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Paying Attention to Fatherhood: Why I Stepped Down from Pastoral Ministry

“Sometimes, I feel like a single mom.”

My heart sank upon hearing these words from my wife. My stomach felt so heavy it could’ve been filled with bricks.

My own father passed away when I was eight years old. I watched as my mother, a refugee from Laos who speaks little English, raised my seven siblings and me alone for a number of years until she remarried. To this day, I carry the deep pain of my father’s loss.

For years, I’ve wanted little more than to be a great father. But now I faced the reality that I had been absent from my wife and eighteen-month-old daughter (and our brand-new daughter, who was not yet born at the time). Something had to change.

Let me back up a bit. For the past three and a half years, I’ve had the privilege of planting and pastoring a young, urban, multi-ethnic faith community in Saint Paul, Minnesota. By God’s grace, we’ve seen people who had previously given up on church proudly proclaim that they’d found a church family. We’ve seen agnostics and atheists declare faith in God because of the way our community has loved and cared for them, no matter their beliefs. We’ve seen people find meaningful spiritual friendships that they could depend upon when they went through the rough patches of life. God has been faithful and given us a lot to celebrate.

But as anyone in ministry knows, it’s not easy. Sundays are just a tiny piece of the ministry life. There are the counseling sessions, the meetings, the planning, the strategizing, the sermon prep, the denominational obligations, the community networking events, and the everyday administrative tasks. These things add up. They can become all-consuming. Physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

I was stressed, depressed, and constantly overworking. I was leading on empty. I knew I wasn’t very present with my wife and daughter, but I rationalized to myself that this was a sacrifice I needed to make to build the church. And, it was normal. Pastors are regularly overworking, and so are fathers and husbands in every type of career. We tell ourselves we’re doing it for the benefit of our families, or for some greater good. A lot of messages tell us that our most important job is to be the family breadwinner, and that we should find fulfillment in this. There are not many people calling men to step back from their careers to invest more in their families.

Yes, provision is important for a family. But that burden can be shared, and it cannot be the sum of what it means to be a father and husband. My wife needs me to be more than just a provider; she needs me to be her partner to share and do life with. My daughters need me to be more than just the one who buys them presents; they need me to be present and creating memories with them.

I believe God showed me that I have to prioritize my wife and daughters above my work as a pastor. If I could not balance ministry and family life, then I needed to let one go. It was not an easy decision, but in the end, I’d rather be a great husband and father than a great pastor. So, this winter, I submitted my resignation. A few weeks ago, I preached my last sermon.

I don’t know what my next steps are, but the one thing I know is this: from now on, I am committed to doing what it takes to be the best husband and father I can be. What does that look like?

To me, it looks like two things: presence and partnership.

Presence

Presence is all about paying attention to the moments that matter most.

Not long ago, I kissed my wife and daughter goodbye as I left for the local coffee shop to work. Usually, when I close the front door of our house, I put on my headphones and begin to listen to a podcast. On this particular morning, I paused in front of my house and looked up at the living room window. Suddenly, my daughter’s little head popped up in the window. She was grinning ear to ear as she waved at me. I smiled and just took in that precious moment. I made her day, and she made mine.

How many moments like that have I missed because I haven’t paid attention? How many memories were not created because I was listening to the radio, TV, or podcasts instead of listening to my daughter’s voice? How many precious moments were lost because I was so focused on my work?

A father and husband cannot just go to work and come home and exist in the same place as his family. He has to be present. He has to pay attention to the small things; they are the biggest, most important things.

Partnership

For me, a huge part of being a good father is being a good partner to my wife. Partners share each other’s burdens and support each other’s dreams.

I’ve known my wife since kindergarten. And since kindergarten, she has wanted to be a musician. She has wanted to create songs to share with the world. For so long, we’ve been waiting until the “right” time for her to do that. Now is the time. She has supported me and sacrificed for me as I’ve pursued my calling into ministry. Now it’s my turn to make sacrifices for her, so she has the time and space to pursue her dream as well.

To make that happen, I spend as much time at home as possible, sharing the everyday burdens: laundry, cooking, changing diapers, cleaning up messes. Without this type of partnership, there’s no way my wife can pursue the dreams God has placed in her heart. God doesn’t just have a calling on my life as the husband. God has a call for my wife as well, and I have the responsibility and privilege to support that call.

Supporting my wife’s dreams isn’t just about being a good spouse or having a healthy relationship. It also says something important to my daughters.

My girls are Hmong-American. They will grow up as girls and then women of color in a mostly-white part of a patriarchal world. Because they’re female, and because of their Southeast Asian skin tone, the world will tell them their ideas are not as good. That they don’t have as much to offer as the white man in the same class or church or company. That they’re not as smart, or not as wise. That God’s call on their lives doesn’t matter as much as God’s call on a man’s life.

When I support my wife’s call, it tells my daughters that God has a call on their lives, and that it matters. It teaches them that their dreams are important. That they have something valuable to offer the world, and that God wants them to pursue their gifts and vision. That the way things are is not the way things have to be, and that they are part of God’s plan to renew our broken world.

For too long, I’ve made excuses for not being present and for being less than a full partner in the life of my family. To be a father means to not just hope for a world where my wife and daughters can flourish; it means helping to bring that world into being.

This is the vision that God has given me. This is the dream that fills my mind and my spirit each night as my wife and I read to our daughters, pray for them, hold them (and a giant, stuffed Winnie the Pooh) tightly, and sing them to sleep.

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