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Surviving the fishbowl means learning to jump out, he says

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Ministers and their families sometimes feel as if they are living in a fishbowl with their congregations looking in, waiting for the next spectacular back flip or embarrassing belly flop.

“The fishbowl we put ourselves in and our church members put us in is an unrealistic world,” said Mike Priest, director of pastoral ministries for LifeWay Christian Resources. Priest led a dialogue session for ministers and their families during a Minister’s Family Weekend, June 21-24, at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Minister’s Family Weekends offer church leaders and their families an opportunity to relax together, study the Bible and become reacquainted with each other away from the stresses of ministry.

Many ministers and their families feel they must act like super humans who don’t have the same wants, needs and desires as those not in the ministry, Priest said. They feel they must always be pleasant, never show anger and put up with any type of behavior from the congregation.

Priest recounted a “funny fishbowl” story about a young teenager who followed his family around when he was a pastor in Biloxi, Miss. The teen was openly enamored of Priest, his wife Carolyn and their two boys (they now have four).

“He really took to us, and we became very close to this young guy. This kid loved our family until he found out we were expecting our third child.”

The young man was crestfallen because he was old enough to understand how wives became pregnant.

“All he could ask is, ‘Why would Brother Mike do that to Mrs. Carolyn?’ Obviously, we did that kind of thing; we had two children already. But this kid’s picture of a minister’s home is that they didn’t do that sort of thing.”

Many seem to believe ministers and their families are not people, Priest said.

“We all know what we mean by fishbowl ministry because we’ve all lived it. But how do we survive it?” he asked. “Strap in and hold on tight because this will follow you the rest of your ministry.”

Some “fishbowl” issues, he said, include:

— High-visibility position. “We’re expected to be the ideal family.”

— Sacred verses secular behavior. “Other people can have sexual relations, but preachers can’t. Other people can yell out at ball games, but preachers don’t act like that. Our congregations need to know God expects the same behavior from them as he does from us.”

— Unrealistic expectations. “The church wants a 35-year-old guy with 20 to 30 years experience. Sometimes they expect the humanly impossible. They want us to be all things to all people, to have all the answers, to know the perfect things to say to people.”

— Envy. “Sometimes they envy the pastor and his wife. They see our role and want to be called to some kind of ministry. Or they wish they had a job like ours, where you work one day a week,” Priest chuckled.

Other “fishbowl” issues brought up by ministers attending the session included:

— Tradition or having to pastor a church like the former long-tenured pastor did.

— Football coach mentality or getting too much credit when things go well and blamed when things are not running smoothly.

— Salary open for all to see or congregations who question the way a minister spends his salary.

— Selfish ignorance or the congregation’s blindness to a minister’s personal needs. “They think you need to get away with your family or spend time alone with God. But if they need you, they think you should be there for them at all times,” one minister said.

Priest mentioned various ways he believes ministers and their families can “jump out of the fishbowl,” including:

— Creating healthy expectations at home. “We put ourselves and especially our children in the fishbowl, but it’s not the responsibility of your wife and children to safeguard the reputation of your job,” he said. “If someone tells you your kid shouldn’t be doing that, you can tell them that if it’s not immoral or unethical and it doesn’t take your kid away from church, then it’s OK.”

— Set realistic boundaries. “Draw the lines. Set boundaries at home and at church. Don’t stay at the office until the work is done or you’ll never leave. Barring hospital surgeries or funerals, go in at 8 a.m. and leave at quitting time.”

— Dedicate time for family. “Put it on your calendar. Educate your church that there will be time for your family.”

— Take off at least one day a week. “It’s your day off. You’ve earned it.”

— Learn to say no. “It’s a small word, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue of a preacher very well. Seven at night is not the time to talk to somebody about a dirty spot in the sanctuary carpet. Take the time to educate your congregation about your personal time. Get caller ID or answering machines.”

— Give your family your best. “If you are a morning person, give them time when you are at your best. If you’re a night person, give them some of that time. They need to see you at your best.”

— Have your own safe place. “Find a place to get away from the pressures of church, work or family. Get alone with God.”

— Educate church members regarding your needs. “If you have a good friend at church, help them understand your needs so they can help others in the church know them. It takes time; education is a slow process.”

Minister’s Family Weekends are held twice each summer, once at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina and once at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico. For more information about the 2003 events, call or e-mail (615) 251-2955 or [email protected].
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SURVIVING THE FISHBOWL.

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  • Terri Lackey