I had the honor of attending the JLA (James Luther Adams) lecture at Meadville Lombard this March and one of the things that really stood out for me were the stories that were told by people who actually knew the man. Apparently, he was always in teacher mode and willing to talk with anyone in the name of forging young minds in the fires of Unitarianism. He sounded like someone I would love to meet.
Until I heard about his family life.
Now, I can’t remember the details, and they seem to be rather hard to find on the internet, but from what I remember, one of his daughters refused to attend his funeral. One of the older members of my church can’t stand JLA because in his opinion, “he threw his family under the bus!” Here is a man who confronted the Nazi’s in the 1930’s, whose Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion are a cornerstone of UU identity and was a renowned teacher and theologian, but he couldn’t keep is family.
I had a small photography business for a while. I would do weddings, bridal portraits and family pictures. Most of the time was either behind a camera or in front of a computer editing photographs. I also had a baby girl at that time and while I had a ton of snapshots of her, I had to be coaxed by my mother to get a formal family portrait of us all. “It’s the cobbler’s kids who walk around with holes in their shoes” she would say, meaning that when it’s your job, you don’t want to do it during your few non-working moments. Is this how JLA felt with his family? Was he so focused on spreading the ideals of Unitarianism that he forgot to live it out at home? Did he just take his family for granted?
My first year of seminary has been a challenge for me, in many ways. Yes, the classes are academically rigorous. Yes, I am being spiritually and emotionally pushed to grow into the non-anxious presence needed for ministry, but the hardest challenge has been reconciling my ministerial life with family life.
In my previous life (the last twenty years), I worked in food service, retail or customer service. I never brought my work home and I was present for my family when they needed me. I used to do theatre, but when the schedule started to put stresses on my marriage, I decided that the company of actors and the flash of footlights paled in comparison to the company of my wife. The year before seminary, I was a stay at home dad who packed lunches, made dinners, ran errands, did the grocery shopping, cleaned the house and help with homework. I was present for my family. I loved it. They loved it.
I’m not as present for them anymore.
I have a sign that I hang on the bedroom door that lets my family know they are not to knock for any reason. It is used when there is a particularly difficult passage that I have to read or write that demands I not be disturbed. No requests for help with Legos or tales of the day’s exploits at school, not until I get through the work I’m doing. It is a literal sign of my non-presence. I have had to make arrangements for sitters for when I need to attend church functions. Meetings that I know are going to become more and more frequent. I’m lucky that I have neighbors who will take the kids until my wife gets home, but there have been a few times when I have drag them with me. Already I am hearing, “do we have to go to church?” That last thing I wanted was for them to think of church as a punishment.
Or are they seeing church as a competitor? A rival? An enemy?
This is the one lesson I have to pass in order to be the minister I want to be. I need to learn how to manage being a father, a husband and a minister without getting lost in any one role. I know a few adult children of ministers that tell me they felt neglected and put aside. What is worse, it seems the more influential and inspirational the minister, the more likely his or her family feels they get the short end of the stick. It keeps me coming back to the same question:
Can one be a really good minister and a really good parent/spouse?
I have to try. I don’t think I have much choice.
So, what to do about it? Well off the top of my head…
Google calendar has been a life saver for me. If my family is doing something, it goes on the calendar. If the church is doing something, it goes on the calendar. Everything goes on the calendar. This way when someone asks, “Can you volunteer at my event?” I can say, “Let me check my calendar?” While my time is not necessarily divvied out on a first-come first-serve basis, it helps me prioritize.
Scheduling includes things like your spiritual practice, family game night, date night and down time. These things are not to be cancelled lightly! They are vital and important, don’t toss them aside to chair another committee that no one else wants to chair.
Does that congregant really need your phone number? Do you really want your spouse to be at every service only to be subject to questions about you? Does the welcoming committee keep eyeing your spouse and asking you, “doesn’t your partner want to help us out?” Are you involved with the youth group while your kids are in it?
Your family and your congregation are going to overlap at certain points, but it is up to you and your family to determine just how much that should be. Does your husband prefer going to another congregation where he is not known as “your husband?” Let him. Your family needs to have space to be their own people and not extensions of you. Conversely, the congregation is not your family. Keep visits to the office, public places or hospitals. Visits to your home should be very carefully vetted.
As a seminarian in his first year, I have had long talks with my wife about my role in my congregation, my duties as a student and my feelings and anxieties. It took me a bit to understand that my wife had a butt-ton of anxieties as well and that I needed to listen to her and find ways to make our ever changing situation work. I know for a fact that this summer, with my Clinical Pastoral Education things are going to get really intense. Once I’m an intern in a congregation, it is going to change again. This is never really going to settle, so our communication needs to be constant, honest and patient.
This includes my kids. My 6 year old might not articulate it in an adult way, but he wants time with me. I need to make time to be Daddy. My daughter is entering the tween years and I need to both be present and give her space. Those times when I am with her, I have to listen closely and let her know she is being heard.
As ministers (in training) we have a lot of ways to get people to open up in our arsenal of communication techniques. We start to develop that wonderful ministerial presence. Do not use it on your family! You are not their minister, you are their parent/partner. They will spot “ministering” and if they are anything like my partner, will call you out on it immediately (and loudly). If they need a minister, find one for them who isn’t you. If they come to you in a crisis, they need you as a partner or parent, not a minister. Know the difference.
So while I really enjoyed learning about the synoptic gospels, compassionate communication, the reformation and all that, the thing I walked away with this year is to remember that I am not the only one in seminary. My whole family is in with me. If I fail a class, I may have to take an extra semester in order to overcome it, but I cannot fail my family.