My single biggest regret from a lifetime of ministry

I invite you to read this opening to my journal dated October 1980.

I was 40 years old and Margaret was 38. We were in our 19th year of marriage, and pastoring the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi.  Our  children were 17, 14, and 11.

The first entry in the book is dated October 9.  However, the paragraph above that reads:

The month of October got off to a poor start around the McKeever household.  I announced to Margaret that until October 27th, there were no open days or nights.  The month was filled with church meetings, committees, banquets, associational meetings, speaking engagements at three colleges, a weekend retreat in Alabama, and a few football games. She cried.  Once again, I had let others plan my schedule in the sense that I’d failed to mark out days reserved for family time.

I ran across that book today, read that paragraph, and wept.

The irony of this is that a year or two earlier, we had come through months of marital counseling and felt that we finally had a healthy marriage.  In fact, one Sunday night six months after this journal entry, Margaret and I would take the entire worship service to tell the congregation of our marital woes, of our attempts to make this relationship work, of our extraordinary efforts to get counseling, which involved driving 180 miles round trip twice monthly for two-hour sessions with a professional therapist, and of the Lord healing our marriage.

We were supposed to have a healthy marriage, and here I am putting everyone and every thing ahead of my own family.

What’s wrong with this picture?

That is my greatest regret from over half a century of ministry:  I failed to take care of my family.

Now, I am not groveling in self-pity.  I tell this in the hope that younger ministers will see themselves in this and not make the mistakes I did.

The tension between home and ministry was constant for us, starting early and never letting up.

As young marrieds, when we were living in the vacant parsonage of Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama, Margaret said, “You might as well move your bed to the church.”  I was holding down a 40-hour a week job in a cast iron pipe plant nearby, and in the evenings and weekends serving Central as assistant pastor.

Margaret’s father had been a Greyhound bus driver almost all his adult life.  His schedule varied from time to time, but when he was home, he was all there. There were no calls for him to drop everything and report to the station.

A minister’s life is all about interruptions.

Margaret used to complain that the moment I walked in the house the telephone started ringing.

I loved my family dearly and I think they knew it. What they could never understand was that the demands on me were never-ending and that I had a hard time telling people ‘no.’

In fact, to this day, I admire people who can say ‘no.’  Over the years, from time to time I would ask people to serve on this committee or that task force, to chair a project or to lead this drive.  While I appreciated those who responded eagerly and positively, people who turned me down because “my ministry is in this other direction” or “I’ve promised my wife we would take that trip” earned my total respect.  I wished I had their strength of focus.

No one is saying a pastor should put his family before the Lord.

But a pastor doesn’t have to attend every committee meeting.

A pastor doesn’t have to accept all those invitations to speak elsewhere.

A wise minister learns to say, “No.” And if he finds that impossible, he can take a smaller step and practice saying, “Can I pray about that, and get back to you?”  Stalling for time–even an hour–allows him to look at his schedule more objectively.

Somewhere I read of David Jeremiah’s angering a church member who had dropped into the office demanding an hour of his time just as the pastor was leaving to make his son’s baseball game.  The member was irate that the pastor would put his son’s game ahead of his needs.  Jeremiah assured the man that there were other ministers in the building to assist him, and with that, he walked out the door.

The minister who learns to say ‘no’ in order to protect his time with the family will occasionally anger a self-centered, demanding church member.  But it’s a small price to pay, and in the long run, works out best both for the family and the immature member.

Only a strong pastor can do this.  I sure wish I’d been one.

17 thoughts on “My single biggest regret from a lifetime of ministry

  1. Joe, I, too, walked in the same shoes. This is truly the greatest regret I have in all my time in ministry. I treated my family shabbily thinking all the time that “I was putting God first.” I allowed some people to waste so much of the time I could have been with my family. I finally learned, but it sure was late. Too late for any of the childhood of mine and Sue’s two precious children. How I praise God for Sue. She never once complained or told me how wrong I was, she just put heart soul and mind into making the children’s lives special and helped me with those needy people the very best she could. (Unlike you, I would not have received any complaining with grace). She has immeasurably blessed mine and the children’s lives. Thank you, Joe, God bless you. May the young men listen!!!

  2. If I could do life over, I’ve always said I would take my kids fishing more… I really think I would. I would teach the deacons to do more of the pastoral care, which I did do at Calvary, which turned my life and o y r church around. Nobody expects me to do all that “stuff”, and they know their pastor loves them. But I didn’t learn that until my children were growing…yet we had a lot of time together. We need to teach it to our seminary students.

  3. Amen. I was a single father raising two children, pastoring a small country church and working other jobs. I did a pretty good job of spending time with my son and daughter, but I look back occasionally and weep that I didn’t do this or that or go here or there when they asked me. Those precious years flew by so unexpectedly fast. I’m crying, gota go now.

  4. Robert J Hastings was one of my mentors

    “The Station”

    Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision.
    We are traveling by train, out the windows,
    we drink in the passing scenes of children
    waving at a crossing,
    cattle grazing on a distant hillside,
    row upon row of corn and wheat,
    flatlands and valleys,
    mountains and rolling hillsides
    and city skylines.

    But uppermost in our minds is the final destination.
    On a certain day, we will pull into the station.
    Bands will be playing and flags waving.
    Once we get there, our dreams will come true
    and the pieces of our lives
    will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle.
    Restlessly we pace the aisles,
    damning the minutes – waiting,
    waiting, waiting for the station.

    “When we reach the station, that will be it!”
    We cry. “When I’m 18.” “When I buy a new 450sl Mercedes Benz!”
    “When I put the last kid through college.”
    “When I have paid off the mortgage!”
    “When I get a promotion.” “When I reach retirement,
    I shall live happily ever after!”

    Sooner or later, we realize there is no station,
    no one place to arrive.
    The true joy of life is the trip.
    The station is only a dream.
    It constantly outdistances us.
    “Relish the moment” is a good motto.
    It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad.
    It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow.
    Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.
    Regret is reality, after the facts.

    So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles.

    Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream,

    go barefoot more often,
    swim more rivers, watch more sunsets,laugh more, cry less.
    Life must be lived as we go along.

    The STATION will come soon enough.

    Train Sign

    by Robert J. Hastings

  5. Bro. Joe,

    Thank you so much for sharing that. As a bi-vocational pastor’s child, we experienced that most of our lives. However, we learned to try to embrace the reasons why Dad had to leave in the middle of a meal because a member had died. Or, was late arriving, or missed an event we were in because a family was receiving counseling. As a child, it is hard to understand and you feel that your parent does care more for “the church people” than his own family. My father had a heart that was the size of his 6’4″ and he too had difficulty saying no. I think most pastors feel that if they do say no, their days are immediately numbered and their job is in jeopardy. This is certainly not a way to treat a pastor or his family. I do believe that this is the major struggle of families in ministry whether you are pastor, music, education, student ministry or what. Blessings to you!

  6. Another point – many children of pastors or other ministry personnel no longer are involved, attend or participate in church at all because of situations that occurred while at a church during their childhood. Mostly, because of the demands “the church people” made on their parent in ministry, left them with a very bad taste regarding “Christianity” as a whole. This is so sad – no apologies, just demands, high expectations and abuse the fact that most are afraid to say no.

    Ok, I think I am done now!

  7. Wow. Such a great post and a timely word — not just for pastors but for all of us who love our work but love our families more. Thanks for allowing us to learn from you.

  8. Joe, your words are so true. As a pastor I made this mistake in the past, of putting my family on the back burner. I have tried to fix that situation the best I could with the Lord’s help. Thanks for your honest words.

  9. My dad was a minister with 5 daughters. We had dinner together almost every night and he would unplug the phone. Remember that? We are all grown with children and/or grandchildren of our own and we still talk about great memories from those times together. I agree. Family matters, even for ministers.

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  11. As of July 1 I retired from 42 years of full time ministry. I was encouarged as a young man take time for your family. I did and I didn’t . We spent some really great times with our four and today We are a close family. The ministry is very demanding but life demands that everyone spend 60 or more hours Working to make ends meet. This I know when the day comes and this life is over all who worked with, who received your ministry will stop and say I remember him. But those who truly cry at your funeral, will be children and grandchildrren. They will set and talk about you. Hopefully they will say remember that trip or dad always made me feel that he truly loved me because dad spelled love:: T I M E!

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  15. This regret is one that churches often reward and unrealistically expect as if the pastor’s family is not like any other family and thus the pastor is expected to be omni available. I sought to have boundaries concerning my marriage and family as a pastor. Some respected those boundaries while others did not.

    Churches who operate from a business model instead of a biblical model often search for a pastor superstar and too often pastors buy into pursuing that image. This stands in stark contrast to pastors of the past who were known as men who valued the family like Martin Luther and Johnathan Edwards.

    Some pastors, frankly are more married to the church than they are to their spouses.

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