Maximizing marital and parental satisfaction in pastoral couples

Read how to prioritize your life to ensure that your spouse and family get your best time and energy.

Curtis A. Fox, PhD, is professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Family Sciences, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

The call to pastoral ministry can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences that any person can have. But, this same calling can be very challenging and dangerous as well. Specifically, the life of a minister could have significant negative effects on his or her personal life, marriage, and family life. This may not be new light, but the helplessness that stalks many ministers as they attempt to evade the landmines around their marriages and families leave many bruised or  maimed.

So as to avoid a pessimistic view, I must pause to rejoice with generations of pastors that have shared in this blessed work for the salvation of souls, leadership in the body of Christ, and in the empowerment of the people of God for life and service. Many such men and women have baptized in the name of Christ, dedicated children to God, buried saints that have fallen asleep in Jesus, encouraged many who were discouraged, performed weddings of gleeful couples, challenged young people to live for Christ, preached passionate sermons, and more, yea, far more. Pastoral ministry is an awesome vocation. Can there be any downside
to such a noble calling? Can there be any pitfalls in doing it? I answer Yes—many!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to study clergy families, and I found this to be fascinating. Many clergy families share five major stressors in common: mobility, low financial compensation, high time demands, low social support, and intrusiveness to the boundaries of the family.

In many denominations, clergy and their families are moved from one congregation to another (and often from one homestead to another to be nearer to their congregations). These moves involve uprooting from familiar surroundings, social networks, friendships, and social institutions that aid in their survival and well-being. Children and spouses may have to separate from work and school to allow a peaceful transition.

With regard to compensation, ministers, in some parts of the world, have been known to have lower levels of remuneration compared to other professions. While in the top ten with regard to educational attainment, clergy are very low on the scale with regard to salary; in fact, they rank 325th among 432 occupations. The minister’s calling often assumes a vow of poverty. This call that demands a certain lifestyle appears to be inconsistent with the minister’s ability to sustain it financially. For that reason, the family is prone to financial strains that have serious implications for marital satisfaction and stability as well as family distress.1

Time demands have been noted as a big challenge for ministers. As he or she attempts to share the resource of time with his or her family, the congregation, and the larger church organization, there is often a pull in too many directions and some things get left out or unattended. Too often, the family gets neglected. The effect of working on call 24 hours a day is grossly underestimated. This can be the perfect setup for sapping the physical, emotional, and spiritual constitution of ministers, and robbing their marriages of the vitality that can only be sustained with the investment of quality time and energy. The public and private failures of pastors testify in part to the harrowing time demands of ministry.

Social support is a crucial issue for pastors as well. One of the more subtle deceptions of ministry is the belief that because pastors are doing people work and are always around people that their social needs are met. To be sure, the reality of ministry is often counterintuitive to social need-satisfaction. If meeting social needs involves having interac­tions characterized by openness, challenge, accountability, and abiding reciprocal friendships, then I proffer that ministry, as practiced, does not allow for such interactions between the minister and the congregants or with others.

One characteristic of ministry is referred to as “antifraternalization norms.”2 This norm adopted by min­isters in their congregations disallows them from having nurturing friendships. Often, in interactions with congregants, the minister “befriends” but does not enjoy being befriended. The relationships go one way and so the emotional needs of the minister and family are not met in those contexts usually. Another related characteristic of ministry is referred to as “pedestal effects.” Often, the minister is elevated by his or her congregants and then set apart from common human experi­ence. Admittedly, the minister values and seeks that elevation and, thus, does not experience many nurturing relationships in the congregation. Even entering into a therapeutic rela­tionship for an emotional or family problem has been shown to be threatening to many ministers. Finally, the line that separates the minister from his or her work is, at best, often blurred. The minister and family are “owned by the people” and enjoy little physical and emotional space to live a personal life unfettered by the constraints, expectations, demands, and judgments on self, spouse, and children. That intrusion into their private space can have serious effects on the minister and family. Living in a glass house can create a debilitating hypervigilance that keeps the minister on red alert status, which is wearing on the soul.

My empirical attempt to test the effects of these five common stressors on the marital satisfaction, parental satisfaction, and life satisfaction of male clergy and their female spouses illuminated the issues at hand. When the factors of mobility, compensation, time demands, lack of social sup­port, and intrusiveness to the boundaries of the family were placed in a statistical model, it showed that these clergy stress factors influenced the marital satisfaction, parental satisfaction, and life satis­faction of clergy and their spouses. On closer observa­tion, intrusiveness boundaries of the family appeared to be the only unique predictor of the marital satisfaction of clergy and their spouses. Also, social support was the only unique predictor of life satisfaction for them.

For the rest of this article, I will raise some issues that may be addressed by clergy, their families, and the church administrators to aid in maximizing their marital and parental satisfaction. By this, I am implying that clergy have to take personal responsibility for managing some of these issues to achieve positive ends. In addition, the family must engage in protectionist measures to ensure that their boundaries are not compromised as well as manage the other stressors they face. Also, church administrators in the higher organiza­tions must play their role in enacting policies and procedures that minimize the negative and disparate impacts on clergy and their families.

Understanding the pastoral ecology

In the training of men and women for ministry, I suspect too little is dis­cussed about the larger systemic pull in ministerial life that can be potential for personal and family destabilization. A system exists that tricks and seduces us into thinking that helping others is most crucial, and is more important than self-care and family nurture. I know what you may be thinking: That has not happened to me and, indeed, never will. If so, I thank you for illustrat­ing the point that I am trying to make. We are so very unaware of it. We can go on to talk about the conundrum of invulnerability; suspicion about relationships; guilt about not working more; identity based on doing rather than being; and perpetuation of the myth of perfection in life, work, and family. These are system issues and they all have a bearing on marriages and families in that context.

If anything would change for the clergy and family, there has to be a conscientious theology of self-care and family care. Otherwise, we will struggle eternally with the same issues of neglect of self and family that brings disastrous consequences to our lives, health, and our emotional and family’s well-being. That is not the calling from God. Rather, the calling includes modeling self-care and fam­ily nurture among other things, and demonstrating how to hold the truth of God “in earthen vessels” as we live in the real world. Perfectly? Never. But the struggle is itself the greater testimony of God’s strength made perfect in human weakness.

The pastor’sresponsibility in shaping the pastoral ecology

There are some models of min­isterial life that make clergy work a hostile environment for the thriv­ing of marriages and families. The minister who holds himself or herself aloof from the people and portrays a superhuman and invulnerable self among them will not enjoy mutually nurturing relationships and will suffer isolation and loneliness among other things, even while working among scores of people on a regular basis. I propose that the chief executive officer (CEO) model of pastoral leader­ship is not apropos. The minister is not the CEO of a corporation but one person, placed among other people to teach and model the will of God. The pastoral relationship is more one of friendship with the people of the congregation, which allows for build­ing an authentic community. In that authentic community, pastors and spouses can live and grow with other couples, encouraging, supporting, and challenging one another on this journey called life.

I imagine that a swift retort to the foregoing idea would be that those friendships should be found elsewhere and/or with their peers. Conversations between pastors are not usually about the emotional nurture of each other. I believe that if ministry is done as Jesus did it, some of the present challenges would abate or become more manageable. Jesus mingled among men and women during His ministry and derided the walls of partition and hypocrisy that separated the intellectual scribes and philosophical Sadducees from “common people.” The lack of nurtur­ing social support has significant implications for marital and parental nurture. A marriage needs community as this kind of partnership needs time alone to flourish. This can happen for clergy in their congregation. Children may enjoy the pedestal for a moment, but they soon begin to revolt against the pressure of the glass bowl. With appropriate boundaries, this model suggested can serve great ends.

A challenge to spouses

To challenge ministers’ spouses and families to take some personal responsibility for marital and parental satisfaction can be difficult. Many spouses of clergy feel like it is sac­rilege to challenge the involvement of the minister in his or her calling and demand from them greater par­ticipation in family life. “How dare I do such a thing?” is a sure and certain question that flies in the face of any such challenge. Then, that is part of the problem, more than the solu­tion. Because the minister’s calling is deemed untouchable (the “pedestal effect”), often spouses suffer in silence and slowly develop negative attitudes toward ministry and the God of the ministry, sometimes slipping into cynicism and hate for the calling and those associated with it.

As an unknown author said: “if you do what you’ve always done, you will get what you’ve always gotten.” I cannot blame any here, but many spouses need to be coached to stand up to the ecological forces against their homes and family lives and help the minister to draw the boundary line so as to preserve the integrity of their marital and parental relationships. He or she would need to view the minister as a very real person with proclivities common to humans, and who does need that challenge all too often. Doing so may set the tone for the rest of their joyful years together.

Ministers need to reflect deeply on their own issues and philosophy regarding the intrusion to the bound­aries of the family as well, and spend enough time and energy doing so until they win the victory. In one sense, clergy may have the best schedule among other professions, but this issue is not always paramount. The clergy, as well as the spouse, has to make family boundaries a priority or family nurture will slip into the background. Our own children can be neglected while we visit others faithfully. The younger generation of clergy and spouses need to know that they must start positive habits earlier rather than later.

Church administrators have a role to play

In some fellowships, clergy mobil­ity seems inevitable. I am not opposed to shuffling the ministerial crew to build up the work in various places. In my own experience, I accepted each move as a calling, and I was ready for my marching orders. In reflection, I think that too often the moves are made with too little regard for the challenges and possible disruptions to the personal, family, and congre­gational equilibrium. The minister’s spouse hardly receives consideration, let alone is consulted when moves are being made. These moves may affect emotional connections, job tenure, educational plans for the spouse and children, and the spouse’s own ministry, to name just a few issues. Often, a disconnect between the minister and his or her spouse occurs as well. A move may have a totally different meaning for the pastor. For example, the pastor may be relieved by the opportunity to recycle skills and sermons in another location, to move away from a problem church, to be “promoted” to a larger or more established congregation; none of which may have anything to do with the spouse.

Church officials may serve a greater good by considering the needs of the whole family in such moves, work to create shared mean­ing with the nonclergy spouse, and be intentional in aiding in the spouse’s adjustment to the new environ­ment. While moving the clergy may be inevitable, at the very least, the move may be more bearable for the spouse knowing that he or she has received consideration. In addition, church administrators can be more intentional in organizing financial compensation, policies, and direct challenges to their clergy to be more present at home in order to help shape a better ecology in which family life can thrive.

Recently, while sitting with a group of ministers talking about the chal­lenges of ministry to family well-being, I heard one minister, married for a few years, saying almost gleefully, “I have never sat with my wife in church since being married.” Whatever else is true, his experience expressed a culture of ministry that suggests that the people in the congregation come first and that one should not cloud up one’s mind with thoughts of the needs and comforts of a spouse when doing ministry. On the other hand, if you poll spouses regarding their views of ministry and the emotional impact it has on them any day, including the Sabbath, the revelation is mostly consistent. Slowly, but surely, many of them come to despise the thing that removes their clergy spouse so far from them, thus reducing them to microscopic insignificance in ministry. You need a lot of grit to row against this tide and create a richer experi­ence born out of valuing, respecting, and honoring the family, and seeing as an enemy anything that stands against giving them the best place in heart and affection, even while doing ministry, loving the people of God, and working with and for them.


I close with some advice to pas­toral couples.

1. Prioritize your life and work to ensure that your spouse and family get your best time and energy. Build beautiful memories in special places, doing wonderful things together. Also, let the moments at church be special for your spouse and children. Your congregation might be thrilled to see you sit with your spouse or family while at church. They may forget your sermon but not that.

2. Learn financial management skills from all the right places and people, and practice those skills to avoid financial distress.

3. Create a culture of vulnerability around you rather than invulnerabil­ity. Be real. Talk about your desire and struggle to be the best spouse or parent you can be. Ask for the prayers of your congregants and promise them yours.

4. The spouses of ministers should develop identities of their own. They should become involved in their own calling rather than depend on the church to provide one for them. This will help to insulate them from some of the negative effects of church life.

5. Use nurturing friendships well. The social needs we have are to be met. Such friendships affect the soul and keep us buoyed up. This may even reduce some dependency on one’s spouse and change the dynamics of the marriage. In addition, establish a great friendship with your spouse.

6. Establish healthy boundaries around your marriage. Use time that is not work time, and resist intrusions into your private space.

7. Avoid taking each other for granted. That is so very easy to do. Be attuned to communication from each other, and provide space to listen and observe. Marriage and family are wonderful gifts. Appreciate the gifts, and practice stewardship of your family. The dividends are out of this world.

1 D. Mace and V. Mace, What’s Happening to Clergy Families? (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1982).

2 T. Blackbird and P. Wright, “Pastor’s Friendships, Part 1: Project Overview and an Exploration of the Pedestal Effect,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 13 (1985): 274–283.


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Curtis A. Fox, PhD, is professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Family Sciences, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.

March 2013

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