I was relational before relational was cool…
Way back in the day, I invited kids in my youth group to run errands with me, signed on to be a substitute teacher to earn street cred with kids at school, and invited the families of my teenagers over for dinner. I practiced all this stuff when free tickets to pizza parties were still the way to grab a teenager’s attention. And my “high-touch” approach meant our ministry was booming!
The relational approach to youth ministry has been the dominant model for making a lifelong impact in teenagers’ lives, even before ministry models were a thing! But there’s a cancer hiding behind our conventional approaches to relational ministry—when we elevate the relationships in our ministry over the relationships in our family, we’ve introduced a dynamic that will slowly kill our ministry.
But there’s a cancer hiding behind our conventional approaches to relational ministry.Click to tweet
Katie and I were almost 10 years into ministry before I recognized the cancer that had crept into my approach to relationship-building. I’d always assured the world that “my most important ministry is my family”—it was my mantra. Of course, they were pretty high on my list. And as far as I knew, they weren’t aware of what they were missing. Except for when it became obvious.
One year I had a ridiculous summer calendar. Katie was pregnant with our third son and had two toddlers at home already. My commitment to relational ministry meant we were smashing attendance records at church. And because I’m a typical man, the thrill of “success at work” drove me even harder. The deeper I invested in my ministry relationships, the more shallow my relationships at home became. I couldn’t see it at the time, but “relational ministry” was threatening my most important relationships.
While my wife was nine months pregnant, I traveled six out of the eight weeks leading up to her due date. I was on a mission trip when she called to tell me she might be going into labor—I told her to somehow stop the labor pains until my mission trip was over. I had lost my way.
I could not invest in a strong marriage, and a healthy family, while simultaneously de-prioritizing them both. And the kicker: I began to see how relational problems at home spill over into ministry problems at church.
Teenagers and their families are deeply impacted by the way we live our life—that’s exactly how Jesus intends it. We don’t impact people by our words; we impact them by our presence. And what they saw when they were with me was a work-absorbed guy whose family was a wonderful accessory. They saw a dad who was always consumed by things other than them. They loved me, but didn’t expect to know me anymore. They were learning that all moms hold down the fort at home so dads can focus on the really important things in life.
As I took inventory of all the sacrifices I was making for ministry, and all the sacrifices the Sutton family was making for me, I decided to start asking some hard questions of myself. I could no longer stomach the facade of a “family first” youth pastor—I wanted those whose lives I was impacting to say, with clear-eyed certainty: “Yep, his family definitely comes first.’
So I posted the following questions in my office, at my desk, on my office bulletin board, and even in my laptop bag. I turn to them regularly. My relationships at home are the bedrock of my relational ministry at church, so I ask myself….
- If Katie, Isaac, Timmy, and Max made a list of my top five priorities, what would they be? And where would they find themselves on that list?
- Katie understands that I have to make sacrifices for ministry (late-night emergencies, mission trips, and so on), but when was the last time I sacrificed something ministry-related for her and the boys?
- Am I as excited about Katie and the boys as I am about my youth ministry? Do I talk about them with as much excitement? Do I plan things for them with as much vigor?
- Am I maintaining my personal relationships with Jesus? How would Katie describe the spiritual climate of our relationship?
- Where am I investing the best of my heart, my energy, and my efforts?
Maybe my questions aren’t quite right for you—so use mine as a kick-starter for your own list… Whatever you do, don’t let a cancerous version of relational ministry infiltrate and threaten your most important relationships.