The Ultimate Work-Family Dilemma: When Prioritizing Someone Else’s Family Affects Yours

Anyone who has ever had to rely on others to get something important done at work, knows the guilty panic of realizing that your go-to person has something big going on in her personal life. Something that will make it hard for her to get your project done.

Maybe your colleague has a sudden health problem. Maybe your assistant has to take a week off right during the big deal because her teenage son was caught drinking and driving. Maybe it’s something wonderful like your friend’s wedding plans are just too overwhelming and, “Oh, by the way, I won’t be able to finish your project but I’m sure you can find someone else.”

All of us are firmly aware that our families have to be a priority – but am I the only one who has to wrestle down some conflicting feelings when trying to ensure that I make someone else’s family a priority too? Not just so that I “walk the talk” when finances are on the line (for example) but because I am all too aware that, sometimes, saying, “That’s okay, you need to prioritize your family” will mean I get less time with mine?

I recently came smack up against this dilemma. For years, my whole ministry has been supported by a young and energetic independent tech guy – all our email, phones, servers, everything. When we started, his wife was his backup help, but somewhere along the way as they had young kids she was no longer involved. Which we didn’t know. Until he suddenly went into a diabetic coma, was admitted to the ICU, on a ventilator and with his organs shutting down.

Nobody even knew he was diabetic. And before we’d had time to process that shock, we got another: his whole server went down. No email, nothing. And his in-shock wife was so worried her husband might die, and trying so hard to keep her own family afloat, that she didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to help us – nor did she know any of the technical information necessary to do so.

Can you say “guilty panic?”

I felt like we had no choice, of course. Especially early on. We had to just pray with and for her, and tell her not to trouble her infrequently-conscious husband about this – he’d already had one heart attack during the crisis, I didn’t want to give him another! We needed to tell her to prioritize her family; that his health and her sanity were more important right now. But as the week with no email stretched on and we were all too aware of how many important communications we were never receiving –including requests for the speaking events that allow me to pay my staff salaries – I was uncomfortably aware that we would soon have to make a hard and awkward decision.

How do you tell a grieving wife that you’re pulling your business out from under her comatose husband?

Oy.

In the end, after almost a week, she understood that we couldn’t wait any longer to hope that it got fixed. She tried to find someone who knew her husband’s system to fill in, but the new guy wasn’t able to solve it. She knew with her head that our only recourse was to start looking for someone else to support us.

But I worry that with their hearts she and her husband will feel we abandoned them in their time of need. That we didn’t prioritize their family when it mattered most. That they won’t truly understand that I could only prioritize them for so long before I put not just my own family at risk, but the families of every person who works for me.

Of course, I also know that it’s not my responsibility to solve this – I cling to the knowledge that God is their provider as He is the provider for our family and for my staff members. But what a dilemma.

Have you ever faced a situation where prioritizing someone else’s family meant not prioritizing yours? I’d love to hear how you handled it.

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