Our van was finally packed. The AAA maps were scrunched in the bulging door pockets. And the miles stretching from Denver to Prince Edward Island lured us to escape. "Dad has a sabbatical!"
We never did explain to our daughters, Jill and Shelly, the footnotes in Leviticus 25. For them sabbatical just meant family time, from Sunday to Sunday, conversation to conversation, with a relaxed mom and dad away from the demands of ministry.
For me, the sabbatical was all that and more. Nine weeks to celebrate rest and the Source of all productivity. A gift from our wonderful church family and, ultimately, from the God who long ago commanded Israel to rest one year in seven. Since our busiest day is the Sabbath, the sabbatical was a welcome opportunity to rest in God and strengthen our family ties. For once, family concerns didn't have to fight with church responsibilities.
But all too soon we were home again. Church burdens swept over us before we cranked the last roll of memories out of the camera. As soon as we returned, my husband, Roger, was at the bedside of a dying woman soon to orphan her 17year-old son. A pastoral staffer resigned because of a family crisis. The demands of parenting and ministry both seemed to need us full-time.
A few weeks later we took Shelly on a dinner date. She ordered a Belgian waffle, chatted about school, and negotiated about where we were going to shop afterwards. Halfway through the meal, Roger and I drifted into conversation about ministry—not urgent, just normal stuff.
"Dad and Mom, let's not talk about church," Shelly chimed in. We knew she was right. This should be her time.
We couldn't return to the leisurely pace of Prince Edward Island, but Roger and I determined to balance our lives better so our daughters wouldn't feel shortchanged by the church. What did we do?
We started by deciding to set boundaries around our conversations and lifestyle. Now, we work hard to keep from squandering our limited family time on ministry data. We banished the six o'clock greeting, "How was your day, dear?" and the adult litany that inevitably follows. This was hard. I treasure being a ministry wife and am glad my husband depends on my partnership. It's easN to talk about ministry entirely too much because we enjoy the reporting, decompressing, and evaluating. But we don't want it to be the first thing we talk about.
In Parents and Teenagers, B. Clayton Bell says, "If children receive concentrated time and if their questions are answered reasonably with understanding and love, then they will feel that they have the place of priority in a parent's life."
When Jill and Shelly know they can get our undivided attention when they need it, they give us space when we need it. Every weekend they let go of Dad as he retreats into silent preparation for Sunday worship. Far from warping their childhoods, it encourages them to prepare for worship themselves.
Four attitude adjusters
Here are several other things we do for our children.
1. We don't let our church problems become their problem.
I don't think we coul.! or should shield our children from church concerns. Vicarious pressures will inadvertently spill into their lives. But they need to know that we are depending on God for solutions—not on them. Each day Shelly and Jill join us in praying Roger through his greatest weekly challenge: sermon writing. They empathize with Dad when he's still struggling on Saturday night, but they know he isn't counting on his own eloquence; he expects God's Spirit to speak through him.
2. We love our children unconditionally aid try to free them from having to live up to other people's expectations.
Our children live in a highly visible arena because their dad is the church leader. Whether we like it or not, that automatically places outside expectations on them.
I try to stress that only God's expectations count. And in many ways He's more understanding than any congregation, and more demanding. He knows when we try and when we are honestly seeking to obey Him.
When I must discipline Jill and Shelly for acting rowdy at church, I focus on their character, not their conduct. I don't ask them to act a certain way so that they will reflect well on us as parents. I say that l want them to learn self-control and respect for God's house because that will please the Master.
3. We emphasize the positive aspects of ministry.
We make sure we value the ministries our children are excited about. We don't drag our kids to boring business meetings or on disturbing hospital visits. Rather, we support their participation in things like kid's choir and Pioneer Girls. I volunteered to do the reception after the Christmas concert not because I was Roger's wife, but because I appreciated Shelly and Jill's choir ministry—and I told them so. By sharing their excitement, we help them see that the community of faith is ajoy and that everyone's part is special.
Roger and I like this comment by a little girl named Martha Taft: "My name is Martha Bowers Taft. My great-grandfather was President of the United States. My grandfather was a United States senator, my daddy is ambassador to Ireland, and I am a Brownie."
We want each girl, with Martha Taft, to feel her job is worth mentioning in the same breath as the jobs of her illustrious forebears. It's the job God has given her!
4. We make sure the whole family values and explores the worth of play.
Play is our word for our recreation and diversion—whether that means the girls' playing after school, Roger's playing in his wood shop, or my playing tennis. Recreation is a necessity; it brings balance to our work.
We encourage both individual and shared play at our house. We can't afford to imply that the Christian life is a lonely walk down the Jericho road. Jesus spoke of the cross, sacrifice, and costly obedience. But he also asked his disciples to take him along fishing. He broke from his ministry agenda to affirm the favorite pastime of some of his best friends, perhaps because play is more than recreation; it is a reflection of who we are.
And for children, play is their language—an expression of their inner world. In his book Play Therapy, child psychologist Garry Landreth says, "In the process of growing up, children's problems are often compounded by the inability of adults in their lives to understand or to respond effectively to what children are feeling or attempting to communicate.
Play is to the child what verbalization is to the adult. It is the medium for expressing feelings, exploring relationships, describing experiences, and disclosing wishes and self-fulfillment. . . Adults communicate more effectively than through language by their participation in the child's play."
Our 12-year-old is quiet, disciplined, and reflective. She loves to cook, and she devours books. When Roger is home at her bedtime, she will often say, "Dad, tell me a story about when you were a little boy."
Roger retrieves past memories, and for a few brief moments, Dad's fatigue is transfigured into the carefree world of a child—scooters, chocolate-covered cherries, the clay pits, and Christmas morning. In the glow of the night light, Jill participates in her father's life. This time, he's not the pastor. It's a shared moment of play for a dad and daughter—beyond the pulpit and ministry expectations.
In times like these there is rest and refreshment, and the very scent of Prince Edward Island.