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Home > 2013 > April Web Exclusives > Is Ministry Killing your Marriage?

A pastor once told us, "I was at a board meeting where we were examining potential elders. One candidate was asked, 'Are you willing to make sacrifices with your family for the sake of the church?' And it was a weird moment because I asked myself, What's the right answer to that question?"

Over the past seven years, we've gathered pastors and their spouses into peer cohorts, which met repeatedly in multiday retreats called Pastors Summits where we facilitated heartfelt discussions about the challenges of vocational ministry. During one of our summits, a participant shared the following story:

A few years ago, I asked my wife what it felt like to be married to me, after 20 years of marriage and 18 years of ministry together. I was optimistic of her positive response. She said, "I know that I would never divorce you. And I certainly would never kill you. However, I can't help but think the boys and I would be better off if you were not alive."
My response? I was ready to leave the ministry in order to save my marriage! I went to my elders and told them what my wife had said. After some quiet moments, one of the elders finally said, "Now is not the time for you to leave the ministry. Now is the time for you to learn what the ministry is all about." With their support, my wife and I began extended counseling together. This has resulted in some pretty dramatic changes in the way I live life and do ministry.

The effects of ministry on marriage—and marriage on ministry—are rarely discussed, yet intimately connected. From the summit discussion with ministry couples, we identified two primary challenges facing marriage and family for those in the ministry. We will explore these two stressors and describe the most helpful responses and actions identified by the summit couples.

Stressor one: ministry as a lifestyle

Pastors can only dream of a nine-to-five job, in which the whistle blows and the work stays behind as they head for home. One pastor stated emphatically, "Ministry is not a job; it's a lifestyle. Even when I'm home, I'm subject to the telephone and my inability to turn some of the church emotions off. I feel like I'm faking it with the kids much of the time."

Pastors rarely feel like they can step away from their ministry responsibilities. They feel "on" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. One pastor explained, "After being an active listener for a lot of other people, I really struggle being interested in my spouse and children and what's going on in their lives.

How do pastors respond to this strain of ministry? Many of them continue to press on, ignoring the family consequences until a crisis occurs. Unfortunately, this was a common refrain in the cohorts:

I didn't realize the strain that ministry was putting on our marriage. I knew that it wasn't what I wanted or what it should be. Yet at the same time, I'd just keep going. Then, when we got away for awhile, it all came crashing down. I feel like the toll on my family—the damage to me, my wife, and my son—has not been worth the fruit of the ministry.

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Posted: April 1, 2013

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Displaying 1–5 of 9 comments

Johnny Tan

August 11, 2013  7:14pm

The bit about the sheep biting just occurred. Our best friend and supporter of our ministry just got angry with us about an untrue hearsay that they did not verify. my wife is going crazy and says she hates me because I am a pastor. she feels I do not support her and truly that might be it. I am in tears as I write this. I ask your prayers. I love my wife and will be actively doing some thing. I know she loves the Lord and says she will keep on doing the right thing . But I cannot stand to see the emotional wreck she is now. A wounded spirit who can bear? she is like that now.

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April 07, 2013  7:57am

Rev. Kammeraad, working spouses is man's idea not God's. It is not chauvinistic or sexist... it was the way God intended for it to be: teamwork.

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Johnny Tan

April 06, 2013  5:20pm

Thank you for this article. I am going through that now. GOD is speaking...

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April 06, 2013  11:49am

One more thing, as a comment to the post claiming that ministry should not demand more than 40 hours a week: many full-time jobs demand more than 40 hours a week. Vocational ministry is one of them, plain and simple. People who can only or want to only work 40 hours a week should probably not choose a career such as pastoral ministry.

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April 06, 2013  11:43am

This is the ministry spouse speaking here---not the pastor. I think that this article has many good points. However, I do agree with Rev. Carl that there should not be the expectation that the spouse be a ministry partner. As a married couple, we ARE partners; whether we are in vocational ministry or not. All married couples need to view their lives and occupations as a team, regardless of the chosen vocations. I view my role two-fold: 1. I am supportive of the ministry needs and demands that are placed on my husband, my children, and myself. 2. I am a church-member and servant of Jesus Christ, and thus have a duty and desire to serve in my area of gifting in our church. If we some day choose to leave vocational ministry, I will still be my spouses partner, supporting him and him likewise supporting me.

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