I slipped into his room late one evening as I arrived home from work only to find him wide awake, snuggled under the covers.

"Hey Dad, it's Wednesday," my 12-year-old said. "Tonight was our date night, Dad! You forgot!"

Somewhere between the deadlines and the donors and the to-do list, I'd forgotten the most important ministry God had entrusted to me: that of my family. It had been weeks since my wife and I had a date together, just the two of us, without our work worlds on the agenda, and I knew things needed to change and fast. Instead of focusing on work, I needed to focus on my family and let them know they were just as important as my ministry work.

Family matters

We set out to meet our ministry goals and somehow in the midst of our work, we forget that waiting at home is that young boy waiting to play catch, that teen-age girl who needs to talk about boys or that spouse that needs to be treated with all the attention we used to give when we were dating. Why does it happen? How does it happen? How can you prevent it from happening to you? And why do we feel like we need to work so long and hard?

Recently, as I met for a cup of coffee with a ministry leader, in between the sips of Starbucks and the glint of the bright sunshine on that warm summer day, the truth about his family came out as it has many times before with other ministry leaders. The leader I was meeting with told me the real story of where things were with his ministry. You see, the ministry was doing wonderfully, but his family was suffering—so much so that he ended up stepping aside temporarily to focus on them until things turned around. I was glad he had decided to do this but surprised that I'd seen another scenario where ministry had edged out a leader's family.

Nobel Prize winning Harvard biologist George Wald has some thoughts I wish these church leaders would read: "What one really needs is not the Nobel laureates but love. How do you think one gets to be a Nobel laureate? Wanting love, that's how. Wanting it so bad one works all the time and ends up a Nobel laureate. It's a consolation prize. What matters is love."

Let me ask you this: If we were sitting at that Starbucks near your house and talking over our day, could I ask you a personal question? What's the Nobel Prize you're striving for? Is it possible that the prize you're striving for has edged out your precious family or that spouse you were madly in love with during your courtship days? They need your best time, not your leftover time.

Ten tips

Well, before the Starbucks gets cold and we both have to run, if it's time for a bit of a re-balancing of ministry and family, here are 10 ideas to jump start your thinking and help you get back on track. Got a pen? Jot 'em down on your napkin.

1. Get your family together and craft a family mission statement. It's just as important to be intentional as a family as it is to do so where you work. We wanted our family to be on the same page as to why we were here on earth and what principles would govern our time together; we wanted a grid for decision making and conflict to pass through. Need a head start? Here's ours.

"Our family is going through life's journey together, growing roots in Christ and wings for our mission, becoming equipped to make a difference in our world by learning to live like Jesus, for Jesus, and in Jesus."

We've designed other elements of this mission statement into the shape of a house with walls of laughter, doors of prayer, and windows of other important character qualities.

2. Carve out time for your family each week—in advance. Put it on your calendar. Stop saying you have to get "one more thing done" before you leave for home. Plan your week with specific ending times and stick to them.

3. Jettison things from your schedule that aren't important. March to the mission that Jesus called you to, not the mission that others want you to do for them. Be ruthless here!

4. If your work situation requires constant excessive hours to get the job done, it's time to evaluate other ways to accomplish the task. You can't accomplish the mission of the organization single-handedly, so stop trying! Pray for the Lord to send workers into your harvest field and then sit back and watch him go to work. Pray for supernatural results from the time you do put into your day, then go home and be a minister to the other mission field God gave you: your family.

5. If you're a leader of others, have people actually write into their job descriptions the need to be committed to their family and specifically how they will do this.

6. Develop an activity with your family as a whole and or with individual family members. Maybe it's hiking, a date at Denny's for breakfast on Saturday, or coffee with your spouse where you pray together for your day. As you do this, remember that those teachable moments are intentional accidents—they happen, but not always because you planned them. So be sure to plan large quantities of time throughout the year so they'll have a chance to occur.

7. Create a spiritual life development plan for each of your kids outlining their strengths, their areas for improvement and your plans to shape their character as they grow up under your care. Our children are arrows that are being sent to a world that we will never fully see. It's our job to shape them into arrows that will fly straight and travel the distance to the kingdom target that God has intended for them.

8. Schedule a date night of at least an hour once a week with each child or your spouse where you just focus on them. It doesn't have to be expensive; time alone is the critical ingredient here. When our budget has been tight, I've had this time in my backyard with my son.

9. When you're traveling, send e-mail or a postcard back to your family. Call them on the phone and pray with them in addition to chatting.

10. At the end of a day, ask your kids or spouse these three questions: "What happened today that you're proud of ?" "What happened today that you wish you could do over?" "Where did you see God in your day today?"

When I speak to men about being a dad at a FamilyLife marriage weekend, I ask them to call out words that define the memories of their fathers. Many words that are called out are negative words. Words like absent, domineering, and detached. If your children were asked to call out words today that defined your parenting, or if your spouse were reviewing your life at your funeral service, what words would they use? If you're not happy with the words echoing around in your head, it's time to make some changes in how you're leading your family. And by the way, if you're the man in your family, make sure you're not abdicating all the work of leading your family to your wife; the role of leadership is not designed to be shouldered solely by her. Get involved!

I love how Eugene Petersen puts it in The Message: "Exploit or abuse your family, and end up with a fistful of air" (Prov. 11:29).

When my work years have come to an end and the castles of my ministry stand tall and strong, I want to be holding more than air. Don't you? Are you pleased with the investment you have made in building your family and your marriage so far? If the answer is no, why not turn away from this article right now and make a few important dates with your kids and your spouse.

"Hey Dad! I passed," said my 15-year-old girl. I'm writing this from the Department of Motor Vehicles where I came with my daughter to get her driving permit. Some days you just can't get to "balance," so lately I've been working on "integration"—aren't laptops great? As my daughter and I celebrated her passing the test with a big hug in the lobby, I was glad I'd decided the to-do list at work could wait. The memory of this morning with her will last forever.

Greg Leith is the director of business and corporate relations at Biola University in Southern California, where he lives with Shelley, his wife of 22 years, and his five children, ages 9 to 15. Greg and Shelley are part of the national speaking team for Family Life Ministries, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ. Greg previously served as the director of leadership development for the Christian Management Association and also served in the for-profit sector with ServiceMaster for 20 years. He can be reached at greg.leith@biola.edu.

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