Laura just finished serving dessert when her husband, Jon, a retired pastor and church administrator, turned to us and said, “I have something to say to you that comes deep from my heart. As a married person and as a pastor, the biggest mistake I ever made was to buy into the idea that the priorities of ministry ought to be God, church, and family—in that order. That attitude destroyed my marriage and spiritually hurt my children. When a pastor’s marriage breaks down, it has far-reaching consequences. A broken marriage hurts God, their families, their ministry, their congregation, and many others. This causes people to lose trust in God, pastors, love, and people.
“Whatever you do, take care of your love for each other, and try not to let your work as a pastor come between you and those you love.” He paused, then continued. “Sometimes things happen in ministry, and you have to make difficult decisions between your priorities. If ever your family is hurt by your work or by the choices you’ve had to make, you must do all you can, with God, to help heal and comfort the hurt that they feel. Otherwise the accumulated hurts, disappointments, and resentments will eventually come between them and you, and worse, between them and God. Don’t feel you have to put every need of your church members before the needs of your family. The church is best when it is a body and there are others who will be blessed by the opportunity to care until you can get there. But you, Bernie, are the one most called to meet the needs of your own family. You can’t delegate that God-given responsibility. If you’re not sure about putting your family’s needs before your ministry, well, read 1 Timothy 3:1–5.”
Is your marriage at risk?
This article explores how growing in love and togetherness in your marriage can help you nurture your love for God and others. A vibrant and intimate marriage will help you to become a more effective pastor and more loving and supportive spouse. This is not to say that single pastors ought to get married or ought not to enter ministry. But this article provides a fresh perspective on the pastor’s marriage, and looks for the special gifts and opportunities that God has tucked into its folds.
Church administrators have always had good intentions for their pastors. Ministry remains a high spiritual calling, and pastors have busy agendas. Some leaders are concerned that pastors might spend too much time taking care of their children rather than ministering to their congregations. Years ago, while pastors spent full time in caring for their flock and the ministry, their wives were expected to take care of everyday duties at home. Wives managed everything at home, took care of the children, were involved in the church, and their husbands did the “important work” of ministry. But, as the years have passed, we have experienced many extremely sad consequences of positioning church work between the pastor and his or her family.
Today, many ministerial marriages face severe and insidious threats. Life and ministry are busier than ever. Both the pastor and the spouse may be employed. Life is many times more complex and demanding than it was 50 years ago. Congregational and leadership expectations may be much higher than they were before. Children’s schedules are hectic. Internet, email, and cell phones mean that pastors can be constantly on call. Spouses sometimes pick up extra duties at home to compensate for overworked pastors. The pastor may even be too busy to find time for a healthy devotional life, to exercise,
relax, and talk with his or her spouse about anything other than the latest home emergency. Other professionals learn to leave their work at the door when they come home, but ministry can enter every aspect of family relationships. As one pastor’s wife said with a wry smile, “I’ve come to accept he’s really married to the church. I’m just the domestic.”
We need to press the pause button as a couple, reconnect, discuss our values and priorities, and talk about how ministry affects our relationship. We need to rediscover the “one-flesh” ideal of marriage that God intended us to experience. We need to understand the emotional, relational, and spiritual impact of ministry on our marriages and each other, and discover how practical theology can enrich our relationships at home and in our congregations.
The time spent in nurturing a healthy, loving, communicating, happy, and intimate marriage is vital to develop a healthy relationship with God, with our ministry, and those with whom we come into contact. Our marriages are the “discovery centers” for exploring the multidimensional wonder of God’s love. The more we learn about deep, committed, intimate love, the more we learn about how God loves us. And the more we learn about God’s love, the more easily we will understand how to love each other well. Then the community around us will truly know that we are Christians.
The harmfulness of aloneness
In the beginning of the world’s history, when Adam lived in the freshly created Garden of Eden and walked and talked face-to-face with God, there was just one thing that God pronounced “not good” (Gen. 2:18), that was the aloneness of man. If being alone in paradise was “not good,” being alone today, in this broken world, is surely not at all good, either. When we take our marriage vows, God gives us a serious responsibility: He entrusts us with the special task of protecting each other—husband and wife—from the harmful experience of aloneness.
Aloneness is the opposite of oneness and oneness is God’s intention for marriage. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, NIV). True oneness, however, is not just about sexual intimacy but also expects spiritual closeness; friendly, happy times together; support and comfort from each other; and open, warm, straightforward, and honest communication. All of these aspects of closeness blend to build a strong, well-rounded, and intimate bond within the relationship. If any one of these aspects is missing or limited, the “one-fleshness” will be lacking a vital ingredient—like leaving eggs, butter, or flour out of a cake batter; you can try it, but you just will not get the cake you wanted.
Just because we are married does not mean that either of us will never feel alone. Marriage can be one of the loneliest places in the world when each person is lost in his or her own busy, struggling, sad, and self-absorbed world. When the one person God has provided to be your closest human companion is not meeting your deep needs for physical, spiritual, social, and emotional connection or letting you meet the other’s needs, you can feel very alone. And when we feel alone and unsupported we can easily become discouraged, resentful, depressed, angry, or hungry for someone else’s love.
Oneness: Next to godliness?
The more intimately we know another person, the closer we come to him or her. It takes time to know another person well, and we never fully arrive at total knowing because we are both growing and changing through our life experiences and spiritual journeys.
One of the most profound ways in which we develop intimacy with our spouses is by sacrificing our own needs and wants to meet theirs. When someone delights in making sacrifices for us, we experience their deepest love. As pastors we often make great sacrifices for our members, but we may unconsciously expect our families to make all kinds of sacrifices for us.
Running on empty
Dave drove many miles across his two distant parishes. He helped Mrs. Taylor by chopping wood for her log pile, sat with Fred while his wife went to the store, and stayed late in the church office writing sermons and sending emails. At home Sally struggled with four children under six years of age. She shopped for groceries, did all the yard work, managed the home, answered phone calls from members, and cared for all of the children’s needs.
When Dave and Sally managed to snatch some time together, they were both exhausted and empty from struggling on their own. Both of them longed for the other person to reach out and support them, but neither had the energy to do so. In each of their minds, they had spent all day emptying themselves into other people’s lives, and now it was their partner’s turn to support them. But their partner was thinking exactly the same thing and so neither of them had the energy to reach out to help the other and their sense of aloneness and sadness grew. Sally was so exhausted she even wondered about taking the children and moving in with her parents.
Their marriage began to be transformed when Dave watched the Christian movie Fireproof * and was inspired to do one significant thing each day to show Sally how much he loved her. Sally said, “The night Dave canceled an important church meeting to stay with me when I was sick, touched my heart. Knowing that I was his priority when I really needed him, gave me hope that we could turn our marriage around.”
Spiritual growth through loving relationships
As we learn to love our partner with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we learn what it means to love God with all that we have. And the more we love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the more richly we can love each other.
When we learn to anticipate and meet our partner’s relational needs in an unselfish way, we understand more about the way God tirelessly takes care of our needs.
When we accept another person’s help and support, we wisely accept that we cannot do it all on our own nor were we meant to, and we experience an opportunity to develop greater humility and trust in God.
When we learn how to protect each other from the danger, sadness, and pain of feeling alone and unsupported, we learn important and transferable skills that enrich our caring ministry to others.
When we notice and appreciate the many great and small things our partners are doing to support us, we can give thanks for them with a grateful heart, and we learn to appreciate the multitude of ways in which God shows His love to us.
When we willingly make sacrifices to support, encourage, appreciate, love, and comfort our partners, we taste something of the loving sacrifice Jesus willingly made for us.
Through exercising our love, we become more skilled at working together with God to help us have a richer, deeper, and wider experience of His love. And as we become better lovers, in the godly sense of the word, we will naturally become more like God from whose heart all love flows.
* For a resource center to download or purchase materials that will help your marriage and the couples in your church and community, see www.fireproofmymarriage.com.