Too often, American church leaders make headlines for failing their spouses, children, and congregations. Others buckle under the combined stress of leading a church and raising a family. As longtime Youth for Christ leader Ajith Fernando demonstrates in The Family Life of a Christian Leader (Crossway), these problems are not confined to the West. For several years, Fernando has devoted himself to counseling and mentoring church leaders and their families in his native Sri Lanka. Megan Hill, author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches, spoke to Fernando about the importance of ministry families expressing love, cultivating beauty, and having fun.
How does the family life of Christian leaders differ from that of other Christians?
Christian leaders face a special challenge of commitment. They have to ask themselves, “Am I committed enough to take on the strain of being a good father or a good mother while I am caring for other people, too?”
Living for other people can be very hard on children and spouses. Church leaders often face unrealistic expectations. It’s a huge balancing act, and I don’t think anyone in the world is perfectly balanced! Like anyone who works long hours, we are tired when we come home, and we don’t feel like showing active, sacrificial love. But that’s the most important place to show love.
Prayer is the most important thing I do. If I don’t spend time with God alone, I won’t have the strength to do ministry and care for my family. Without prayer, I would have burned out long ago.
It’s common to hear about resentment in ministry families. How can Christian leaders help their families love the church?
In Sri Lanka, people have certain expectations of church leaders’ children. They say, “Oh, you’re a pastor’s child! You should know the answer.” But my wife and I never told our children they should do anything because they are children of ministers. They should pray, not because they are a Christian worker’s child, but because praying is good for you.
We tried to make sure our children were happy that we were in ministry. If I couldn’t do something or come to something for my children, I always expressed sorrow. We never said, “Because of God’s work, I can’t come.” That makes children angry with God. When they were children, we didn’t talk about the conflicts and problems in ministry.
One of my seminary professors, Robert Coleman, told me, “Whatever happens, make sure your wife is happy.” The children spend most of their time with their mother, and if the mother resents the ministry, the children will blame ministry for unhappiness in their home. And who is responsible for their father being in ministry? God. Therefore, they will think the unhappiness is God’s fault.
Why do you encourage ministry families to make beautiful homes?
In our culture, many people don’t dress properly at home. They don’t make an effort to be nice at home. As a youth worker, I hear parents say, “My son is involved in your ministry, but at home he is so rude.” Outside the home we have to act—to put on a show of being nice. But we don’t necessarily have to do that at home. We really need to work on making the home beautiful, so that our witness is consistent.
Life in a ministry family can get heavy. How do you handle that?
We are serious about fun. We believe God gives us a capacity for having fun in ways that honor him. Enjoyment is an important aspect of a child’s life, and sometimes that drove me to do things I didn’t feel like doing. I would much rather read a book than play with my son, but cricket is popular in Sri Lanka, so my son would ask me to play. And I knew, as a father, that I was supposed to play with my child. My theology made me do it, and I’ve never regretted it.
How can we help Christian leaders avoid making headlines for moral failures like abuse and adultery?
Pastors need someone to make sure family life is good and that they are happy in ministry. I’m in a Methodist church that changes ministers frequently, and I sometimes end up mentoring my own pastor. There’s so much loneliness among Christian leaders, and we need to bring them friendship and affirmation.
But leaders also need spiritual accountability. As someone who travels often, I don’t know where I’d be without having my life monitored by accountability partners. Temptation is so accessible these days! Serious sins are not committed suddenly, but usually after a long process of compromise. If there is confession and healing the moment a problem emerges, the next dangerous steps along the slippery slope can be avoided.
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