Walking the Ministry Tightrope
By Jeff and Debby McElroy
Jeff and Debby McElroy are the founders of Forever Families Inc. and one of the most sought-after couples on the national speaking circuit. Their Home Improvement conferences have strengthened families around the country. As award-winning actors, they uniquely mix their creativity with wit, wisdom and spiritual insight to create an engaging experience that opens hearts and inspires relationships.
In our journey of near 30 years in children’s ministry, while also raising our two children, there were things we did right and things we did wrong. Kristen and Trevan are grown now, and what blesses us most is that they love kidmin and consider their parents’ ministry every bit as much theirs as ours! This outcome could have been much different had we not been convinced by the Lord early in our marriage and ministry that we must be intentional when taking care of other families (through ministry) not to sacrifice our own family. This truth applies to all of us, whether we are married, single or raising a family as a single parent, and whether our work is “sacred” or secular.
Here are 10 important lessons we have learned in our kidmin journey that we believe will help you strike a life-saving balance between the priority of family and the demands of ministry or work.
1. Don’t Act on Major Decisions Unless You and Your Spouse Agree
Don’t ever make a major financial or life decision as a couple unless both of you have a peace about it at the same time. if one of you gets a no, then wait. If both of you get a yes, then go forward. And because you both said yes with a peace in your hearts, you’ll be able to deal in faith with the result of your decision, should it not go as you originally believed it would. Apply this principle to any decision that potentially affects the shared resources of your union, whether that’s money, time, energy and so on.
2. Your Children Aren’t Responsible for the Success of Your Ministry
Early in our ministry, we often witnessed evangelists who used their kids to play glowing musical pieces before taking offerings. It felt to us like the children were being used to manipulate the offering. We also saw plenty of ministry families in which the kids had to look, dress and act a certain way because “the family” was on show. We called it the “fishbowl trap.” We were convicted by God not to put that kind of pressure on our kids. Here’s why: it isn’t your child’s responsibility to uphold your ministry. You were called into it; they were born into it. They don’t have the level of responsibility for the ministry you have. We tend to place it on them, but God doesn’t.
3. Your Children Are Your First Mission Field
If you have children at home, they are your first priority. The order of priorities should be: God; you and your spouse; your ministry or what God has called you to do. We decided that our primary legacy was going to be not how many people outside our home we reached for Jesus but how many we reached in our family.
4. Churches Need to Know Your Boundaries
We learned fast we had to set boundaries for churches by clarifying their expectations for our kids. We said our children would not be attending three services on a Sunday morning (our expectation of our kids didn’t include attending all three, looking perfect for each, and listening to what they’d heard 17 times in the last three months!). We had to decide what expectations churches would place on us that would be unrealistic for the sake of our family. You need to help your staff understand your family’s needs. Learn to speak up for your children.
5. Your Children Must Know They Come First (Before Ministry)
We learned to say things like, “We can’t meet the ministry request at church because we will be attending our kid’s soccer game.” If it meant not committing to a ministry engagement for our kids’ sake, then we sacrificed ministry before family. Our kids needed to know we’d always put them first.
6. Don’t Make Exceptions to Your Commitments
One year, we had decided we would not accept any bookings during the summer unless our kids could come with us. We weren’t expecting the Cathy family, founders and owners of Chick-fil-A, to invite the two of us to Africa to join them in conducting marriage ministry for missionaries. As super-excited as we were about going with the Cathys, we said no. A week later they invited us again, saying our commitment to our kids had convinced them their children should accompany them to Africa. Instantly we said yes! It was God’s confirmation that we should not make exceptions to putting our children first.
7. Create a “Free-Speech Zone” for Your Kids
The process of learning how we’d meet our obligations and take care of our home life required a lot of communication and prompted us to create an “open door policy” in our family. We established a special time when our kids could freely express their feelings about how Mom and Dad were doing being their parents. We created a “free speech/lecture-free zone” around mealtimes when they could tell us anything to us without thinking, Mom and Dad are going to get on our case if we say that! They had our permission to freely express what was in their hearts without being shut down.
8. Give Someone “Permission to Meddle”
Besides the free-speech zone, we also wanted peer-to-peer accountability. We contacted one of our board members we were particularly close to and said: “We give you permission to meddle in our lives. Once a month, would you have conversations with us and then talk to our kids about us?” We wanted him to ask us accountability questions and then ask our children questions about us, like: “How are Mom and Dad doing? Are they fighting too much? Do they apologize to each other and to you?” We had predetermined that the right answer would be the true answer. We suggest if you do the same that your accountability person is not a family member or a fellow staff member in a supervisory position over you. A peer on staff, however, is fine.
9. Date Your Spouse (And Your Children)
Funny thing about dating. It’s special to your relationship before you marry, and it’s special to your relationship after you marry. We still go on dates! We also dated our kids each month as they got older. We alternated: Dad-Daughter, Mom-Daughter, Dad-Son, Mom-Son. We scheduled these times on exact dates each month for a year out. If you’re married, you should schedule your dates with your spouse the same way. Don’t wait until the world gives you time to be together, or it won’t happen!
10. Learn to Discern
It’s so easy to say yes to too many things outside the home. We did, and it taught us a new mantra: “That is an important thing. I care; but am I called?” It was our litmus test to determine: “Am I the one who’s called to help, to deal with this, to figure it out, to spend my time working on it?” We had to learn to discern and to assess the potential negative impact our decision would have on family relationships. We wanted, at all times, for our children to know we were willing to risk everything for them.