One of the commonly voiced struggles from our sidewalk counselors is how to balance the demands of ministry with the needs of family. Sometimes, they report feeling guilty that they cannot be available to volunteer more often. They apologize when they have to cancel due to struggles finding childcare, or staying home with a sick child, or, this year, having to suddenly be in charge of remote learning for their children.
In sidewalk ministry, an absent or small sidewalk team can literally mean babies that might have been saved will instead die. This is a heavy burden to bear. The issue of how to balance family and ministry is a crucial point that should be addressed as part of volunteers’ preparation and training.
The tension is real and universal. Both family and ministry require time and effort. Both require intentionality, commitment, and dedication. Burn out is often the result of unrealistic standards or expectations in how that balance plays out. Over the years of working in the very difficult ministry of serving on the sidewalk of an abortion center, we have developed key principles to help in striking that balance. The principles below are intended to help guide and prioritize in learning to optimally navigate those competing interests.
1. Your first priority is to God.
““He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
Anything that you do that takes away your focus, reliance, and obedience to God is something that needs to be reassessed. If any ministry activity or family activity compromises God’s standards, serious questions need to be asked on what needs to change. God is first in all we think and do and say.
Never try to squeeze in ministry for family time by neglecting studying God’s word, prayer time, or church. You cannot give what you do not have. No one will be a vital family or ministry member without being firmly grounded in the Lord.
2. Your first ministry is to family.
“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)
Family comes before ministry. It is telling in the passage above that after admonishing those who love God to balance work and rest, scripture mentions children. They are a gift and reward. It is clear we should not neglect what God sent to be a reward. Spouses are clearly admonished not to neglect each other as well as in this verse in Proverbs:
“Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth.” (Proverbs 5:18)
Our top priority is to care and provide for our family, model and teach them the word of God, and spend time with them. In the Old Testament, when young men married, they were told to remain home with their bride for a year before going to battle. God knows the importance of establishing strong family relationships. If you are failing in your responsibilities to your family, you should be very careful of how involved you are in ministry.
That said, it is also important to understand that this is not an admonition to forego ministry unless you are perfect with a perfect family, perfectly behaved children, and totally harmonious relationships with every member. There is NO perfect family, and if the standard to do ministry was that we must be perfect in our family relationships, there would be no one in ministry. The point here is that we should not neglect our family for ministry. However, despite all our best efforts, there will sometimes be strife, rebellion, and family struggles.
3. Don’t use family struggles as an excuse for inaction in ministry.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
While family is a top priority, there will always be struggles in any human relationship. Satan, of course, knows this and will use those struggles often times to discourage and draw you away from a ministry to which God is clearly leading you. Don’t let Satan do that! Be discerning to assess when struggles are Satan’s traps and that you should continue to fight against the temptation to give up in ministry.
In fact, sometimes the presence of increased struggle is due to spiritual warfare. Satan attacks hardest those who are most effective in doing God’s work. If his tactics force people out of ministry, he wins. Sometimes, struggles are due to sin, or to neglect of family. It is very important to examine yourself to see if there is anything that needs spiritual attention. The counsel and advice of well trusted spiritually grounded friends or pastors is often useful in helping one discern these issues.
4. Division in family not necessarily due to a ministry imbalance.
Jesus warns us that in following Him, families will sometimes be divided.
“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.””
There are times when family division is due to neglect and over attention to ministry rather than family; however, that is not always the case, as the passage above tells us. We have counselors who are called to sidewalk ministry but some family members are deeply opposed to it. The counselors prayerfully considered what God would have them do, and decided that following God despite the terrible effect it had on their family unity was absolutely necessary.
If division in your family results from you faithfully abiding and acting in the will and word of God, take heart. Jesus Himself warns of this possibility when we follow Him wholeheartedly.
5. God will never ask of you more than you can give.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. Isaiah 42:3
This is not to say God will not stretch you. He will! However, He will not break you. If you are being stretched to a point where you are falling apart in your health, your emotional stability, or sense of joy and purpose in the Lord, you are giving too much. A balanced life includes rest, play, work, relationships, purposeful mission, worship and spiritual study. If any area is neglected very long, you, your family and your ministry will suffer. God’s command for a sabbath rest is a beautiful illustration of God’s recognition that all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.
6. Check your motivation for ministry.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15
Guilt is sometimes the reason people are involved in ministry. Guilt can sometimes be what brings people to a mission field, but it will never sustain them. Love of God and obedience to Him is the only motivation that will ultimately sustain those in ministry and help people keep a healthy balance between ministry and family.
Guilt over family issues can be equally damaging. Doing things with and for your family out of guilt rather than a Godly, loving desire to serve and honor them will never sustain healthy relationships in your family.
7. Set realistic boundaries from the beginning.
Decide how much time you can give to ministry and always factor in the need for balance in the areas already delineated. If there are physical restrictions, be sure your overseers in ministry know those from the beginning. For example, I have joint issues and cannot lift heavy objects or it will result in chronic pain. There are things I cannot do in the ministry as a result. It is always tempting to ignore those physical restrictions, but it is not healthy to do so.
Many of our counselors have children and they cannot all do the normal 9-12 volunteer time slot. Some have to leave by 11:45 to pick up their child from school. Some can’t arrive till 9:30 due to waiting on a babysitter. Whatever the limits are in your life, it is best to define them and communicate them from the beginning.
If you ignore realistic boundaries in any area of ministry, it is often your family that will pay the consequence. Know your limits and communicate those without guilt.
8. Learn when to say NO and when to say YES.
“The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ “Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ “And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”
Learn to say NO
As the parable above clearly demonstrates, God is the one who dispenses talents and gifts. We are to use them fully to our best ability. But there is a danger of doing more than God has equipped us to do.
When the harvest is full but the laborers are few, which is often the case, those who are willing are often asked to give more. While it is certainly admirable if a servant of God is able to go the extra mile now and then, running a marathon day after day will exhaust even the most willing runner. If we are overextended in ministry, we will be too exhausted to give the time and energy that our family needs and deserves.
Give yourself permission to say no. I struggle greatly with this. The older I get the more limits I have and the harder it is to disappoint others. I don’t see well at night AT ALL, so prefer not to drive at night since it is dangerous for me to do so. Additionally, I go to bed very early, and my body and brain shut down in the early evening. Activities after dinner are exhausting for me and I am definitely not at my sharpest mentally. Sometimes they are required in our ministry work, and I do them, but I have had to say no to a few. I usually feel guilty for doing so, or feel that I have failed people counting on me. However, I would urge all of us to fight the tendency to say yes even when we know it is more than we should do.
It is always good to ask yourself if you are faithfully doing as best you can what God has given you the time to do today. If it infringes on time you have prayerfully set aside for family, it is important to say NO to overextending oneself in ministry.
Learn to say YES to God when He is urging you
The permission to say no should not become an excuse to ignore God’s prompting. In the parable of the talents, those who were given less used what they were given to the fullest amount. They did not use their limitations in what they were given to be an excuse to do nothing, as the servant given just one talent did.
Sometimes overcoming fear and stepping out of our comfort zone is exactly what God is using to help refine and prune us. We can sometimes use real limitations or family issues as an excuse to avoid increased ministry demands that are important and God-ordained. Be careful to determine if a ministry demand you are balking at is actually God’s will for you to tackle.
8. Be intentional in reserving time for family.
“In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.”
Have a designated day or time on a regular basis that is reserved for family time. Plan mutually enjoyable activities that show your family how much they matter to you. Try very hard to not let anything invade that special designated time.
9. Ministry often can complement family.
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons 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 up.”
God is a God of all things. I have so often found that the struggles I encounter in ministry help mold and shape me. Not infrequently, they mirror the struggles in my family. As I learn to abide in God and trust and depend on Him in the trials of ministry, invariably I find it carries over to how I react and respond to family struggles. The demands of ministry are not ALWAYS a withdrawal of investment in family. Sometimes, those demands are exactly what you need to tackle in order to learn to better manage family issues!
For example, the taunts of the opposition are often deeply hurtful and offensive. We strongly advise that our response be one of silence. That does NOT come naturally to me, not on the sidewalk and not at home. But as I have honed the skill of silence in the face of antagonism on the sidewalk, I have learned the very valuable skill of holding my tongue at home. I have not perfected the skill, but I am much better at it. I have the relentless jabs of the pro-abortion crowd to thank for this refining effect.
Many families minister together and find a unifying bond in doing so. However, that is not true of all of us in ministry and is not necessarily a negative. Sometimes returning home to a family with completely different experiences than a demanding ministry is a very welcome chance to be refreshed and restored.
This is not to say that it would be healthy for family members to be antagonistic to the ministry. It would be impossible for me to endure well in both family and ministry if the significant people in my life were not supportive of what I do.
If ministry is a family effort, find non-ministry activities together!
No one can live, eat, breathe ministry 24/7. If the ministry is a family endeavor, schedule time with your family to unplug completely from ministry. I find that it is hard for me sometimes to avoid talking about ministry all the time. It is all consuming. While what we do in prolife ministry is incredibly important, it is also important to balance that focus with other interests.
10. Don’t take responsibility for what you cannot control.
And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. Joshua 23:3
Do what you are able to do, as well as you are able, and leave the rest to God. Throughout the Bible, God commanded His people to go out to conquer the lands He set for them, but He also reminded them that the battle belongs to the Lord. We are not to neglect what God has told us to do, but we should never be so prideful in our work for the Lord as to think it is OUR ministry. All true ministry belongs to God, and the results are His responsibility, not ours.
This can be very freeing when we believe that God will cover our shortcomings and inadequacies. He knows exactly how much time we have and the conflicting demands that nibble at our clocks. Do what you can in the time allotted to you, and trust that God has your back when you need to go home and love the family He created for you.