A few years ago a dog found his way onto a baseball field where a professional baseball game was underway. Players, umpires, coaches, and fans all began to yell at the dog, calling him to come, to go, to sit, to heel. The poor animal could be seen zigzagging across the infield, reacting to voice after voice, and then, after some time, flopping down in confused weariness.
These days I think that many church leaders out there are trying to respond to their own dizzying collections of voices—the complaints of congregation members, the demands of church leaders, the needs of their communities, and the impulses from within. And these church leaders might also be ready to flop down in confused weariness.
Maybe you’re one of them. Over the past year the voices seem to have grown louder, and they pull harder in different directions. You wonder how you’ll manage them all and whether or not to keep trying. What is a pastor to do?
Kevin Schutte, a church planter who supervises other church planters, recently told me that two things seem to be important for the emotional health of a church planter: 1) The church planter’s commitment to spiritual disciplines and 2) the health of the church planter’s marriage.
That second one might surprise you: Marriage?
Yes, and the health of one’s marriage seems to be just as important for established church ministers and their ministries. In 2015, Lifeway Research’s landmark Study of Pastoral Attrition and Pastoral Ministry revealed that three of six key ways to prevent pastoral attrition are related to marriage and family.
Pastors who 1) share their struggles with their spouses at least once a month, 2) pay attention to their spouse’s satisfaction with their marriages and work to improve them, and 3) consistently protect time with family are less likely to leave ministry prematurely.
Two years later Notre Dame’s 2017 Flourishing in Ministry: CRCNA report ended with five major themes, one of which indicated that the well-being of a pastor’s partner, children, and extended family seem to have a high correlative relationship with that of the pastor himself/herself.
What is the connection between a healthy marriage and a healthy pastor?
There are many, actually, but here is one for us to think about today: In a healthy marriage the voice coming from the pastor’s spouse will be very different from the other voices the pastor hears all week. How? The spouse’s voice speaks out of a commitment, an imperfectly lived but consistently revisited commitment to love, and it says: “I accept you.”
Sometimes we talk about the pastor-church relationship being a covenant, like a marriage. But the relationship between pastor and spouse operates at a much deeper level of intimacy, commitment, and acceptance than even the best pastor-church relationship.
In healthy marriages, spouses find ways to voice this intimacy, commitment, and acceptance to one another regularly. They communicate things like: “I know that there is more to you than the things that frustrate others, and I know that there is more to you than the things that impress others. You impress and frustrate me too, but none of that defines the way that I relate to you. Our imperfectly lived but consistently revisited commitment to love one another does.”
Hopefully single church leaders out there hear such things too—in the context of deep and close friendships or from trusted family members. But whether married or single, whether established church ministers or church planters, all church leaders need relationships in which the voice of acceptance is the dominant voice. That voice has the power to soften the impact of the other voices, the ones that say that approval and acceptance are conditional on performance.
That makes it important for you, as a church leader, to develop the habit of listening to and believing that voice. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the people who see you primarily in your pastoral role are entitled to tell you what to think about yourself. The same goes for the data points that come with ministry or your own persistent impulses. These voices aren’t always committed to your thriving. Listen to your spouse, and consider that voice to be the human voice most worthy of your attention.
And while you are listening to your spouse, commit yourself to the thriving of your spouse. Provide the voice of acceptance to your spouse. Speak to your spouse out of your commitment to love him or her. Your clear and consistent support will, among other things, give him or her the space to flourish, and, from that space, to fulfill his or her commitment to love you.
Finally, while it is possible to have an unhealthy church led by a healthy pastor it is hard to find a healthy church led by an unhealthy pastor. Do yourself and your ministry a favor: Invest in the health of your marriage. It’s good for you and, as a result, good for your ministry.