This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.
Our Children Did Not Receive a Call to Ministry
I was a speaker, and my wife was also present, at the first youth camp my daughter attended. She gave us strict instructions not to talk to her during the camp. We kept our side of the bargain, though she sometimes sneaked into our room to chat with us. We realized that our daughter did not want the pressure of being known as a preacher’s daughter. Our children did not respond to a call to ministry. Our spouses did when they came with us into ministry.
But we know for sure that the call to Christian discipleship comes from God to our children. Therefore, while we never told our children to do or not do something because they were children of Christian leaders, we told them that we were insisting on something because it was what was best for them—because we are Christians.
Still, there are other unique special pressures of being children of people in ministry. Our children look to us to care for them, but our vocation is to care for others. It is essential to convince them that they are a priority in our lives. This leads me to the assertion that our cross is the balanced life. It is not easy to be fully committed to the people we minister to and to our families at the same time. But the strain of doing both (the balanced life) is our cross.
My children would sometimes make requests that were difficult to fulfill, like picking them up at midnight from a party at a time when I was extremely busy and in need of sleep or like playing cricket with my son when I was tired and in no mood to play. I learned to respond to such requests as a joyous privilege rather than a burden. It was costly, but for a Christian the cost of discipleship is normal and not a big deal. The joy of showing loving concern to our children was a big deal. Hopefully when our children know that we gladly pay the price of caring for them they will not resent our caring for other people. Hopefully they will also not exploit our kindness.
This book speaks to a common struggle Christian leaders face—balancing ministry and family priorities. Ajith Fernando equips leaders to cultivate a God-centered home, covering topics such as disciplining children, dealing with disappointment, and more.
Let me tell you a story which I made up by amalgamating some of my own experiences. The son of a pastor is running in a key regional track meet and has made it to the finals. The race is at four on Saturday afternoon. But the pastor has a must-attend meeting at church at two. He explains the situation to his son and tells him that he will try to be there for the finals, but that he cannot be sure about it. He calls all the members of the committee on Friday, telling them of his situation and requesting them to arrive for the meeting on time. He calls them again on Saturday morning.
They start the meeting on time and finish at three-thirty. The father rushes to the stadium where the meet is being held. He parks his car, runs to the field, and gets there just before the son starts running. As he is running, the son hears his father’s voice shouting out, “Go, son!” Spurred by his father’s words, he thrusts forward with a burst of speed and wins the race.
The father catches up with his son to congratulate him. The son notices that his father is panting more than him, and he asks him, “I am the one who ran the race; why are you panting?” The father replies, “I needed to be here in time for your race, so I ran.” That son is probably not going to be angry about his father’s ministry. He knows that though his father cares for others, he is willing to pay the price of caring for him.
But sometimes we cannot be with our children at important times in their lives. This was one of the hardest aspects of my call to a traveling ministry. Without saying something like, “Don’t you realize that I have to do my ministry?” I learned to explain my inability to be there as something I was very sad about. Then we could share the sorrow together without dumping guilt on our children over them not understanding our God-given calling.
My daughter’s graduation from university was a big event in our family. She graduated with high honors, much better than her father did! This was a great joy to me. But I was unable to be at the event because I was in England. The graduation date was announced at the last moment after I had planned this trip. In those days, we did not have means of communication like Zoom, Skype, and WhatsApp, but I sent her several text messages expressing my sorrow at not being there and my great delight about how well she had done. I still remember the text message that she sent in return. I hope the pain she felt because of my not being there was reduced by my expressions of sorrow.
It is not easy to be fully committed to the people we minister to and to our families at the same time. But the strain of doing both (the balanced life) is our cross.
My wife and I were convinced that, even though our children did not have a call to ministry, they had a right to live in a happy home. And we did everything possible to ensure that our home was a happy place. When Sri Lanka endured a violent revolution in 1988–89, life was very troublesome and somewhat dangerous. The schools were closed for months at a time. Many left the country, saying they were going away for the sake of their children. I had just returned from a six-month sabbatical at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the United States. I had been very happy there, doing things I love to do—like studying, writing, and teaching. In the middle of the troubles, in 1989, Gordon-Conwell wrote to offer me what looked like a dream job in terms of what I like to do. But my wife and I were convinced that our calling was for lifetime ministry in Sri Lanka, so I declined the invitation.
Yet we needed to make it worthwhile for our children that we stayed in Sri Lanka. After all, it was us and not them who had responded to a call to Sri Lanka. When my wife and I talked about this, we decided that the best blessing we could leave for our children was a happy home. Whatever they experienced outside, they should know that they would be coming to a warm, affirming, and happy home.
I know of some dysfunctional homes of Christian workers out of which wonderful Christians have emerged. I also know of rebellious children who have emerged from some healthy, loving Christian homes. Whatever a child’s family background may be like, ultimately it is the reception or rejection of grace which influences the future path the child takes. But we who are in ministry can do all we can to give our children a glimpse of the beauty of a home with an atmosphere marked by the joy of the Lord. There is a hauntingly attractive power in the joy of the Lord, a power that could draw them back to Christ when grappling with the temptation to rebel.
Ajith Fernando is the author of The Family Life of a Christian Leader.
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