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Bill Johnson on Balancing Family and Ministry

Spirit Life

Bill Johnson on Balancing Family and Ministry

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “How do you balance between ministry and family?” It is a great question that plagues most households in the faith, as we long to be faithful in ministry, the home, work, and involvement in our communities. Juggling the everyday affairs of life and managing a healthy home environment is a challenging task, for sure. But to be completely honest, don’t like the word “balance.” Of late it’s become a term used to describe mediocrity—that place between joy and depression. Yet I always try to answer through what I’ve learned in my own journey.

When I was young in the faith, there was a whole group of leaders in the church who were learning the importance of family. It almost sounds funny to say, but it’s true. Many in prior generations had sacrificed their families as the price they felt God wanted them to pay for the ministry God had called them to. It was sincere, and often taught in the Bible schools of their day. The results were nothing short of tragic. This new emphasis on family was refreshing, becoming what many needed to hear. It gave them permission to prioritize their families in a way that was already in their hearts. This emphasis was so encouraging to me as a newly married man. It gave me hope for the church to hear that many leaders were now declaring the importance of our own homes in a way that my parents taught us.

I remember attending pastors’ conferences in which lists of priorities were made to help us learn what was important to God. God was always first. Family was second. Then our call or ministry was next, followed by our devotion to the church itself. It went from there to occupations, hobbies, and the like. While some would differ in parts of the order I listed, the main point I want to identify is that God is logically number one, followed by our families, etc.

Number One

As I began to pastor Mountain Chapel in Weaverville, California, the Lord started challenging me about my priorities in ways that were a great surprise. My discovery was quite astonishing to me and started me on a journey that affected my life in ways far beyond the obvious application of God and my family as priorities. My discovery was almost what some would call a rude awakening. It was this: When God is number one, there is no number two.

So much of my prayer time and my study time was built around my family. What I mean by that is that they were the focus of most of my prayers, and my study was on how to be a good dad and husband. It’s not that I didn’t pray for the church or our city. I did. A lot. But it was family that captured my heart in ways that are tough to describe. I prayed for my children and their spouses while they were still infants. I searched the Scriptures for promises about my children and what they would accomplish in their lifetime. I memorized some of those verses or would read them out loud when in prayer. I declared them into our sanctuary as I’d walk and pray during the week. My prayer times in our home were captured by this one purpose—that my children would love God and serve Him joyfully. That was it. I felt I could die a happy man if I was able to see that one dream fulfilled.

And yet my heart burned for God in ways hard to describe. I wanted only to please Him. People’s opinions of me, my family, or even the church mattered very little to me. I simply wanted to know that I had fulfilled my purpose in life and had done so in a way that was pleasing to the Lord in every area of my life.

So now I was given an unusual mandate that I had never heard anyone teach on or explain: When God is number one, there is no number two. This would end up changing most every area of my life, as it reveals God’s approach to our lives in ways that the wonderful list of priorities never could.

There iNNumber Two

I honestly felt that I heard the Lord speak that phrase to me—When God is number one, there is no number two. It started to make sense to me that as long as I had a list of priorities, I’d have to leave my first priority to do the second, and so on. This new insight implied  I could only serve God. I guess that’s logical. But the implications were life-changing, as I had to learn how those things could become a part of my service to God. All of those things were to be an offering to Him.

Every area of my life must be part of my worship of God Himself. If there’s a part of my life that cannot be an expression of my love for God, it shouldn’t be in my life.

This change in perspective didn’t change my practice as much as it changed my confidence that I was delighting God’s heart. I always made family first. But what I didn’t realize was how much God was being loved through my love for my wife and children. There is no vacation from God. I don’t stop my service to God while I serve people. It’s actually quite the opposite. He takes it personally. Something happens when you realize that what you’re doing brings pleasure to His heart. Our personal esteem and confidence grow dramatically.

Only the Beginning

This started me on a journey where I discovered things in the Scriptures I hadn’t noticed as deeply before. For example, when Jesus taught about our visiting the person in prison or giving a cup of cold water to someone He said, “When you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me” (see Matt. 25:40). There’s not one of us who would not be ecstatic beyond reason for the privilege of giving Jesus a cup of water. And yet when we serve and love people, He takes it personally. It’s as though He is in the room and it was Him we served. It seems to me that if we better understand His delight in the things we do for others, our awareness of His heart will grow exponentially. It is possible to serve people and not really love God. That’s the whole point of 1 Corinthians 13. But it’s impossible to really love God and not love and serve people. And the beauty is, we don’t honor people separate from God but instead unto God.

We stand in God’s presence, sometimes by the hour, honoring God with our thanksgiving and praise, responding to Him deeply in worship. It is a privilege beyond measure that we are invited into God’s throne room to minister to Him. It is in this hallowed place that we tell Him how much we love Him. That is correctly called worship. But He is the one who broadens the subject by suggesting that any time we do an act of kindness to another person, He receives it as unto Himself. Realizing this helps me to see that God wants me to do all that I do as unto the Lord and with all of my might, He calls it worship.

I knew that worship was more than the songs we sing to Him on a Sunday morning service, but little did I know that visiting someone in prison was worship. Little did I know that caring for the simplest of needs of my family is something He values as worship. A few years ago I was told that Jews considered work to be one of their expressions of worship. This idea added much clarity to my thinking.

A New Understanding

This new insight changed so many things for me. It helped me to see that every part of life is beautiful and has the potential to bring Him glory. Merely offering our efforts unto Him sanctifies that which was previously thought to be secular, vain, or mundane. I was able to see that every part of my life was sanctified by its eternal purpose.

So many think ministry is standing behind a pulpit and preaching. Thankfully that is included, as that is a part of my assignment. But in reality it is a very small part of that vast subject. This is important to understand. If we don’t realize what our actions mean to God, we do not receive the strength and encouragement God intended for us out of our own obedience.

The moment all of us are waiting for is when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). I realize this is speaking of  a future event. But He breathes that into our heart every time we know with confidence that we have done the will of God. Doing what brings Him pleasure, whether it’s preaching, praying for the sick, or going on picnic with my family, delights the heart of our Father who takes it personally. It’s the manner in which we do what we do. Laying hands on the sick, or working in the garden, or even going to a Little League game all become spiritual activities because of who they are done for. Worship sanctifies the offering.

One of the priorities of my financial life has been to give to missions—the ministry of the Gospel around the world. I learned this as a young man and embraced it as one of the great privileges for my life. Beni and I shared our passion with others to encourage them to do the same, but never made our giving amounts or percentages known. It has always been important for us to keep that private. Whenever you sow money sacrificially, there’s a sense of personal reward for responding to the opportunity to give with eternity in mind. This was especially true when our giving cost us personal comfort or fulfillment of dreams. I don’t think there are many who would read this who wouldn’t agree that this kind of giving is spiritual. But here was my challenge. While I never neglected my wife and children, I never had the same sense of spiritual achievement when I spent money to meet their needs and desires. Don’t misunderstand me—it was always a joy and privilege. I just never considered it to be spiritual. But it was. I realized that spending money to meet my family’s needs or helping the missionary to meet their family’s needs are both intensely spiritual from our Father’s perspective. This shift in thinking helped me to enjoy every decision, benefiting from the knowledge that I had just done the will of God.

Obedience is one of the ways He gives strength to His people.

Jesus put it this way: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). The will of God nourishes the soul in the same way that healthy food nourishes the body bringing it great strength. If we are ignorant of what brings Him joy, we live unconscious of the strength and encouragement that He made available for us in the action. Obeying Him releases strength and confidence to us, but it also helps to establish our identity in Christ. These are true spiritual nutrients.

Living conscious of His delight in the simple things in life is key to a godly self-esteem. In turn we are able to live in the strength intended from eating this heavenly meal called obedience. This could be misunderstood as performance for favor. It’s not. This is the act of worship that comes from the favor we already have received. Healthy self-perception is the fruit.

Obedience is key in our understanding and affirming our identity. Jesus said, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friendsfor all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Having an identity as a friend of God has tremendous impact on our spiritual self-esteem, as it should. But what preceded this statement was what gave us access to that friendship. “You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Obedience makes becoming a friend of God even possible. It is also how we prove our love for Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

If we don’t know that caring for the poor or praying for the sick and tormented can be a part of our worship expression, we fail to draw upon our identity as friends of God called to change the world. Also, if we don’t understand that going on a vacation with our family or watching our children and grandchildren in their sporting or musical activities is a part of our worship expression, we live below what God intended for us. We miss out on perceiving the face of a Father who delights in us, which is the great reward of this change in perspective.

When we stand before the Lord, we will watch as He honors those who have led millions to Christ or have served in a foreign land bringing the good news to people who otherwise never would have heard the Gospel. But we will also see Him give a high place of honor to the couple who spent the bulk of their adult life caring for a handicapped child, or to those who over and over visited their parents or grandparents with Alzheimer’s, who never once remembered their previous visit. Things look different from His perspective. Only He can clearly see the beauty of a cup of water given in His name. Only He sees the heart of worship from the simplest of activities. And He rewards accordingly.

Wholenesin Life

For a culture to influence entire cities and then nations, it has to exhibit health in all aspects of life—family, work, play, rest, etc. Where we truly succeed, people will long for the same. Practical Kingdom success attracts the masses. Picture a city set on a hill that is all lit up, and it’s nighttime. Those who need shelter rejoice when they see the city that is so prominent in the landscape. They know exactly where to go. When we have excellence and success in these areas, we have an impact on the world around us.

Children probably learn more through play than in any other time of life. This is where they learn that learning is fun and that taking risks is a part of life. They are driven to climb higher, run faster, and yell the loudest. Riding bikes is fun. But seldom do they leave it at that. They try to ride up ramps and sail through the air. They lift the front wheel off the ground and see how long they ride on the back wheel. It is all a part of play. It is all a part of learning.

Laughter is a huge part of play, which distinguishes them from their adult counterparts. This should concern us, as Jesus said we are to become like children. Learning to enjoy life and celebrate every part is so liberating. It actually releases us into our destiny and purpose.

CulturiFormed at Home

Culture is first experienced and designed in the home. For those who are single, it’s in the relationships with other singles and families. The point is, it is formed in miniature before it is transformational. We learned in time what was most important for us in raising our children. And while these lifestyle choices were for our family, they are applicable for every believer and even transferrable to a local church. We intentionally exposed our children to the following:

Compassion

For many years, we lived on a main street, behind the church facilities. Many people in need would come to our doors asking for help. Sometimes they would need a place to sleep for the night. Many times, we brought people in just to love and serve them while they were passing through our community of Weaverville. There is a danger element whenever you bring a stranger into your home, which meant we really had to pray for discernment on whom to welcome. Safety for my family is priority number one. We served people to show the love of Christ. But the benefit was that we were able to train our children in having compassion for others and what to do about it. We even had a young couple live with us for a season after they had received Christ but were living in their camper. We also had a number of foster children live with us through the years. Their backgrounds were horrific. Opportunities to show compassion are everywhere. We must be intentional, as we tend to insulate ourselves from human need.

World Need

We would take our children to an orphanage in Mexico just about every year. We’d help with their building projects and help in their outreaches. One of the most moving ministries was for the people who lived at the dump. They tried to scratch out a living with throwaway items and ate very undesirable food. Our teams, including my children, would bring food, blankets, and clothing. The experience of facing such horrible poverty and then doing something about it is a thousand times better than telling them we need to care for people in other nations. It is said that 95 percent of the money that comes into the American Church is spent on itself. Exposure to world need could change that percentage dramatically. I know it has for me.

Generosity

This is one of my core values for my life. I learned it early on as a child. Raising my children in that environment is one of the most important things I can give them. (The same is true with the church I pastor.) Generosity is usually applied to money. But it is also about giving time, words, acts of kindness, and the like to simply reveal what the Father is like. Teaching children about this part of life is critical.

Holy Spirit

We made sure that our children were present when the Holy Spirit was moving in a unique or powerful way. Sometimes that meant they would be up later at night than was our custom. It didn’t matter. Being exposed to a move of God, with the possibility of a divine encounter, is a million times more important to me than how well they would do the next day. If I kept them up too late, we’d require much less from them in the morning. It’s important that they learn from us what’s really important. And sometimes they learn what’s important by watching what is inconvenient for us, yet we remain faithful in pursuing. My children’s lives were shaped by these experiences. We owe it to them to make sure they are in the room when God is doing something extraordinary.

Word of God

We read God’s Word as a family. But probably equally important was they were able to witness Beni and me reading the Word on our own. They follow examples more than they follow commands.

Worship

This is our reason for being—we are worshipers. We would reward our children for participating in worship in the corporate gathering. Ice cream works wonders. Some would complain at this, but it didn’t matter to us. Our children were involved, which had an effect on their character and behavior. To correct for bad behavior but not reward for the good is a perverted system. They also learned something that many adults have forgotten. “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). He rewards. So I must do the same to represent Him well.

Fellowship

We spent quality time with others. Oftentimes these were families with children the ages of ours. But sometimes it wasn’t. It could be a grandma and grandpa or even some singles. The point was, they

needed to see what it’s like to value people and interact with them. Fellowship really is an exchange of life. Spending time with people, showing them value, learning to receive from them, and learning to give to them help to shape the heart brilliantly.

Rest

I live a fairly intense lifestyle. With the travel and local responsibilities, things can get pretty extreme. Rest is one of the true joys of life. I loved spending time with my children and my wife, unwinding. Sometimes we’ll go away for a few days. Sometimes we’ll just sit and watch our favorite TV show. But the point is, rest is essential. In a performance culture, people want to apologize when they need rest. Don’t. It’s provision of the Lord. It’s also essential for me as it is in rest that I often become more aware of the presence of God, communing with Him in ways that are more challenging in the busyness of life.

Play

We did things together often. Parks, playgrounds, and other recreational activities were a part of our life. As they got older, they participated in sports. It was such a joy to watch them play. We also developed hobbies together, which is a beautiful way to connect. Hunting and fishing were a part of our routine. But so was throwing the baseball or football on the front lawn. It is life. It is to be healthy and fun, all as an offering to the Lord.

What We Know

We instinctively know that when we give money to help the poor, or to support our local church or another project for the Kingdom, the gift has a supernatural effect. That really is an amazing truth. The money we all hold in our hands has been used for so many things. Some of them good, like groceries, clothing, and food. But it has also been used for drugs, pornography, etc. And that money is now in my

hands, and through generosity I can shape the course of history with it, as it will surely bring forth fruit for His glory. The profound conclusion is that the natural becomes supernaturally effective through giving. But what would happen if we did the same with our family time, our work schedule, our fellowship, etc.? It’s the same concept. That which we gave to Him becomes supernaturally effective because it was placed into His hands as a gift. Our efforts that may seem so insignificant are very similar to the boy’s lunch. It was enough to feed a child. But once it was placed in the Master’s hands, it became supernaturally effective enough to feed a multitude. So is every offering we give to Him as we learn to worship in all areas of life.

Bill Johnson

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