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.
What should pastors do with these incessant pressures? How do they turn "off"? While there are no simple answers, the following are some diagnostic questions and suggested healing actions drawn from our summit conversations. These questions and stories will help you assess how well you are dealing with the ministry stress of always being "on."
How often do you feel like you are truly off the clock?
Pastors need to counter the demands of ministry with responsible self-care. Exercise, days off, Sabbath, vacations, sabbaticals, hobbies, firm boundaries, and the pursuit of interests outside of the ministry are some of the most helpful ways to break the emotional and intellectual pressures of ministry obligations. When spouses and children are involved in these same self-care activities, the benefits multiply.