My husband and I made our decision to leave full-time vocational ministry for good after yet another interview at yet another church. The search committee asked him, “What are your goals for your ministry?” His honest answer—“my main goal is that, at the end of it, my wife and I have a strong, healthy marriage and our children don’t feel resentful of me, my work, or Jesus”—didn’t exactly go over well.
But our answer was true: we had watched as those who led us—faithful ones who loved Jesus and carried mighty gifts—one after another lost their marriages or their relationship with their children all in pursuit of Their Great Big Call for Great Big Ministry. Mostly male, they sacrificed their health, their marriages, and their children on the altar and called it a worthy trade for God’s glory. At that time of our life with an armful of babies and more than our share of ministry burnout already, we looked at each other and said, “We did not marry the ministry, we married each other. Let’s pick us,” and that was that.
Of course, the irony is that soon after my husband’s choice to leave full-time ministry, my work as a writer blossomed into an organic form of growing ministry which now dominates our shared family life, effectively making me the one in full-time vocational ministry.
Tozer’s Singular Devotion
One of the earliest classics of Christian literature I read was A.W. Tozer’s slim 1949 book, The Pursuit of God. Like so many others, I was captivated and inspired by his passion for God, his remarkable prayer life—sprawled on the floor for hours in adoration—and his devotion to worship. Every biography, every essay, about the theologian and pastor references not only his literary and oratory gifts, but his time-consuming diligence in study and his zealous hunger for more, more, more time with God.
As an overly earnest kid coming of age in the charismatic renewal movement myself, I was drawn to Tozer’s work, reading the book several times in my youth. His example was inspiring, clarifying. Sign me up for that evangelical hero complex. My copy of The Pursuit of God is still dogeared and underlined with teenage ardor: I desperately wanted to “taste, to touch with [my] heart, to see with [my] inner eyes the wonder that is God” as he did. His work deeply shaped the church for generations, giving us a picture of single-minded devotion to God, a glimpse of discipleship centred on desiring God above all else.
And yet now—as a forty-year-old woman, married with four children, and a life devoted to Christian ministry—I am more haunted than inspired by Tozer.
A.W. Tozer had seven children. His wife was Ada Cecilia Pfautz. After Tozer died, Ada remarried a man named Leonard Odam. Later, when she was asked about the difference between her marriage to The Great Man of God and her current husband, she candidly said, “I have never been happier in my life. Aiden (Tozer) loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.”
Aiden loved Jesus. Leonard loves me. So simply contrasted, so utterly devastating.
A Lonely Life
The full story of the price of Tozer’s devotion is well recorded. Biographers tell us of his absence from the home, always off preaching and writing and spending those infernal hours on the floor of the study in “prayer and worship” while Ada raised their children effectively alone (their son Lowell referred to Ada as “a single parent”), managed their household alone, and when it all became too much, even berated herself alone for her own weakness for needing his love. No doubt, when one’s emotionally distant partner’s whole shtick is that we should find our happiness only in God, it can be a bit much.
His commitment to simplicity meant the family paid the price: he refused to spend money on a car, which was all well and good as he often took the train or was driven around by the faithful but this left Ada walking long distances in harsh Chicago winters. She would show up to church shivering, and then face a long walk home or the equally exhausting navigation of public transportation at the time. He refused to receive a full paycheck out of his disdain for filthy lucre in exchange for ministry: again, a fine principle. But one which meant Ada was left trying to raise those kids on a half-paycheck, facing financial anxiety, poverty, and deprivation while knowing the circumstance could have been alleviated by her husband. He was unyielding and seemed to lack awareness of the price his wife and children paid for his devotion to God. As biographer Lyle Dorsett wrote, “He had no inkling that his zeal for God’s house was undermining his own.” A.W. Tozer pursued God all right—he pursued God to the exclusion of his family.
Ada described herself as deeply lonely for her entire marriage with A.W. Tozer. For once, the couple was in sync because A.W. is reported to have said, at the end, that his was a remarkably lonely life, too.
A Cautionary Tale
It is a common story, perhaps more common for men in ministry. Yet the story of the Tozers is one of several which have informed my own approach to ministry and family. I don’t know if I’m doing this perfectly or even, to be frank, very well. Time will tell. It feels like a make-it-up-as-you-go balancing act without end—vocation, work, ministry, motherhood, health, devotion, family always in cooperation or tension.
Tozer’s cautionary tale can’t be an apples to apples comparison for women like me. Women often lack institutional and financial support for our ministerial callings. We go out to preach and come home to cook supper and fold laundry. We are left to carve out spheres of ministry in the marketplace or edges of the church while still carrying the obligations and responsibilities of caring for our families. Many men in ministry were able to pay the steep price of pursuing God like Tozer because the assumption was that they will have an “Ada” at home to keep things going while they are out saving the world for Jesus (must be nice).
The thing is that I really love my work. I love what I do, it’s a joy to me. My work is an altar where I meet with God. In fact, I think I’m a better wife and a better mother because I’m doing meaningful work that I love. And yet at the exact same time, I really love my family and find a lot of life, challenge, and goodness in my roles as a wife and mother. My marriage and my children are also an altar to meet with God. I am fortunate to have a supportive partner who fully shares the responsibilities of our home and raising our children and sees my work as fully ours. But I am also typing this article with a kid beside me, gnawing on an apple at a volume and intensity that makes me jealous of Tozer’s silent hours in the study.
From my complicated vantage point, I find it impossible to laud Tozer’s singular and powerful devotion to God without the counterweight of his wife and children’s experiences. Both are true. I am left to wonder: Are we truly turned towards God’s face if our partners and children experience that devotion as a closed door and silent disinterest?
At this point in ministry, I find myself prayerfully echoing my husband’s words from more than a decade ago in a way I didn’t fully understand then perhaps: may it be that at the end of this, we still enjoy a strong, healthy marriage and that our children don’t feel resentful of me, my work, or Jesus. But as a woman in ministry, I would add one more line: “May I be audacious and faithful to the work God gave me to do, too.”
As Tozer wrote himself, “Our pursuit of God is successful just because he is forever seeking to manifest himself to us.” This is a generous view of God, more generous than Tozer embodied perhaps. Because I have to believe that the manifestation of God isn’t limited to hours prostrate on the floor or the neglect of a family in zealous pursuit of ministry. No, the successful pursuit of God is also found right in the midst of our imperfect, complicated, entangled lives. In order to do this well, we must dare to believe there is no line between the secular and sacred because God is forever made manifest right in our ordinary lives—there isn’t one room where God dwells and another room where our family lives.
At the end, I want those who knew and loved me best to be able to say both: “Sarah loved Jesus Christ. And she also loved us.”
Quotes from A.W. Tozer are from The Pursuit of God.
Biographical information was from A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer by Lyle Dorsett