved our identity as a ministry couple.