About 13 years ago I entered full-time vocational ministry as a youth pastor in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a seven-year seminary hiatus in Louisville, Kentucky, I returned to the Bay Area as an associate pastor two years ago. Between my tenure as a youth pastor and my current post as pastor of young adults, I met and married my wife and added two boys to my quiver. That’s why books like Ajith Fernando’s The Family Life of the Christian Leader have become important to me.
Fernando new book is simple, straightforward, and well balanced between warm encouragement and firm exhortation. He walks us through a multitude of biblical texts and principles while taking time to apply these principles with concrete example and personal illustration. Christian leaders will find a trove of seasoned wisdom on many topics including marital intimacy, a balanced home life, disciplining children, and the value of fun and traditions.
I corresponded with Fernando to ask about the danger of self-promotion, striving for balance in life, the connection between adultery and insecurity, and more.
You begin the book by exhorting Christian leaders to put God first and to crucify self. Recently, however, some well-known Christian leaders have been removed from their ministries in part due to their bent toward self-promotion. Why is self-promotion so dangerous and tempting for the Christian leader in our age? What must he do to resist it?
Self-promotion simply doesn’t harmonize with the approach to personal progress described in the Bible. Our thinking can be so flawed when it comes to our personal ambitions that I think it’s better to be safe than sorry here. That is, it’s better to miss out on opportunities that suggest a sacrificing of principles than to pursue them because of the good they seem to promise.
We live in a media-controlled world where success is measured in terms of prominence and position. It’s so easy for us to fall into the trap of measuring our success using wrong indicators. Perhaps the two most vital things that keep us from falling into this trap are: (1) a passion to be faithful to principles no matter what the cost may be, and (2) accountability to a local church who knows our weaknesses and has the freedom to confront us when they think we’re making a mistake.
Your section on “The Balanced Life” reminded me again of the importance of pursuing obedience to Christ in every area. How can a Christian leader demonstrate to his kids a strong work ethic and commitment to the ministry while also giving them adequate time and spiritual instruction?
The key is to humbly accept that we’re learners until we die. None of us is perfectly balanced. Our children should know we’re fellow strugglers with them along the path to balance, and they should see us apologizing with genuine sorrow for not being at things they want us to be at because of our ministry. If we say things like “Don’t you realize I have God’s work to do?” we feed resentment against the ministry and against God himself in the minds of our kids. Instead, heartfelt sorrow helps heal the wounds of their disappointments with our not being with them when they wanted. This is a tiring balance to maintain—indeed, the balanced life is our cross. Being committed to family and ministry is tough, but the joy of having a happy home more than compensates for the tiredness and strain.
One of the keys to balance in my life is my wife. We discuss our children’s needs and make sure they are cared for, and when I get imbalanced she’s faithful to tell me, at which point I must take immediate remedial steps. Blessed is the servant of Christ who listens to his or her spouse!
None of us is perfectly balanced. Our children should know that we’re fellow strugglers with them along the path to balance, and they should see us apologizing with genuine sorrow for not being at things they want us to be at because of our ministry.
How do you tell the difference between a Christian leader who’s busy or even overwhelmed because of hard work and a heavy load and one who feels busy or overwhelmed because of a lack of personal discipline and solid work habits?
Let me try to answer in a slightly different way. In terms of my personality, I’m quite undisciplined. I don’t naturally take to the spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and meditating on grace. But I know that if I don’t do this I’m going to be a disastrous failure in ministry. So as one who isn’t naturally disciplined, I have to attend to these areas with utmost devotion. Even if I don’t feel like reading my Bible or praying or playing with my children, I know I must do it if I want to survive. So I decide to in obedience to God. My theology attacks my natural inclination to indiscipline.
As this is an important area, I also try to make sure I pay careful attention to what my friends and wife have to say about my lifestyle. When we’re sensitive to God, he speaks to us about our workload and acts to balance us so we don’t collapse under the strain. The key is lingering daily in the presence of God. That is what slows us down and helps us align ourselves to God’s agenda. Getting help from God as we give time to listen to him and as we listen to our friends helps us to cope with the burdens and make adjustments along the way. Indeed, those who haven’t disciplined themselves to listen to God and friends can end up letting their indiscipline destroy them.
You mention that adultery among Christian leaders is sometimes the fruit of insecurity as it relates to their vocation. How can Christian leaders guard themselves when they meet disappointment or fail to achieve their goals?
One of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard was from a friend in seminary who saw me working hard and suggested I may be driven by insecurity. That didn’t stop me from working hard, but it did make me proactively seek my security from God.
I think of Psalm 34:5: “Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” Ultimately God is the one who heals our insecurity or shame. And when we look to him, we’re radiant. More than anything else in our life, we must guard the privilege of receiving God’s smile on us as his beloved children.
When I tell my wife about yet another leader who has fallen sexually, she usually responds that invariably the person hasn’t been having a proper devotional time with God. While that response may seem simplistic, I think there’s a lot of truth there. We must develop an approach to life where our greatest joy is basking in the presence of God and receiving his love. Then we can cope with failures in ministry, since it doesn’t destroy the most important thing in our life—our love relationship with him.
Let me also say that our security in Christ is often mediated through friends. The affirmation of our friends often becomes the means of receiving the affirmation God wishes to give us. It’s alarming that many Christian leaders today don’t have close friends. We need to proactively pursue friendships despite the disappointments we’ve faced. This friendship helps us avoid paths controlled by our insecurity.
We must develop an approach to life where our greatest joy is basking in the presence of God and receiving his love. Then we can cope with failures in ministry because it doesn’t destroy the most important thing in our life—our love relationship with him.
If we’re open and accountable to these friends, they’ll be able to see when we’re moving along dangerous paths, like becoming vulnerable to an affair. Often in youth work, and actually in all kinds of ministry, women look to us as heroes. This admiration can be flattering and a boost to our flagging egos. We must be aware of this temptation without being naïve about our strength to handle such situations. And we must be careful that we do not cross the boundaries. I often get my wife to help women whom I long to help because of concern for them. I do so as I fear that I may cross the boundary—that my concern would gradually become impure attraction.
Your chapter on “Fun, Tradition, and the Security of Children” encouraged me to take the lead more often in cultivating joy and fun in our home. What’s one thing a Christian leader could do right now to make home more fun for the family?
Listen to your children! Their understanding of fun may be different from yours. And we need to adjust our lives and refine our tastes so that we can enjoy with them what they enjoy—so long as it’s healthy. We may need to be like cross-cultural missionaries when it comes to having fun with our children.