Pastoral marriages: A contemporary challenge
We have been married and in ministry for 32 years. Staying married to each other and still in ministry after all this time has everything to do with the providence and grace of God. God’s grace, to be sure, does its best work when we accept the gift He offers and allow this gift to germinate and grow in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, whose promptings we choose to follow.
Let’s face it, marriage is difficult. Yes, we know marriage to be fun and all those wonderful things we often speak about. Nevertheless, despite our best intentions, the reality of differences that invariably loom large in most marriages keeps us on our knees. The truth is, this kind of reality we find based on a decision bathed in prayer and on being intentional about giving honor and glory to God in our marriage.
The pastoral marriage
Pastoral marriages face many of the same challenges as other marriages, and most busy professional couples replicate similar competing commitments experienced by many pastoral couples. The principal difference comes when pastoral couples have the added pressure of living in a fishbowl and with high expectations from their parishioners and employers to be all things to all people. This includes the role of spiritual champions in every situation—especially in the way they disciple their children to be true followers of Jesus Christ. In addition to the ever-present challenge of not having enough time to accomplish all that lies on their plates, pastoral couples often deal with short tenures and frequent moves, which take them away from close connections with family and friends, thus upsetting their emotional equilibrium.
This experience is often compounded by financial constraints, since we are in a world where living on one salary has gotten increasingly difficult. Especially in the developed world, the pastor’s spouse is often left having to find a new job, which may include many weeks and months with an interruption in wages, adding anxiety, tension, and trauma to an already stressful situation. It is in times like these that pastoral couples, like all Christian married couples, need to recognize that marriage is God’s idea and was created for our good. “Instituted by God, marriage is a sacred ordinance and should never be entered upon in a spirit of selfishness. Those who contemplate this step should solemnly and prayerfully consider its importance and seek divine counsel that they may know whether they are pursuing a course in harmony with the will of God.”1
While marriage was designed by God to bless the human family, Satan has tried everything to denigrate, depreciate, and defame this important institution. As such, expect your marriage to naturally move toward a state of alienation. The Bible says in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”2 This simply reminds us that there are no perfect marriages because there are no perfect people. However, since God is more powerful than Satan, every marriage can thrive when the partners are intentional about connecting with each other every day through the power and grace of God.
A quote from an unknown author we often like to share says, “Getting married is easy. Staying married is more difficult.” Staying happily married for a lifetime would be considered among the fine arts. This is true of every marriage and especially true of pastoral marriages that experience so many expectations from within and without.
To be sure, expectations surge from within because of the need to represent Jesus well. The concept may often be seen as the need to pretend to have a perfect marriage when you do not. Of course, the more pastoral couples feel compelled to present to the public an image that is not real, the less likely they are to accomplish that goal because of the stress generated internally, given the reality of our human frailties. The pressure from without comes from others, often church members, and sometimes from our families, friends, colleagues, and employing organizations, which tend to hold pastors and their families to a higher standard than they do regular human beings. In order to transcend these insufferable burdens, pastoral couples must spend a lot of time in prayer, seeking a genuine relationship with God and with each other.
Speaking about the need to stay in prayer, Romans 12:12 offers: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Yet Isaiah 65:24 declares: “‘Before they call I will answer; / while they are yet speaking I will hear.’”
And Ellen White reminds us in her little book Steps to Christ: “There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. ‘He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.’ Psalm 147:3. The relations between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon the earth to share His watchcare, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.”3
On the matter of time as a commodity in pastoral marriages, the proverbial tyranny of the clock has never been more real than what we are experiencing today. Email, Facebook, and text messages, along with countless new apps that emerge every day, give ubiquitous access to our time for anyone, everywhere, at any time, creating an expectation for receiving instantaneous responses. Each day has only 24 hours in which pastors must have time alone with God, visit parishioners, study, write sermons, attend organizational meetings, blog, give Bible studies, respond to email, engage social media, sleep, eat, exercise, have family worship, and connect with relatives and friends. After we attend to all of these things, not only is there little energy left for anything else, there is no meaningful time to share with one’s spouse. And if we are really honest with each other, there is actually very little time to spend with God in prayer, which means we end up with very little fuel to have the wherewithal for an effective ministry and real satisfaction in one’s life.
So how does a pastoral couple create more time in the context of living in the third millennium in order to have the quality of relationship that makes life really worth living? The truth is, for this to happen, healthy boundaries must be established in order to survive and thrive. And healthy boundaries are found in the context of emotionally intelligent people, who have a high level of self awareness, knowing what they want to accomplish in the process. On this matter, Daniel Goleman suggests: “Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence. . . . Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. . . .
“Self-awareness extends to a person’s understanding of his or her values and goals. Someone who is highly self-aware knows where he is headed and why. . . . The decisions of self-aware people mesh with their values.”4
The self-awareness and emotional intelligence we speak about here does not just come because we have more education or are smarter than anyone else. It comes because of an intimate relationship with God and our desire to honor Him in our most intimate relationship with our spouse. This becomes the kind of emotional intelligence that brings peace.
On the issue of prioritizing and making the most of time, Stephen Covey suggests that “one of the worst feelings in the world is when you realize that the ‘first things’ in your life—including your family—are getting pushed into second or third place, or even further down the list. And it becomes even worse when you realize what’s happening as a result.”5
The truth remains that we cannot add hours to our day, but we can add order and priority to those hours so that we are able to maximize the time we have with our spouse each day, each week, each month, and each year to have the kind of relationship that will stand the test of time and give honor and glory to God. In order for things to change, if this has not been the priority of our lives, we will need to develop a new and improved framework to live by.
To be sure, we will need to shift the paradigm of our lives. This means we will need to see things differently and to do things differently in order to get a different result. In contrast to other relationships, which are constantly changing, marriage is meant to be permanent, and understanding that the responsibilities in marriage are not postponable will help us to carpe diem (“seize the day”) so that we can make our marriage a high priority each day. This means scheduling meaningful time to spend with each other each day.
Moving from one place to another in the course of ministry becomes a reality that cannot be easily altered and is seen as the nature of the proverbial beast of ministry. I (Willie), as a pastor’s son, moved several times during my childhood and as a missionary’s child lived in at least three countries before I got to my teens. As a couple, we have lived in four different states in the United States, in eight different homes, and have had eight to ten different ministry assignments in three decades.
Each move has been challenging, though some were more traumatic than others. But in every move we have experienced the hand of God and blessings we would never want to do without. As the apostle Paul declares in Philippians 4:11 “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
The money factor
Of course, when it comes to money, we can always do with more. And, while pastors in certain parts of the world enjoy a middle-class or even upper-middle-class lifestyle—especially if their spouses have good professional jobs—in other areas of the world pastors suffer with meager resources and salaries, and their spouses do not get paid to work. And yet, the same God that we worship we must learn to trust in if our lives in ministry are going to be a blessing to others. We must follow our Master’s example of self-denial.
Financial stability, to be sure, depends as much on our philosophy of stewardship as it does on our habits of consumption. As mortals entrusted with the privilege of handling God’s Word to inspire and lead people to Him who is life eternal, we, too, must believe that God keeps His promises. As pastoral couples, we must claim the promises God made in the past to His people, which are still good for His disciples today. The message of Malachi 3:10 is still operative, which declares: “ ‘Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.’ ” God promises no lack of blessings if we are faithful to Him. In Matthew 28:20b, Jesus promises: “ ‘And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ ” In John 14:27 Jesus promises, “ ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ ” And last but not least, in Philippians 4:19 the promise is, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
As we take another look at the reality of pastoral marriages, we must do so mindful of the fact that sometimes it is more difficult than it needs to be, because we approach this highly spiritual work without the corresponding spiritual values that must be present for it to work. As we stated, “Too many people today enter marriage with an individualistic notion of personal fulfillment rather than focusing on relationship fulfillment. While in healthy marriages couples need to strike a balance between both, there must be a sustained and intentional consciousness of otherness as a part of our daily reality. There is no other way to survive and thrive in such a close and intimate relationship such as marriage, without adopting a perspective that includes the feelings and opinions of others, at the very least the feelings and opinions of the person we have chosen as our spouse.”6
As you commit to nurturing your pastoral marriage today and in the weeks, months, and years ahead, we encourage you to remember Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 10:31 “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
May your relationship with God grant you the patience and kindness needed to give honor and glory to God through your marital relationship. More than hope so, we pray so.
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1 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2001), 70.
2 All Bible references are from the English Standard Version.
3 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), 100.
4 Daniel Goleman, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters (Florence, MA: More Than Sound, 2013), 10, 11.
5 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (New York: Golden Books, 1997), 113.
6 Willie and Elaine Oliver, “The Beauty of Marriage” in Marriage: Biblical and Theological Aspects, ed. Ekkehardt Mueller and Elias Brasil de Souza (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2015), 6.