Practical solutions for pastoral marriage stress
A cartoon strip portrays a disgruntled couple seated in front of a marriage counselor’s desk. The caption reads: “I thought I married an ideal. Later, I realized I got a raw deal. Now, I want a new deal.” As seminary and early ministry yield to the reality of incessant ministry demands, pastors, too, may wish for a “new deal” from the tolls ministry puts on marriage and family.
I interviewed Bill Roberts, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Norwood, North Carolina, and his wife of 28 years, Lisa.
Michael Hall (MH): Please describe for Ministry readers your recollection of the most stressful season of your pastoral family life.
Lisa Roberts (LR): We were married seven years before Bill, miserable in his previous job, realized his call to ministry.
Bill Roberts (BR): Up until then, we were very involved in our church—youth choir, Bible study.
LR: But all that changed when he first entered the seminary. He was going to and from classes and working a forty-hour job on weekends. When he received a student appointment at a church, we stopped attending “our church,” and I started accompanying him on assignments.
BR: During the first seven or eight years of ministry, I became the proverbial “all things to all people” pastor. I was so absorbed, I made no time for [spiritual] growth. Isolation resulted. This became the driest time of my ministry. I wasn’t being [spiritually] fed, so I wasn’t feeding others. It became a difficult time for our marriage, too, as I shut out Lisa. It was awful.
LR: For me, initially, I saw myself as not cut out to be a minister’s wife.
MH: There was Bill’s call to ministry, but that did not equate to Lisa’s call to Bill’s ministry.
LR: Yeah. It eventually took some therapy for me to come to grips with the real demands asked of me as a clergy wife. I sought a professional counselor—what relief! This led to a few [marriage-focused] sessions with Bill.
Also, I was invited to attend a clergy-spouse group, sponsored by our denominational conference. Having my negative feelings affirmed was healing. These “sisters”—pastoral spouses were nearly all wives then—also shared practical coping strategies.
MH: What do you most want fellow ministry couples to take away from your clergy marriage experience?
LR: I had to learn that it’s OK to say no to Bill and no to church demands. This is not the same as saying no to Jesus!
BR: I’ve really grown spiritually being married to Lisa. Pastors, let your nonclergy spouse pastor you! Great wisdom has come when I’ve shut up and listened as Lisa witnessed to me. My best times— in life and ministry—have resulted, as Jesus drew me closer to Himself as I allowed Lisa to pour into my life.”
Bill and Lisa’s early marriage struggle mirrors that of many other couples. Echoing research findings across various denominations, a 2014 study of Seventh-day Adventist pastoral families in North America found major stressors associated with issues of “pastoral roles, expectations, and family life” (emphasis added). Specifically, more than seven out of ten pastors and spouses surveyed registered “at least a mild concern” with family life issues such as the negative impact of congregational demands on marital relations and disruption of family time.1
Best-practice for couples: Prioritize marital intimacy
Couples like the Robertses can avoid sliding into full-fledged stress reactions (i.e., fight-or-flight living) by prioritizing marital intimacy. Proverbs 18:22 contains a marital enrichment strategy: “Find a good spouse, you find a good life—even more: the favor of God!” Proverbs 18:22 (The Message).
Good spouse. “Find a good spouse” may be seen as a directive for spouses to accentuate each other’s most attractive features. In other words, “Find the good in your spouse!” To initiate the discovery process, a couple designates private time and space to exchange what is most appealing about their spouse. Consider instituting weekly state-of-our-union discussions (onehour maximum), or make this the table talk topic of a date night.2 Here are some dialogue starters:
- Husband and wife: “I chose you as my ‘forever partner’ for the following three primary reasons.”
- “God wants us to be ‘forever mates’ for the following three reasons, ultimately.”
Remember this is a journey of discovery; it is not an inquisition based on past failures or present needs. Be curious. Learn new aspects of each other’s perceptions. The power lies in the meaning each spouse attaches to each reason.
Good life. Good (Hebrew: tov) has been translated “working the way it’s supposed to.” Select a time and private venue where the sole objective includes, for the two of you, reminiscing about your “good life” together. This is an opportunity to venture into a discovery or confirmation of your God-purposed marriage. Alternate sharing candid answers to the following:3
- “The three beatitudes most often reflected in our marriage are , and .” (Describe separate instances where each beatitude was powerfully portrayed.)
- “The three beatitudes that might enhance our marriage are , ,and .” (Describe the possible benefits associated with each beatitude.) God’s favor. Propagation of a spirit-filled marriage is the desired outcome. Try these dynamic dialogue starters:
- “Our marriage produces mostly the following three fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23): , , and .” (Describe a stand-out memory of each fruit’s juiciest production in your marriage.)
- “Our marriage may benefit from increased production of the following three fruits of Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23): , , and .” (Describe your vision of the marriage when each fruit is in abundant harvest.)
Couple’s tov pledge. The introspection and exploration of love that epitomizes the “good spouse,” “good life,” and “God’s favor” phases of couple dialogue is capped in a separate time called Tov (Good) Pledge. As much a prayer as a declaration, we find it vital that both spouses “hear what the Spirit saith” (Rev. 2:7) about their marriage. At least monthly, a state-of-our-marriage meeting should be devoted to heartfelt intercessory prayer by each mate for Heaven’s anointing on the couple. A sample utterance is:
“Before the Living God, we consecrate ourselves to a ‘good marriage.’
Individually and as a couple we humbly seek the approbation of Heaven.
By Your goodness, Father, we hereby resolve to continue . . .
By Your mercy, Jesus, we hereby resolve to avoid (eliminate) . . .
By Your power, Holy Spirit, we hereby resolve to begin.
“Let each [husband and wife] give love rather than exact it. Cultivate that which is noblest in yourselves, and be quick to recognize the good qualities in each other. The consciousness of being appreciated is a wonderful stimulus and satisfaction. Sympathy and respect encourage the striving after excellence, and love itself increases as it stimulates to nobler aims.”4
Bill and Lisa Roberts’s candid confession illustrates how marital intimacy re-prioritized is worth the effort invested. Marriage enrichment seminars and couple counseling are two marital intimacy best practices.
Seminary and ministry development leaders: Clergy self-care and marriage care
The author interviewed Ira L. Lake, PhD, MDiv, who, after nearly 20 years of parish ministry as an ordained Seventh-day Adventist pastor, now offers pastoral counseling throughout southern California, specializing in marriage and family enrichment, family court mediation, and bereavement counseling.
Michael Hall (MH): Dr. Lake, contemporary research cites seminary and continuing ministerial education as central players in building a more robust pastorate. Speak to this need for multifaceted education in the area of pastoral self-care, including healthy intimate relationships.
Ira Lake (IL): Reflection upon my own ministry education and training, conversations with fellow clergy, and evidence from my counseling practice all suggest this is, indeed, a time of revival and reformation among ministry educators.
Some first-tier seminaries utilize the results of psychological-vocational appraisals to affirm a call to ministry and evaluate applicants’ general mental health and readiness for graduate school. Premarital partners and spouses are increasingly being incorporated into the seminary orientation process. Beyond the cursory “welcome,” spouses and ministry students participate in relational health assessments, as measured by marital-family functioning. The resulting “map” of their relationship genome (i.e., motivated strengths, emerging growth edges, and identifiable weaknesses) leads to the formulation of couple-directed learning goals for their participation in mandatory or elected marriage education initiatives offered conjointly by the university counseling service and seminary. Early outcome studies show these “specialized services” are more fully subscribed, as seminarians are less inclined to access general services. This approach is quite sustainable in environments where wellness, in contrast to illness prevention, is the prevailing health value.
MH: What role should continuing ministerial education and organizational leaders play in pastoral self-care and marriage care?
IL: While there’s great variability depending upon the structure of the employing organization (e.g., conference, synod, presbytery), three emerging trends in pastoral development are particularly promising:
Whole-pastor development. Historically, seminary education encompassed theological and practical ministry preparation, with the research indicating an emphasis on the former. Ministerial services, by contrast, favor the latter. Progressive seminaries and pastoral development entities are adopting more systemic, or whole-person, approaches. That means they provide resources that strengthen the contextual world of the minister: intrapersonal—how a pastor connects to self, interpersonal—how a pastor connects with significant others, and extra-personal—how the pastor connects with the external world (i.e., congregation, community, cosmos, and Creator).
Pastoral self-care. Pastoral selfcare is slowly but steadily gaining momentum. For example, administrative organizations are considering shortening the service requirement for sabbatical eligibility (e.g., from seven years to three to five years) and extending the length of sabbaticals from the traditional three months to six months. Mandatory physical fitness attestations or examinations and proof of fidelity in personal finances may become pro forma.
Marital care. Special clergy marriage and family enrichment events are appearing on the training horizon with increasing frequency. Alternatively, counseling packages of eight to ten sessions (versus one-off TED Talk type events) are available with Christian therapists trained to help so-called distressed marriages and to enrich “good” ones. When presented as “wellness benefits” rather than as “treatment of illnesses,” these innovative services are received with enthusiasm.
1 D. Sedlacek, D. McBride, and R. Drumm, “Seminary Training, Role Demands, Family Stressors, and Strategies for Alleviation of Stressors in Pastors’ Families” (unpublished paper, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary: Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, 2014).
2 Additional exercises are found in John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, “Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration” and “Principle 3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away” in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 61–98.
3 For more question and answer strategies, see Jed Jurchenko, 131 Creative Conversations for Couples: Christ-Honoring Questions to Deepen Your Relationship, Grow Your Friendship, and Kindle Romance (self-published, 2016).
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 361.
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