Forty years ago, newly married, I was chatting with a local Baptist pastor and he told me this story.
“I was working in my church office in Toronto and a young man walks in and declares, ‘I’m part of a Satanic group that meets down the street, and we’re praying that the marriages of your church leaders will fail.’ And then he abruptly walks out.”
I will never ever forget his twenty second story, In the four decades since, I’ve seen the challenges that ministry places on marriages, and also witnessed the deep damage done to the gospel when a marriage is hurt by infidelity. The evil one knows how to find and exploit our vulnerabilities.
Ministry puts pressure on marriages for a number of reasons:
- Ministry is emotionally and spiritually demanding, and it’s easy to fall into patterns in which one’s spouse gets the leftover energy, and to justify this “leftover syndrome” in the name of the Kingdom.
- To be married to someone who is continually in the public eye of the congregation, and about whom everyone has an opinion can be exhausting. I regularly meet spouses who are more distraught about negativity in the congregation than the one who is pastoring.
- Most pastor spouses also work, and most of the time their work rhythms are quite different than weekly ministry rhythms. This mismatch can create marital challenges.
- It’s easy for both a pastor and a congregation to assume that the marriage of a spiritual leader will always be strong, and this ill-advised over-confidence can quickly become a vulnerability.
- Pastors’ families usually live a long ways from the ongoing support of extended family and lifelong friends.
- The spouse almost always serves as a stress support for the pastor; who serves as a stress support for the spouse?
- Most pastors’ families move regularly, at least every ten years. The pastor is usually greeted by a honeymoon season, and, because of the role, finds a place in the community more quickly. This transition is almost always more difficult for the spouse.
- At times a spouse under duress will withdraw emotionally and relationally from their congregants and their spouse as a means of self-protection.
- Worshipping together on Sunday provides an anchoring discipline in a Christian marriage. Pastor and spouse rarely have opportunities to practice this discipline.
Every pastor I speak with about these things recognizes these challenges and has taken intentional steps to build in supports and protections for marriage. But this issue is so important that it takes not just the pastor and spouse, but congregational and denominational intentionality to surround these marriages as well. For example,
- Pastor Church Resources (PCR) hosts a biannual conference for pastors’ wives, and every time I hear stories of how the attendees were richly blessed, especially as they shared their struggles and pain and encouraged one another. With denominational funding, the cost of these conferences is very affordable.
- PCR, together with Faith Formation Ministries, has prepared a Pastors’ Spiritual Vitality Toolkit. This toolkit offers a menu which includes dozens of ways to support the pastor’s spiritual well-being.
- Every elder who has a pastor assigned to his or her district can bless the marriage through discrete, non-intrusive, gentle encouragement and support. In addition, every congregation has folks who are gifted in sharing tiny nudges of grace in just the right way to contribute to marital “sturdification.”
- Every pastor couple needs to intentionally craft a set of marital “sturdication” practices that suit their character, context and season of life. This set of practices will include devotional life, recreation, conversational habits, time away, ministry/home boundaries and more. As life rhythms change, this set will need to be adjusted as well. It’s often helpful to ask a third party to participate in forming this set of practices.
In the forty years since I heard the story about the Satanist’s prayer, I have experienced the inevitable moments of marital weariness and discouragement. In every one of those seasons, I’ve pictured that short conversation in the pastor’s office in Toronto, been humbled by it, and I’ve prayed, “Lord, grant me perseverance, wisdom, grace and abounding love to continue the journey with the wonderful woman you’ve graced my life with.”
My parents worked hard to keep things together. That was a blessing to our family. My mom was a stay at home mom and every Monday they took the day off to spend time together. When all the kids were at school, my mom and dad went on visits together in the congregation. My mom did go to women's groups and found friends wherever she went. That was all very intentional, I am sure.
Thanks for the excellent summation of the challenges faced by spouses of clergy.
Just a gentle reminder that there are now approximately 100 ordained women in the denomination, many with male spouses. These clergy marriages are a newer relational phenomenon that is not well understood or supported. I have benefited from attending several conferences sponsored by Sustaining Pastoral Excellence. Interestingly enough, an attempt was made several years ago to hold a male pastor's spouses conference. It failed to launch..
I do find that many of the points you outlined are challenges of mine as a female pastor's spouse.
Well said, Syd. When I entered the ministry, the perspective we received from the seminary was that while everyone else may have a job, ministry was a calling. We were called to ministry for life. I told my wife that if the ministry created stresses that threatened to destroy our marriage, I would bow out. Our marriage was more important than my job, call it what you will. Somewhere along the line, somebody suggested that we should spend time with our spouse "once a day, once a week, once a month, once a year." That was a good rule of thumb. My wife and I sought to spend some time together every evening, after the kids were in bed, or, when they were older, we'd go out for a coffee or carve out some other time for just the two of us. The kids didn't resent that; in fact, they felt a deep sense of security in their parents' devotion. Once a week for us was Mondays. Once a month meant say, going out for a meal together, just the two of us. That probably didn't happen as regularly as it should. Once a year was taking a vacation, just the two of us, for a few days. Also more challenging, with five kids and financial constraints. But what the rule of thumb did was give us a clear goal in terms of spending specific blocks of time together, and overall, it was a constant reminder and challenge for us to put our marriage first in our life and work. Everything is "under God." When I lost my first wife at age 49, I had no regrets. That doesn't mean I/we lived life and marriage perfectly, but it did mean that I/we felt we had chosen the right priorities and lived them out as faithfully as we could.
Syd, Thanks for these wise words. Marriages of pastor and spouse also face severe stress when the pastor experiences a mental health crisis. Unlike a physical illness, this form of illness often brings fear, stigma, and a potential for severe misunderstanding not only between spouses, but with the entire congregation. Disability Concerns created a resource to assist pastors, their families, and congregations in this difficult situation: Guide for Clergy Leave of Absence for Mental Health Reasons. We hope and pray it will be helpful for clergy marriages as well as for their congregations.
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