On numerous occasions, I have heard pastors and parishioners remark, "Your wife is your first ministry." The aforementioned statement can easily be expanded to, "Your family is your first ministry." However, for the purposes of this brief post, I will focus specifically on the former.
At its basic level, ministry simply means, "service," or a "period of service." When a pastor is ministering, he is serving that individual or congregation. The form of service takes a variety of shapes. Pastors counsel; they preach; they pray for; they witness. While they minister in many other ways, this is one of the great joys of pastoral ministry--service. In a general sense, pastors model their savior.
Where we fail in modeling our savior, however, is when ministry turns into something much darker than service. Instead of being something in which we, as pastors, find great joy and delight, something that requires sacrifice and prayer, ministry merely becomes a task to be accomplished, a person to be fixed, a thing to occupy your schedule, a box to be checked on your to-do list. From this perspective, one's heart can easily be absent from ministerial responsibility. Furthermore, with this outlook, ministry can evolve into a burden. You would much rather be doing something else, something that brings you joy.
Pastoral ministry can assume all of those categories. From one moment to the next, it can be joyful and a burden. One can have his heart somewhat committed while two weeks later his heart is not in it. Perhaps, in this life, those dynamics come with the territory. One day, however, we will not have to worry about the personal peaks and valleys of pastoral ministry and how they affect us. We will all be non posse peccare and delighting fully in our savior and the service of others.
In the meantime, pastors, like all others, fight to conduct their ministries in a way that is glorifying to God. Most would acknowledge, it seems, that a pastor's ministry includes much more than his congregation, though. It also includes his wife. According to the Holy Spirit, husbands are to "love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word..." (Eph. 5:25-26). Yes, this should be every husband's desire. It should also be every pastor's desire (1 Tim. 3:4), but that does not always happen.
Pastors, like others, miscarry. We do not love our wive as Christ loved the church. We do not serve and nourish her in the word. More particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, we do not do these things even when our spouse appears to be our first ministry.
You see, when our spouse simply becomes a task to be overcome, a place holder on our busy pastoral schedules, a line item to be checked, we are serving her but in the wrong fashion. We may be giving her the time she desires all the while doing so with the wrong heart motivation. Put differently, our body is present with our wife but our heart is far from her. Our time with her has devolved into another item on the docket. In this sense, making our wife our first ministry is not good.
Many times our spouse can discern this. There are other times when she may not. It is something buried deep within a pastor's heart that must be changed. Thankfully, if we walk down this path, there is hope. Christ, our savior, not only forgives our sin and imputes his perfect righteousness to us based on his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but he equips us, by the Spirit, to truly love and serve our wife. She truly becomes our first ministry. She is our delight and joy! We love serving her because she is a part of the bride of Christ and our wife. Our hearts, therefore, are in it when we serve and love her. She is more than a task to be accomplished in ministry (e.g., email); and besides Christ, she is our life.
I do believe our spouse should be our first ministry, but with all the different emotions and characteristics that ministry takes in a pastor's heart, we must be careful that she does not occupy that dark space that merely treats her, whether she knows it or not, as a person to fix, a burden to be overcome, or a place on our schedule from which we can move on once accomplished. That is what ministry can turn into even when we, as pastors, seem to present our wife as our first ministry. We want to take the high road and love our spouse making sure our hearts are in it because she is much more than a line item on our session docket.