When Ministry Becomes a Mistress

I recently spoke with a fellow ministry leader on the phone, and at the end of our conversation we exchanged prayer requests. He kindly asked me to pray for his marriage. His entreaty did not surround any infidelity or indiscretion on his part – the issue was his ministry to youth. As a leader, a disciple maker, a custodian, an educator, and as the do-it-all for his organization, his ministry was taking almost everything from him and leaving him with next to nothing for his family.

As I heard the strain in his voice I felt a familiar shiver in my spine. I have heard his words from others before. I have faced his struggle myself. I reminded my friend that he was dealing with one of the only condoned mistresses in the Christian faith – the mistress of ministry.

Perhaps the word “mistress” shocks you. It’s a jarring word isn’t it? It conjures up images of unfaithfulness, of living a covert life, and of ignoring our primary commitment for some fling on the side. Hopefully all of us are seeking to protect our marriages and are steering clear of infidelity, particularly as it relates to relational and sexual indiscretions. But there are other things that can become a competitor and a rival for our marriage and family. We could list a variety of vices that could fill this role, but how many of us have ever wrestled with the fact that our own ministry might be the thing that has captured our heart, our prayers, and our attention more than the loved ones living under our roof? If we are aware of this pattern, does it bother us?

It should.

Here are some brief factors for consideration.

We pursue affirmation in the wrong things. Most of us gravitate to places where we are most noticed and affirmed. Usually it is our ministry where we receive the most applause. People commend our industriousness and commitment. If we preach a good sermon, make a good decision, or deliver a great lesson we often hear about it from someone around us. People congratulate us or our long hours and extended days, and this galvanizes the belief that the extra mileage is worth it. They notice us and we notice them back.

These same kudos don’t always happen as regularly at home. Sometimes our spouse and kids do not seem as grateful as we think they should be. They don’t always slap us on the back after a great sermon. At times we aren’t even sure if they’re listening. There are days when no one at home seems to notice the long hours, care about the challenges we face, or the sweat we emit to help put bread on the table. For this very reason there is a strong temptation to focus even more of our attention and give more of our heart to our ministry because our ministry seems to appreciate us more. We allow our ministry to become our mistress because it makes us feel the most validated.

We pursue freedom to flourish. Most of us are drawn to an environment where there is a bit more autonomy to be ourselves, pursue what we love, and do what we are good at. Home life doesn’t always afford this type of autonomy. Doing the dishes, cutting the yard, feeding the dog, and helping our son with his algebra homework are hardly freedoms. They can often become mundane tasks that bog us down. But at our ministry, even if it’s a hard one, we tend to feel like we can flourish at a maximum level. We are operating according to our passions and our calling.

Conversely home life, if we aren’t careful, can feel like more of an inhibitor and a suppressor. Our role in the home can become drudging and monotonous. We tend to flee from those types of places and into the arms of something more invigorating.

Our heart is wooed by our secondary calling. Our greatest calling from Christ is not our ministry but is to love our spouses and to love our families. In fact, the unity and love in our marriage is the number one metaphor of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). We are also called to raise our children in “the fear and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). We need to be incredibly mindful that if we are having great public ministry success but neglecting our spouse and our children, then we are neglecting our primary calling and ministry. Furthermore, we must realize that according to Paul’s metaphor in Ephesians 5, we are actually scandalizing the Gospel in the eyes of the watching world if we are not loving our spouses the way Christ has called us to. Our public ministry success can never trump our private ministry to our spouse and kids.

There may be brief seasons when life is out of balance and our ministry will have the lion’s share of our time, but it should not be like this for long. If we care more about our ministries than our marriages and families then there is an ever-present danger that we could lose all three of them.

I have seen it.

I would like to leave us with some closing thoughts and questions:

  1. When I pray during the day, do prayers about my ministry dominate my mind more than my intercession for my spouse and my children? If they do, this is a strong indicator that my ministry has more of my heart.
  2. Do I spend more of my time, energy, and passion on my marriage and family than I do on my ministry? If not, I will always be giving my family the leftovers.
  3. Do I have accountability partners who lovingly confront me when they see my affections getting out of balance?
  4. Do I pursue my husband/wife and kids the way I pursue fruit and outcomes in my ministry?
  5. Am I 100% home when I’m home, or am I battling a divided heart with divided attention on my ministry?
  6. When I worry myself about whether my spouse and family notice, affirm, and thank me, am I even more concerned about whether or not I notice, affirm, and thank them? Has my ministry become my mistress because my own validation has become an idol?
  7. Twenty years from now, would I rather have my family or my ministry? This may sound hyperbolic but it is not.

May we pray for grace, strength, courage, and commitment in the endeavor to prize our families. May we understand that part of loving Jesus is remaining pledged and focused on our marriages. Finally, may we all take to heart that our ministry is very important but our primary calling is to our home.

Ben Sciacca currently serves as the Director of Leadership Development for Desire Street Ministries (www.desirestreet.org). Ben has been ministering and living in under-resourced communities for almost 20 years. He writes and speaks about the gospel and social justice. His latest book is Meals from Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence. He and his wife and four children live in Birmingham, Alabama. You can follow him @iamJudahBen.  

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