Being in ministry can be a difficult lifestyle- add kids to the mix and things can really get tricky. How do families balance being in full-time ministry while raising kids? Eric Miller, director of operations at CE National, recently discussed this topic with Sean and Melissa Spoelstra. Sean is the campus pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Pickerington, Ohio and Melissa is a speaker and author of several Christian women’s studies. They have been in ministry together for 25 years and four (nearly) adult children.

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How did you learn to find balance in the early years?

Sean shared that their first year of marriage was atypical in that it was very easy. None of the hardships that others warned came with that first year. He was a youth pastor and along with Melissa they were both very involved with the youth ministry at their church. However, things changed dramatically when their first child was born just 14 months into their marriage. Melissa needed to step back from her involvement with the youth group and Sean said it was difficult to lose his “right arm in ministry.” Melissa’s central role began to focus on home, babies and supporting Sean with the youth ministry only as she was able. They described the next few years as the “parenting fog” that many new parents face when young kids require a great deal of attention.

Melissa added that their first and biggest learning curve was simply when their first child was born. Prior to kids, their singular focus was on each other as a couple and their ministry. Once kids arrived, it was a rude interruption to their pattern and rhythm and suddenly her focus was over-focused on kids and trying to balance everything. When they added their second and third child (twins!), Melissa said it helped to vocalize her frustrations to Sean and ask for more help during the season of early motherhood. Sean admitted there were many years of failure on his part where he was not involved or helpful to Melissa and the kids in the way he should have been.

Communication is key to successful balance

Sean shared a (now) comical story of inviting guests to dinner. When Melissa asked for a little help in preparing, he used the time before their arrival to shovel ashes out of the fireplace. This was not what Melissa was thinking when she was requesting help. They both emphasized this is why communication is so important. Don’t assume your spouse thinks the same way you do. Be willing to speak up and share your needs and be open to listening to the needs of your spouse.

Sean said as men and fathers, we are called to be servant leaders. Ephesians 5 instructs husbands to love their wives the way that Christ loved the church and instruct wives to respect their husbands. Sean said “If we as husbands love our wives the way that Christ loved the church, how can our wives not respect us…. we would be laying our lives down for our families!” In their early years, Sean shared how he used to use his only day off to go golfing. It took his senior pastor pulling him aside to remind him he needed to be with his family. Melissa jokingly added, “Yeah, when is it a mom’s day off!?” They also added it’s important to recognize when you are at an impasse and not be afraid to seek out help. The Spoelstras used to seek guidance from a Christian counselor when they would reach these moments of gridlock, which usually revolved around parenting.

As your kids grew, how did you continue to create balance?

Melissa said they needed to be very proactive and intentional. One of the things she admired about Sean’s interactions with their kids as they entered into their teens years, was how he carved out time for them. She shared about “Dime Time” where Sean gave his girls a card with a dime on it and told them they could spend that dime whenever they needed him for ten extra minutes, even if that meant he would be late to something. A counselor also gave Sean the advice of taking time after a heavy counseling session or intense situation at work before reentering the home to prepare himself to be the dad he wants to be. Not to enter the house and let all those frustrations project onto Melissa or the kids.

The Spoelstra family reserved Friday nights for family nights with pizza, movies, and games. They also declared “Tech-Free Sundays” and put away all technology Sunday afternoons to spend time resting. During this time they would go for walks or take naps and not be consumed with their phones or laptops. Melissa also said that bedtimes were sacred times to read Bible stories and discuss with their children what God was teaching them. Melissa added that it was especially hard for her to cut into her “Netflix and ice cream time” in the evenings, but the investment was well worth it and those are some of her fondest memories.

They encouraged families to not be afraid to take vacations. They added sometimes in ministry, we can feel guilty for any type of extravagance like a vacation, but these things are important. They urged ministry families to take time to get away and just be together as a family. In addition, Sean encouraged couples to take time away for themselves and vacation without the kids, even if for night or two. Melissa also added that regular date nights were so important.

Sean and Melissa said as kids grow, the parenting doesn’t stop, it simply changes. They feel that parenting their older teens/young adult children is such a joy now compared to the years of heavy discipline. They have morphed their role from “authority to advisor.” Sean added that there is hope in consistency. There is also power in forgiveness when you make mistakes. You can always make relationships right.

What has been the biggest challenge within your family dynamic that can then be an obstacle in your ministry?

Sean admitted that anger in his life was the biggest challenge–anger in being disrespected by his children and anger over things not being the way he wanted them to be. Melissa added it’s very difficult to do anything (including ministry) with unresolved anger. Anger can come in different forms. People can be “spewers, stuffers, or leakers.” It is so vital that pastors and their families learn to deal with anger in whatever form that comes in. Sean added what helped him was seeing a counselor privately and also as a couple. It’s a hard balance to not let the stress of your ministry leak into your family.

Discernment was a ministry obstacle that had a huge impact on their family dynamic. This was most prevalent when Sean was the lead pastor of a church plant. Melissa shared an example of a time they were at one of their children’s sporting events and Sean was called away for an “emergency” which ended up being the wife of a church member was feeling left out at church. But other times there were legitimate emergencies (for example a death) where Sean needed to drop everything and go. People will “chew you up and spit you out and want you all the time” and they needed discernment for what those times were. Sean added that ministry is not a 9-5 job, but pastors need to remember that their nuclear family should still take priority over their ministry.

One piece of advice you wish you would have received when you first got married

Sean said there is nothing like the power of forgiveness. There is no such thing as a conflict-free marriage. Melissa added she wishes she would have known how different people are, and how to learn to appreciate those differences and not let them create division.

How would you encourage someone who feels burned out trying to balance family and ministry?

Sean emphasized how important it is to not neglect your walk with the Lord. He added, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” It is impossible to be continuing to pour into others when you are not letting God’s word fill you up as well. He also added it’s important to find a friend aside from your spouse to be vulnerable with and share with.

Melissa encouraged couples to “keep talking.” She said the biggest danger is that you withdraw and give up and let resentment grow. Be honest with how you are doing and be willing to seek help, whether that is with a trusted mentor or a professional counselor. She concluded by saying “it’s ok to let the world know you aren’t perfect.”

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