Ministry That's All in the Family

Is your family on board with your ministry?

Five years ago, life was smooth in the Tolbert home.

Six months earlier, I had struggled with whether to serve as minister of Christian education at Faithful Central Baptist Church in Inglewood, Calif. After weeks of prayer and discussion, my husband and I agreed it was the right choice. My daughter, then 15, had adjusted to high school and was making friends. My husband, Irving, an elder in our church, was enjoying his ministry and was usually as busy as I. For the first time in months, our home life seemed normal again.

Until a bomb hit.

"How are you, Hon?" I asked my husband one evening as I arrived home from church after an exhausting day. He acknowledged me with a glance and a quick hello, then stared back at the TV as I set my things down.

I roamed around the house to find my daughter, La Nej, engrossed in a telephone conversation with one of her chums. After changing clothes, I returned to the living room to strike up conversation with Irving. Two attempts later, he seemed less than enthralled.

That's when I launched into my full-blown, pity-filled refrain: "I'm so busy," I said, the pitch of my voice rising. "I work so hard. Tonight, I finally have time to spend with you. Can't you make it a priority to spend time with me when I'm free?"

Before I could continue, Irving cut in with this question: "Just because you are finally available, do you expect me to immediately drop what I'm doing to pay attention to you?"

I stood stunned. How could Irving ask me that? After all, I reasoned, I'm in ministry. That's more important than ...At that moment, I realized what had been happening in our home. I had become consumed in ministry and had excluded my family. In my absence, my husband had found companionship in the tube, and La Nej had made the telephone her best friend. Not only had I neglected to make time for them, but I had also shut them out of my world. They knew little about this "ministry" that kept wife and mother away from home much of the time.

Come Along With Me

I wanted my family to have a part in my ministry — not just to be onlookers whose mother and wife had been "stolen" by the church.

That evening, I decided to make a change. I knew that if my marriage was to remain intact, I had to involve my husband in every aspect of my life, including my life as a minister. And I wanted my daughter to have a part in my ministry — not just to be an onlooker whose mother had been "stolen" by the church.

I told Irving my feelings during our hour-long discussion the next evening. He committed to helping me share my ministry with our family and determined to do the same himself. Here are four principles that help me fulfill that commitment:

I intentionally include my family in my activities.There are many times when directly involving my family in my ministry is appropriate, such as when I must counsel someone one-on-one or direct a meeting. But for every time that I can't include them, there are many other ways I can.

Two years ago, I received a call that a close friend's son, a church member, was in the hospital. Though I had arranged to spend the day with my husband and daughter, the son was in dire condition and his family needed my support immediately.

Instead of leaving Irving and La Nej at home while I went to the hospital alone, I invited them to come. Irving and I spent hours talking with and comforting the parents and their son as La Nej entertained the couple's daughter. Irving, La Nej and I walked away as the beneficiaries of that ministry. We had reached out to people in need — all while spending time with each other.

I talk about my work with my family (sometimes). As leaders in the church, my husband and I often learn information that we must keep confidential — even from each other. We respect each other's responsibility and do not discuss these matters. Neither do we play the "something happened that I can't tell you about" game. If it can't be discussed, it's not even mentioned.

But there are other matters of the church that my family and I can discuss. Over dinner, I often ask La Nej for her opinion about how the youth are responding to the Christian education programs I direct. I solicit her ideas on what speakers to invite or which topics to address. At her suggestion two years ago, I invited a speaker to talk with our youth about the value of abstinence. The speaker got rave reviews, partly because La Nej has her pulse on the desires of the teens. I had an expert sitting right under my nose.

I also ask for Irving's advice. When I want to introduce a new concept in a Bible study I lead, for example, he is my sounding board. And after a Bible study is finished, we review the videotape together. I can always count on my husband for an honest appraisal. I value his feedback and encouragement, and I rely on his wisdom.

I set boundaries. In addition to my pastoral responsibilities, I work as a professor of Christian education at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology. To be accessible to my students, I used to include my home phone number on my syllabi so that I could be reached in the evenings.

But our phone rang continually. Sometimes I would spend an entire evening conversing with students instead of enjoying dinner with my family. Afterward, I was often too spent to even talk with my husband and daughter, much less invite them into my ministry world.

Irving reminded me that, no matter how much I wanted to involve my family in my work, I couldn't do that if I was always running 100 miles per hour. I agreed.

At his suggestion, I decided not to put my home phone number on a syllabus. If students have a problem, I am available during school office hours only. I noticed a change immediately: We could actually get through dinnertime without a call!

I use balance. There are times when ministry demands my availability during family times, but I've learned the value of balance. While my husband and I were relaxing one evening, I received a call from a church member in distress. Through tears, she talked about her struggle for nearly 20 minutes. Once she stopped crying and I had given her some encouragement, I asked her if she would please call the church the next day to arrange for counseling. I then excused myself from the telephone.

"My husband and I were spending time together," I explained, "and he's waiting for me." She understood and thanked me for talking with her. That conversation proved what I had known all along: Most "emergencies" — anything short of severe sickness or death — could wait if I allowed them to.

I think you'll discover that the more you involve your family in your ministry, the more effective you'll be. There's nothing like having your kids get behind you when you're coordinating a conference or having your spouse accompany you to nighttime speaking engagements. Without my family's input, I would be handicapped in my ministry to others.

Taken from Pastor's Family magazine, Oct/Nov 1996.
Article copyright © 1996, La Verne Tolbert.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

La Verne Tolbert, Ed.D., serves as pastor of Christian education at Faithful Central Baptist Church in Inglewood, Calif. She is also assistant professor of Christian education at Biola University's
Talbot School of Theology.