The Personal Spiritual Life of the Minister

by Robert J. Young
©, 2001, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with these credit lines noted]

A great challenge for those who preach is keeping God and job separate. After all, we are fond of claiming (especially in times of conflict with church leaders), "I work for God." [Interpretation: only God can fire me.] When one's God and one's job are so synonymous as to be inseparable, motives and responsibilities become blurred. The co-identification of the ministerial profession and God is a lurking hazard of ministry.

Golf professional Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer in 1993. He spoke about the place of golf in his life after his return to the tour. "My priorities now are God, my family, my friends, and golf. Golf is no longer my god. Golf is hitting a little white ball. God is my God, and God is a whole lot bigger than golf."

A paraphrase for those involved in full-time ministry might sound like this: "My priorities are God, family, friends, preaching. Preaching is not my god. God is my God, and God is a whole lot bigger than preaching." My point is not that every minister must order priorities in this precise order. My point is that at some point in the preacher's spiritual life, he must come to grips with the fact that his spiritual existence would continue if he never preached again. Loyalty to God would not necessarily be lessened. Ministry and preaching are as much a function of who I am as of what I do. My relationship to God is always an internal heart issue before it is an external activity issue.

Many problems arise when occupation and God are viewed synonymously. In this article, we consider the two which are reflected in the Azinger quote, both of which concern the preacher's family. While most Christian wives are willing to accept second place behind God in their husbands' priorities, few are willing to accept second place behind job. The triangle of God-husband-wife may be understood and lived out biblically. The triangles of preaching-preacher-wife or ministry-minister-wife present more difficulties. The triangle of church-preacher-wife can become virtually unsolvable. The Karpman triangle roles of victim, persecutor, rescuer may appear inevitable and conflict unavoidable.

In a day when more and more ministers are experiencing marital conflict and even divorce, something we would hardly have anticipated a few short years ago, this ordering of priorities is no small matter. The preacher's wife who finds her husband "having an affair" with his church may put her foot down. Unfortunately, the minister may respond by questioning her loyalty to God. The preacher's wife who finds the "church affair" has become specifically focused into "an affair with a certain member or counselee" will likely raise the same questions, but it is now too late. While space does not allow us to address all of the possible triangles and problems which may arise, suffice it to say that when one corner of the triangle is an abstract combination of God and job or church and job, trouble looms.

Another problem with misidentified priorities is the position of the preacher's family. Every preacher-father has experienced those times when choices--hard choices--were made between ministry responsibilities and children's needs. This problem arises because of the co-identification of God and ministry. The solution is the separation of loyalty to God from loyalty to job. The easy escape when this problem arises is to blame the church or the elders. "They expect me." The difficult but imperative approach is to place responsibility exactly where it belongs--on the minister-father. The minister-father has not only the task of effective ministry, the minister has the task of modeling effective parenting. The church or church leaders will not automatically know or define the limits of ministry. The limits of ministry must be defined and honored by the minister. Ministry will consume all one's time unless one establishes careful priorities and follows through with consistently careful choices.

This article has briefly surfaced the problem of priorities in defining the minister's spiritual life. God and religious occupations must be kept separate. The priority place of spouse and family must be carefully defined. The preacher must honor these defined priorities. Finally, the preacher must try to understand that spiritual life and loyalty to God are not a function of ministry. Rather ministry is a function of one's spiritual life and loyalty to God.

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Last updated February 21, 2001.