I cringed as I recently read this question in an email. Not because it is not a good question, but because I feel so much for the burdens of the pastor asking it. A pastor asking this question is carrying with him not just the regular burdens to care for souls in his family and church (which is plenty already), but probably wrapped up in this question is the additional and painful burdens of a very hard, discouraging church that has and is affecting his family in concerning ways.
Of course, I cannot articulate where that balance is found; when to continue to sacrifice for the sake of Christ and his church and when the sacrifice harms a pastor’s family so much it now threatens a pastor’s qualification for the office (1 Tim. 3:4-5) or their long-term well-being. Nevertheless, here are 3 factors to keep in mind to help you make a decision if you find yourself asking this question:
1) Always another ministry, only one wife and family. Some of the best advice I ever received was, “You can always have another ministry, you only get one wife.” This is not to give a pastor a license to bail prematurely from ministry because his wife and kids are struggling. It is, however, to jolt the pastor consistently back to his primary priority to shepherd his family first before anything else. A wise discerning decision to this question cannot be made if a pastor is neglecting his wife and kids in the shepherding task.
2) Pastoral ministry is a call to suffer and sacrifice. When our families struggle in ministry, we are quick to assume that is the “sign” to leave and go somewhere else, when what a pastor and his family may really be experiencing is just ministry. The call to follow Jesus is a call to suffer (Mark 8:34, Heb. 13:12-13, Phil. 1:29). How much more is that calling for the ones called to shepherd those who follow Jesus? The call to the ministry is a call for suffering and sacrifice for not just the pastor, but his wife and children. Make sure the common suffering and difficulties faced as a part of this noble, divine calling, is not misunderstood as abnormal, thus a message to leave.
3) Discern what your ministry idols are. The pastor needs to make sure the unhappiness of his family is not the result of unrealistic expectations and idols the pastor and his family can develop about ministry. Are you unhappy because your church is not growing in numbers? Is your wife unhappy because she has not found that deep friendship in the church she longs for. Are your children unhappy because they want a different style of music than your church has? Our families can want, even covet things that are not bad in themselves, but can lead to a place of idolatry in our hearts and quickly make us discontent. Pastors, if you cannot identify where your wife and children are tempted to covet the things that breed discontentment, I suggest you get back to the task of shepherding your family with diligence to identify the root of their unhappiness before you make the difficult decision some have to make. Namely, that this ministry is too much for my family.
There are many good legitimate reasons for a pastor to leave a ministry or even leave the ministry all together for the sake of his family. Yet, make sure the reasons are good and right, for an unhappy family as a result of idols and a desire for a suffer free life will not go away once you leave the ministry.