You may know her: the church lady (or gentleman) who gives her all to the church community. She volunteers with seemingly every ministry group. She is on multiple committees. She may even have a paid position with the church. She is everywhere. She is a pillar. She is a servant of God extraordinaire, her religion being the most important part of her life.
But does she have a family?
Like the proverbial shoemaker, whose children have no shoes, the most devoted church people sometimes forget to minister to their own families. I speak from some experience. When I resigned in 2004 from my full-time church job after eight years of work, the pastor told me I was right to resign, because my children “had the look of needing a mother." At the time it seemed to me that he deliberately chose the cruelest thing he could have said to me, and he had a cruel streak. In retrospect, however, I see the grain of truth in his unkindly meant words. I see that my children often had to share their mother with their larger church family. They also spent an awful lot of their afterschool and weekend hours at the church. Which perhaps gave them more feelings of resentment than of holiness.
I clearly remember a conversation from years ago, while driving a long distance with my youngest daughter and her best friend, when they were teenagers. We got into a discussion about sex and intimacy. I mentioned the way casual sex can actually impede one’s capacity for intimacy with a marriage partner, a point I had made many times to teenagers in youth group settings. My daughter said, in a flat voice, “I have never heard you talk about this.”
“Of course you have,” I said, stunned. And then I realized that perhaps I had not ever talked to her about this. I just figured I had. Maybe I thought she would learn these moral and ethical lessons by osmosis, by proximity to her sisters, or by instinct. She was my fourth daughter, the one whom, I say with regret, I had served the least.
Sometimes, when we think we are on a mission from God, we forget the ones closest to us. We assume they understand our fervor. We take their presence in our lives for granted. And we are not of service to them.
It is a known but unpleasant phenomenon that we are often the least kind to the people closest to us. We are more considerate of strangers sometimes than we are of our own families. We say things to our loved ones that we would not dream of saying to an acquaintance. In ministry, we may be guilty of reaching past our family members to lavish our attention on those we believe we are called to help. Our children are shoeless.
As followers of Christ, though, we know that the incarnate Jesus is our first and best role model. It may help to remember that Jesus, even while suffering on the cross, still thought of his mother’s welfare. “Behold your mother,” he said before he died, directing his apostle John to care for his mother Mary after he was gone (John 19:27). Although his family members arguably include the whole world, Jesus still took care of the one closest to him.
“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” sings Bob Dylan. Church people certainly choose to serve the Lord. It’s just that we are probably also called to serve the ones we overlook, the very ones the Lord has entrusted to our closest care. Being of service to our families is a holy calling.