When Franklin Graham was five, his famous father was in Australia for six months preaching at a Billy Graham Crusade. Like many youngsters, “I’d wake up in the morning, go down the hall and crawl into bed with Mama,” Franklin says. “Well, one day I went in and Daddy had come home. So here he was, this man in her bed. I asked Mama, ‘Who’s that?'” (Christianity Today 2018)
That story poignantly identifies one of the areas where Billy Graham acknowledged he didn’t always get it right. So much so, ‘Billy Graham’s children are grateful for their father; they just wished he had been around more.
There is no question that Billy’s absence affected all five of the Graham children and undoubtedly his long ministry trips impacted their lives. Three of them experience divorce and the two boys rebelled. You can read Franklin’s own story in ‘Rebel With a Cause’ to find out all the details. However, they all made it through to the point that all of them are now in full-time ministry.
Billy Graham stated, “Although I have much to be grateful for as I look back over my life, I also have many regrets. I have failed many times, and I would do many things differently. For one thing, I would speak less and study more, and I would spend more time with my family. . . . .Every day I was absent from my family is gone forever. Although much of that travel was necessary, some of it was not.” (BillyGraham.org 2009)
Anne Graham Lotz told Christianity Today, “My father was not a hands-on father. Mother was both our mother and our father, in many ways.” Keir Wyatt Kent in the article ‘Little Girls Need Their Daddy’ tells of one particular incident that revealed the cost of ministry.
All of the Graham children talk about the cost of their father’s absence. Even after they were adults, Billy was still torn between family and ministry.
In 1973, their grandfather Nelson Bell died. Less than a year later, Ruth Bell Graham was at Gigi’s home in Milwaukee. The adventurous grandmother decided to create a rope slide for her grandchildren. They tied a rope between two trees and planned to slide down the rope by holding a length of metal pipe over the rope. Ruth, age 54, decided to test the slide before letting the grandchildren on it.
“Mother climbed a tree to get to the top of the line, took hold of the pipe, and promptly fell 15 feet when the line broke,” her daughter Ruth wrote. “She shattered her heel, compressed her spine, broke a rib, and blacked out, falling into a coma for a week.”
“She was in intensive care, and I was driving back and forth from the hospital,” Gigi recalls. While their mother was still recovering, their grandmother suffered a stroke. Meanwhile, Billy was doing a ten-day crusade in Norfolk, Virginia, and at first, said he would not be able to come back. The family’s pastor, Calvin Thielman, called Billy and convinced him to come home. He stayed only for his mother-in-law’s funeral, and then returned to the crusade despite his adult children’s pleas for him to stay.
“Mother was hobbling around on crutches, still having memory loss problems. Her own mother was dying,” Gigi says. “She’d lost her father just before then. And Daddy came briefly but left again. The staff was saying that the crowds would not come if he wasn’t there.” (Christianity Today 2018)
All of this goes to show that even the greatest of spiritual leaders can fail in regard to the neglect of their family. Billy Graham was undoubtedly one of the greatest evangelists and leaders the church has ever seen and yet at this point, it cost his family a great deal as he was torn between family and ministry. This is something everyone in ministry must grapple with.
R.T. Kendall was for twenty-five years the minister at the prestigious Westminster Chapel in London. In the book ‘In Pursuit of His Glory,’ he tells the story of those years. In the final chapter of the book, he sums up seven lessons he learned during this time. Lesson Two was, “If I could turn the clock back and begin all over again, I would spend more time with my wife and family.” Let me quote some of what he wrote.
I put the Chapel first, thinking this was putting God first. I put sermon preparation first, thinking this was a priority God ordained since I was where I was. Wrong. I now believe that I would have preached just as well – probably better – had I spent adequate time with my precious family.
I am haunted by the words of Dr. Barrie White, my supervisor at Oxford, who cautioned me at the very first meeting I had with him, “Spend time with your children. You won’t get those years back.”
About ten years ago, the Billy Graham organization asked to make a video of me they wanted to show to thousands of people via satellite. They asked me questions such as how did I prepare sermons; how did I see the church generally in Britain; what were my views about the Holy Spirit and other questions. Then the director said, “We have one minute left; how shall we use up those sixty seconds? Oh, I know – tell us about your family and your role as a father.” I replied that this was the one area of my life that would not interest them because I felt like a failure as a father, placing sermon preparation first – thinking that I was putting God first. I now believe I would have preached just as well had I put the family first, but I cannot get those years back.
They were filming the whole time I said that, and this is the part of the sixty-minute video they ended up using! They explained later that this might encourage pastors and church leaders who felt the same way.
Oh, how I wish I could have a second chance to spend more time with our children – to read with them, to play with them, to tell stories to them, to be less harsh in discipline, and to cry with them when they were hurting.
I write these lines to emphasize this matter again with the hope of saving some younger person’s family or perhaps that of a church leader. If you read these lines, here are my recommendations:
- Listen to them when they talk to you; they will never turn to you at a convenient time.
- Do not dismiss their feelings of being hurt over the way their friends or teachers treat them.
- Make mealtimes at the table last longer and family oriented. Shut the TV off and encourage them to talk.
- Don’t leave them when they are afraid to go to sleep or need you to read them a bedtime story.
- Set a time to be with them, and keep your appointment as you would for the most important person on earth, for your children are even more important yet.
ALAN M LANGSTAFF
Let me briefly say that I fell into the same trap back when we lived and ministered in Australia in the 1970’s. I was so busy leading what was then probably the major renewal ministry in Australia, that I began to neglect my wife and my family for the sake of the ministry. Fortunately, through a particular incident, God showed me the error of my ways, and by the grace of God, I sought to change my priorities.
At this time, I am now 83 years of age and I am not traveling in ministry anymore. After forty years flying to every continent and ministering in some forty countries, I haven’t flown since 2011, but more recently I have chosen to stay home with my beloved wife, Dorothy.
I have shared these three examples not to criticize anyone, but to remind all of us to be careful not to neglect our spouses and our children; the ones God has given us to share our life together. Incidentally, this message does not only apply to ministers, but to all of us; those in business, medicine, education, etc.
R.T. Kendall In Pursuit of His Glory Charisma House (May 5, 2004)