I have spent Thanksgiving visiting dying people in the hospital. A few years ago I did a funeral on Christmas Eve. There have been occasions I’ve had to shift family things around to accommodate church matters. My son has a difficult time with this but I explain to him that if this were your mother dying or dead, you would want your pastor there whether it was his day off or not, whether it is a holiday or not.
The idea that you will be able at all times to balance work and life is a false idea brought about by impractical idealism. The old saw that “family comes first” is simply not true. This is not the case in the secular world and it is (or should be) no less true for ministry. (Why should we serve Christ as his people any less than we would serve the man for a paycheck?) For example, sometimes a secular worker has to say no to family things when the deadline for a big project looms, or an order for a major client has to be completed. During those times, family does not come first, the job does. Other times, family concerns outweigh job issues no matter how pressing the job concerns are. If your child is having surgery, it doesn’t matter what is due, the company will have to get along without you. To make a rule that “Family always comes first” is unrealistic and leads to resentment, unnecessary guilt, and a failure to realize our potential in the Lord’s service.
Kent and Barbara Hughes address this same issue in their book Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome where they point out that we have warned young ministers about the danger of sacrificing their families to the point that now many will not sacrifice anything!
We fail to take into account the words of Jesus when he said that if we love father or mother more than him we are not worthy of him. In these words, Jesus does not call us to an either-or, love Jesus or love our families, but to a both-and. The point of Jesus’ words is that we must love Jesus so much that our love for others, even our families will look like hatred by comparison.
The view that we should be able to apply a blanket “family comes first” rule across the board comes from a false sense of entitlement. For example, small-business owners, executives, salespeople often know that they must sometimes work outside set times. Why should people in ministry be any different? We must not develop the idea that we deserve not to work when we don’t want to simply because we are in ministry. If anything, we should hold ourselves and be held to a higher standard.
If ministry really is a calling and if you have been called, your desire to minister to those whom the Lord has given into your care will outweigh the other concerns when appropriate. Sometimes the day off has to accommodate ministry issues. Sometimes those whom you shepherd will need you at inconvenient times. Sometimes holidays and family days will be spent caring for those whom God has given you. You cannot begrudge them your service because it is a scheduled day off or a holiday or some other inconvenient time.
This is not to say that you never say no to opportunities. Sometimes it is entirely right and appropriate to refuse to use your personal day or a holiday for ministry. If you set clear expectations with your people such as announcing what days of the week you are unavailable and provide ways for people to contact you in emergencies, you can get closer to the ideal ministry-life balance that we desire.
Some people simply want to waste your time, learn who those people are and train them or ignore them. But don’t turn away people who earnestly need your help during a difficult time simply because it is your day off or it is a holiday. Use such occasions to teach your children and family about the joy of serving the Lord and the fulfillment that comes from ministering even during difficult times. You will also serve as a model for your congregation which will, in turn, encourage them to serve sacrificially.
Knowing where to draw the line is difficult and you won’t always get it right, but if you err on the side of sacrifice and loving people the way Jesus loves, then you will get it right more often than not.
 Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton: Crossway, 1987, 2008), 41-43. Hughes also points out that many ministers have been warned against burnout until now their big danger is “rusting out.”
 Kent and Barbara Hughes address the entitlement issue as well in the same chapter cited above.