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.

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.

Does your spouse serve as a "nuclear dumping ground"?
Frequently, spouses are the only safe people with whom to share candidly the conflicts, disappointments, and stress of ministry. Pastors say things to their spouses they would never share with anyone else. Ministry spouses watch their partners suffer from the criticism, crises, and conflicts that come with the job. Since the information is usually highly confidential, the receiving spouse has nowhere to share the burden and no power to settle it. Later, when ministry leaders resolve the problems, the spouse is frequently left holding the pain, unable to bring closure to the experience.

Pastors need to have relationships with significant allies and valued confidants in whom they can openly disclose what they are facing and how others relate to their leadership. We are reminded of a pastor friend who was going through turmoil on his leadership board. In his rush to secure new officers, he had brought on one person who did not respect the pastor's leadership or vision. This new elder became a constant problem, critically questioning every initiative coming to the board. Because the elder was well known, our friend couldn't find anyone in the church or community to talk with about it. And his wife was already burdened with the concerns of their young family, including a special-needs child.

Finally, the pastor reached out through phone calls and emails to a person over 900 miles away, someone who could serve as a sounding board for his frustrations. By pursuing this confidant, the pastor protected his spouse and children from the emotional burden.

What healthy boundaries protect your spouse and children from the emotional stressors of ministry?
One pastor told the group, "Our oldest daughter is five. When we're sitting at the dinner table eating, my husband [also a pastor] is telling me what's happened that day. Our daughter is listening. She hears everything, to the point now where I'll say [to him], 'Names—at least keep the names out!' But even more than the names, she feels the anxiety."

An older pastor reflected, "Our kids were very involved in the conflict and struggle we had in our church. They saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some ways I'm surprised they still go to church and are believers. But they are, and I'm so thankful."

What can be done to address the emotional cost to both spouses and children? While there are wonderful people in every congregation, there can also be people who are angry and mean. Yes, the sheep can bite. Pastoral couples must pursue ongoing conversations about how to manage the emotional fallout of ministry.

These conversations should include discussions about how much spouses are expected to handle. The overall objective should be for spouses to feel connected to the concerns of their partner who is pastoring but not become crippled by the emotional difficulties. Take into account that people have different capacities to manage negative issues in a healthy manner. There is a continuum between "need to know" information and knowledge that becomes too stressful to bear.

Stressor two: conflicting loyalties of church and home

One result of being on the job all the time is a conflict of loyalty between the church and their family. As one pastor mused, "How important should my allegiance to the church be? Does my concern for the people of this church trump my concern for my family? How do I reconcile these competing loyalties?"

Ministry will take up all of the time one allows it. As a result, pastors can be busy "doing the Lord's work" to the neglect of their marriages. One pastor shared how his wife confronted him about his loyalty: "I was out five nights one week, and she said, 'The church is coming between us. You can't do that.'"

Many pastors believe that, if they worked really hard during a particular season of ministry, there would be more time for spouse and family when the church reaches a certain milestone—the size of membership, the hiring of additional staff, or a level of income. But the pastors agreed that the next goal would always be looming on the horizon. "Do you think things will change when you reach that milestone?" exclaimed a pastor everyone viewed as successful. "No way! Not true!"

A second unhealthy response to this problem of conflicting loyalties surfaced in a conversation between the wife of a pastor and psychologist Diane Langberg, a guest during one of the cohort meetings. The wife shared, "I read about Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, and how Sarah tirelessly ran the home and family so that Jonathan could employ his gifts in the church by studying, writing, and preparing. And I read about Susannah and Charles Spurgeon, and how Susannah felt it was her responsibility to sacrifice time with her husband for the sake of the gospel. So I felt guilty for complaining."

In thoughtful response to this comment, Diane said, "So many pastors' wives buy into the martyr mindset. Abandonment is not spiritual under any circumstances. Abandonment of a spouse is antithetical to the work of God. Such a person is using a woman for his own self …. The phrase "dying to self" has covered a lot of sin."

How do pastors choose wisely between family and church responsibilities? Here are some very practical and helpful suggestions:

Recognize the strategic role of ministry spouses.
Over time many pastors may begin to take their spouses for granted. As one expressed it in a journal entry, "I realize I've undervalued her in my ministry, even while thinking that I wasn't doing that."

When pastors acknowledge the importance of their spouses as ministry partners and learn from them, they will find their spouses to be one of the most important resources available for their own growth. However, this will not happen if they place their loyalty to the church above their commitment to their spouses.

Form a ministry partnership with your spouse.
While this includes the shared ministry of opening the home for meals and fellowship, it expands to include all sorts of other commitments and activities. There are no formulas for determining the role of a spouse in ministry. It requires a careful, ongoing discussion around the spiritual gifts and interest of the spouse, the expectations of the congregation (and how you will address them as a couple), the needs of the family, and your stage of life.

One pastor shared this story:

When we got married, my wife was coming from a high involvement in a ministry. While I desired to partner with her, all I had ever seen was couples where the wife was only involved tangentially. I had never seen a real ministry partnership. So I assumed my wife would develop her own activities. She was offended that I didn't involve her in ministry planning and leadership. It took a number of years to work through these hurt feelings. But even today I don't feel I have done a good job of involving her.

Other pastors and spouses described how they addressed congregational involvement. One ministry spouse shared, "When our church was just a few years old, there was an elder who thought I should have a job description. I said, "When you start paying me, you can give me one!"

Ministry partnership is a fluid concept that must be regularly negotiated between the pastor and spouse. Being unified in their understanding of what the spouse will do and how the spouse feels called to participate can prevent a great deal of stress.

Disappoint others.
You will probably need to disappoint people when it comes to the proper care of your family or yourself. One of the summit couples shared about being criticized for not attending a church event in order to be at their son's baseball game. Their son had been struggling with self-confidence, and both were willing to disappoint others in order to support him.

It is impossible to be in ministry and not disappoint others. In order to manage the outcomes of such circumstances, pastors must help their spouses (and children) learn differentiation—the ability to remain connected in relationship to significant people and yet not have our reactions and behavior determined by them.

Family care

Just as in the area of self-care, there may be short periods when it is not possible to focus on the spiritual growth of one's family. However, the regular investment of spiritual care for spouses and children is like daily exercise and proper diet: consistent involvement pays off over the long haul.

What story do you tell yourself about the tension between work and home responsibilities? How well does your spouse think you are navigating the tension? Ministry couples need to confront the tension between church and family by negotiating the specific challenges in the ministry environment. Taking even small steps in the areas mentioned above will reduce the strain for the whole family.

Bob Burns is senior associate pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

Tasha D. Chapman is dean of academic services and adjunct professor of educational ministries at Covenant Theological Seminary.

Donald C. Guthrie is professor of educational ministries at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

Excerpted from Resilient Ministries: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (IVP, 2013).

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