Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?"
Clergy mental health has emerged as an important topic in recent months and has ignited valuable conversation about what pastors can do to attend to their own emotional and spiritual well-being. While important, an exclusively individualistic emphasis can miss perhaps one of the most important resources for mental health available to ministry professionals: the marital relationship.
For couples, finding sanctuary with each other and together with God can be a source of survival in high-stress ministry environments.
Marriage can serve as a refuge and a place of safety from the stressors of high visibility, congregational conflict, professional isolation, and compassion fatigue. McMinn and colleagues, in their review of research on pastor’s health and coping, found that exemplar pastors identified their marital relationship as an essential part of their spiritual and psychological health.
The researchers proposed that marriage is an especially important refuge for those in ministry because of the difficulties of finding confidential, close friendship and peer relationships where honest and vulnerable feelings, fears, and doubts can be shared.
For couples and families called to full-time ministry, the marital relationship can be a protected and sacred space of connection, trust, and sharing of burdens.
A recent survey of pastors’ spouses found that while most report a high level of marital satisfaction, nearly half indicate that the demands of ministry present very real barriers to uninterrupted time for the marital relationship.
This finding was especially true for younger couples in ministry with children at home and financial concerns. Additionally, 86 percent of pastoral spouses indicate feeling that their church congregation has expectations that the pastors’ marriage should be a role model for others.
The pressures of ministry demands, which include living in a “fishbowl” of high visibility and the ambiguous boundaries between work and home, pose challenges to maintaining healthy couple and family life for ministry families.
Many couples experience very real financial, medical, and environmental stressors that make it difficult to bring their best selves to the marital relationship. Yet, the protective power of the marital relationship for the emotional and spiritual well-being of those in ministry cannot be overstated.
As mental health professionals who are disciples of Jesus, we have the privilege of working with couples and families in full-time ministry to help them strengthen their relationships with each other and with God.
In seeking out resources from the science on relationships that are compatible with Christian faith commitments, we have both found the research on attachment theory and the work of psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson to be particularly helpful for couples.
Attachment theory proposes that human beings are born with the strong motivation for secure connections with others, and that our early interactions with primary caregivers can have an impact on the way we relate to others throughout our lives. Our closest relationships, then, can activate our attachment needs, fears, and longings.
The good news is that these relationships also hold promise for growth and healing from past attachment wounds, and part of our work with couples involves helping them decode interactional patterns that keep them apart so they can move towards ways of interacting with each other that bring about closeness, connection, and responsiveness to the other’s distress.
A secure and trusting relationship with another human being can be a sanctuary, a buffer, and a refuge from the day to day pressures of the world.
How can couples in ministry grow in their ability to be a sanctuary for each other in marriage?
For couples interested in viewing their relationship through the lens of attachment theory, a good starting point is Johnson and Sanderfer’s book Created for Connection which provides a practical, biblically informed approach to forging secure connections in couple relationships.
Many couples find it helpful and necessary to bring in a third party who can help them get unstuck from negative interactional patterns and back on the path towards connection. Enter, the marital therapist!
We have included several links below as a good starting place for finding a good Christian couples’ counselor. Couples in ministry can also take advantage of marriage enrichment and education retreats and workshops to build on this good foundation, and we have found that when it comes to investment in relationships, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.
We have also found the work of marital researcher John Gottman to provide a practical starting point for couples who are seeking to strengthen their marriage. Gottman’s research has found that couples in life-giving marriages invest at least six hours a week in simple, healthy relational habits that deepen their connection and care for each other.
Important marital practices include establishing regular routines around parting from each other and coming back together, showing admiration, appreciation, and affection, establishing regular date nights, as well as scheduling a weekly “state of the union” meeting to address concerns.
These behavioral practices provide tangible evidence to a spouse that “you matter to me” and “I am here for you” and, when practiced over time, grow into a foundation for a marital sanctuary.
These relationally-centered practices foster our growth in the character virtue of love as we look for specific ways, both large and small, to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:12).
Walking in the way of love is no doubt most difficult with the person with whom we cannot hide our brokenness and sinfulness. Yet, the potential for experiencing grace and growing in sanctification is at its greatest with the person who sees us at our worst.
Through prioritizing relational habits of care for each other, a ministry couples’ souls can be refreshed and renewed to care for others. The foundation for the marital sanctuary is built through small, daily acts of connection and caring as new habits of closeness and intimacy are forged.
McMinn, M.R., Lish, R.A., Trice, P.D. et al. (2005). Care for pastors: Learning from clergy and their spouses. Pastoral Psychology, 53: 563. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-005-4821-y
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2015). Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Random House.
Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K. (2016). Created for Connection: The “Hold me Tight” guide for Christian Couples. New York: Little, Brown, & Co.
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Terri Watson, Psy.D., ABPP is Dean and Professor in the School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy at Wheaton College. She and her husband, Bob, have a private practice in Hoffman Estates, IL
Eric Brown, Ph.D. is the Director of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Wheaton College. He provides counseling services at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL.