A few weeks ago I got an email on my day off.
The email was from a solicitor asking whether I would write a statement on behalf of their client who was due in court. The letter, as is usual, needed to be on headed paper. I sent a quick reply from my phone noting that I was out of the office but would send something first thing in the morning when I was home. A minor interruption on a day off, no big deal.
Shortly after that email, I got a message from one of our guys telling me that somebody was due in court for their asylum case. They asked, on this person’s behalf, whether I would write them a letter. No problem, I said. I had already heard from the solicitor and had explained what I could do. I will get to it tomorrow when I’m back home and in the office. Mildly irritating to be asked again, but easily resolved.
A little while later my phone goes off. This time a different chap on the phone telling me the same person is due in court and wants a letter. Once again, I point out that I’m not currently home because *deep breath* it’s my day off. OK, no problem. Only, he does need a letter so could I do it? Bit pushy, but again, I point out that I’ve spoken to the solicitor already and explained that I am not home so can’t do anything right now. The phone hangs up.
Some time goes by when a frantic phone call comes in. Let me guess, so-and-so needs a letter. ‘Yes’ comes the reply. Why are you calling me again when we’ve already discussed this? The court case is tomorrow morning so he needs the letter now. Can he come and pick it up today? Once again, I say, I am not home. But, I note, if the solicitor knew a court case was imminent, why are they waiting until late in the afternoon, the day before, and even then only contacting me by email? ‘Ah’, comes the reply, ‘solicitors are very busy. So, can you do it?’ Apparently, we pastors are not and can drop everything because we are not so busy. The 6 days invisible, 1 day incomprehensible view persists. That, of course, and the fact I must be making up that I’m not home to do it.
After the third of these calls, my wife – understandably a bit peeved that the one day our children get to see me has, once again, been interrupted – puts her foot down. ‘You’re getting a second phone’, she insists. One that can’t receive emails and whose number will not be handed out to anybody. OK, I say. And so I did.
Now, as it happened, I emailed the solicitor the next morning and my letter arrived prior to their office hours. They emailed me back later when they got into the office, thanking me for the letter. It was all fine. I don’t really mind any of the guys asking me to write one either – they were simply trying to do their best for someone else, which has got to be a good thing. And, truth be told, what they were asking was easy enough to do when I was in a position to do it. The standard sort of request we get to confirm that such and such a body does, in fact, attend our church. It is a statement of the most basic fact put onto headed paper. So none of that really represents a problem of itself.
The problem comes when my family continually see me dragged into other things on the rare occasions they are supposed to have me to themselves. The above incident was not an isolated incident. Sure, the details of the story changes and the reason for the desperate call may be different. But usually a non-emergency, that can be dealt with another time or by another elder, ends up eating into a big chunk of the one day I am meant to devote to my family. Six days a week, most weeks of the year, the church receives the lion’s share of my time whenever it suits. And neither I nor my family have any real problem with that. We all knew what ministry was like and we’re all on the same page – nobody is complaining about that in the slightest.
But I am conscious of the stories that abound of children who hate the church – and, by consequence, the Lord – because, as far as they are concerned, it took their dad (or mum) away from them. Their parents weren’t divorced but the time that dad (or mum) spent out the house, busy with stuff at the church, meant that it felt to the children like there was no practical difference. I know personally of children who hate the fact that they never spent any time with their dad because he was too busy looking after other people’s children in church youth groups and children’s works that they continually felt like they were playing second fiddle. If it’s not those things, its other meetings or activities. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the specific meeting is, only that it always takes precedence over family and gives children the impression their dad doesn’t care about them as much.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a balance to be struck here. Children will sometimes make demands to which we should say no because we have other priorities as well as them. But let’s not pretend that sometimes the church will make demands to which we should say no because we have other priorities too.
Let’s not get this backwards. If you are an elder or pastor, you are in that role because you manage your family in a godly way. If your involvement as an elder or pastor is leading you to manage your family in an ungodly way, by constantly forsaking them in favour of church stuff, you are disqualifying yourself from your role by attempting to ‘put the church first.’ Considering this order of priorities, one day per week really doesn’t seem like too tall an order to commit to family. After all, your church can get another pastor but your children can’t get another dad and your wife can’t get another husband. If the price of that to my church is one day where they cannot reach me and must speak to another elder instead – and, let’s be honest, that’s not exactly major cost – then so be it.
So, for that reason, I have gotten myself a second phone. Sure, I can still get Twitter or Facebook on it and I can still faff around on the internet. But I don’t have an email app on it. Nor does almost anybody beyond my immediate family have the number. But it showed my family that they matter to me enough for me to block out time specifically for them. And, of course, it made my last day off awesome – so everyone wins!