I was young, naïve, and inexperienced. We had been married for three years and had our first child, Viktor. A wonderful boy, six months old, he was the sunshine of our lives. My wife, Dora, was a strong young woman, blooming with the reality that her childhood dream of becoming a mother was finally fulfilled. I was totally devoted to my church, serving God and His people full time. My idea at that time was that if I gave myself fully to the Lord, He would take care of my family.
Fully packed Sabbaths, visitation on Sundays, Bible classes, seminars, and evangelistic meetings in the evenings during the week made up my habitual routine. Suddenly, dramatic changes took place in my wife. She began to lose weight inexplicably. She dropped from 132 pounds (60 kilograms) to 83 pounds (38 kilograms) in just a few months. She became very withdrawn and silent. She cried incessantly and became unable to care for our son and home. I literally saw life leaving her body. It was a real shock to me. Immediately, I recognized that it was, in great part, my fault. It was my wake-up call.
Looking back 20 years to that distressing experience, I can clearly identify God’s leading hand in our story. He wanted to give us a happy and fulfilled family life as well as the ability to help other couples struggling with similar challenges. My stubborn pursuit of pastoral perfection so often frustrated what God wanted to do through us. Here are some lessons I learned.
She cried incessantly and became unable to care for our son and home. I literally saw life leaving her body.
1. Have the right priorities
Have you ever felt trapped in the crossfire of conflicting expectations? God called you to be a pastor. And at the same time, He gave you your marriage and family, making you the custodian of their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While you received these two distinct gifts from God, there have been times when you have felt these gifts working in opposition to each other. Prioritizing one of the gifts often makes it feel like one is neglecting the other. I know it should not be like this, but I have found this to be, in many instances, the reality of my life.
The truth is that God does not play games with us.1 He would never give us a gift to be destroyed by another gift that also came from Him. If there is a conflict between the gifts, it is because we have misunderstood something.
After our crisis, many years ago, we made an important decision. Our family came first, and the church—our work—second. Truly, a strong and healthy marriage and family provides us with the strength and authenticity needed to be able to work for others. On that point, Ellen G. White shares quite eloquently: “One well-ordered, well-disciplined family tells more in behalf of Christianity than all the sermons that can be preached.”2 It is true: this decision has sometimes made our lives difficult. On several occasions, I had to say no to certain requests made of me in ministry. Nevertheless, I am truly thankful that my leaders have always understood my intentions, and God has never ceased to open new doors for me.
2. Set aside family time
I remember one Sunday morning sitting down to breakfast and my phone rang. My first instinct was to take the call, but then I remembered my decision to put family first. I continued eating with my wife and son. I can still see the surprised expression on Viktor’s face. “Daddy, your phone is ringing,” he said. “Don’t you plan to answer it?”
“I am having breakfast with the most important people in the world,” I declared. “What could be more important than that?” I have not always felt proud—but I felt proud that day.
It was the beginning of a new era for me. Slowly, my church members learned not to call me with unimportant issues during protected family time. For me, that meant Sundays or late in the evenings. Indeed, a new level of understanding has developed between my parishioners and me as they have grown to respect and value my family time. At the same time, I have cultivated an understanding that if a church member does call on Sunday or late in the evening, the matter must be of great importance, and I immediately make myself available.
Just as we write visitation appointments in our calendars or note that the business meeting will be on Thursday evening, we need to protect our family time. We should also set aside time without the children to nurture our marriage. Kyle Benson of the Gottman Institute, founded by celebrated marriage researcher John Gottman, noted that one of the significant differences between high-quality marriages and low-quality marriages is the six hours per week that good couples spend together in small proportions every day.3
3. Accept your vulnerability and ask for help
I have heard it said so many times in counseling: “I am an Adventist pastor. Please don’t ask me to tell you my name, because if it comes out that I have problems, I will lose my job. Can you just listen to my story and help me?
It is so dangerous to get trapped in this kind of situation. If you live under the pressure of making everything perfect, being an invulnerable leader who is never ill, never exhausted, never burned out, always full of fresh sermon ideas, always at the top of his or her journey with God, you condemn yourself to hypocrisy. What if things do not go so well? What if your spouse complains more and more about some unresolved conflict you have swept under the carpet? What if your teenage son starts smoking? What if your daughter dates a non-Adventist guy and church members see them kissing on the street? What if you feel empty on a Friday evening and have no idea what you will preach about the following morning?
Does our church culture allow a pastor to admit shortcomings and ask for professional help? Is local church leadership ready to invest in one of the most precious resources of our church—our pastors? In some places, yes, but there are still places where this subject is avoided.
Getting support from the church is only a part of the issue. The other side of the coin is the pastor’s ability to ask for professional help without being embarrassed or covered by shame and isolation. Am I worthy of my calling if it comes out that I am only human? Having personal problems in the area of marriage, family, mental, or emotional health is never a single problem. These problems are sometimes connected to spiritual struggles and/or existential fears. Will the church continue to employ me if I have problems? In my family, there was a long journey to full recovery for both my wife and me. But through this process, we have learned so many new insights about God and ourselves that no theological institution could have taught us. By asking for professional help, I realized how many possibilities are available for people in need. I got access to new tools that I can use in my own ministry—which inspired me to study the working tools of other helping professions in addition to what I have learned in pastoral counseling.
4. Have a support group
It is very hard to wear the hat of a spiritual superhero. But we often find ourselves in the midst of incredibly unrealistic expectations. The people we lead long for a strong and balanced leader. The issue becomes compounded because we can’t admit when we fall short. We have experienced how dangerous it can be to express our doubts and fears, to open up areas of our lives that can easily be turned against us when it comes to election time.
I remember my disappointment when, in conversation with my conference president just before my ordination, I heard repeated back to me my inner struggles that I had shared with a church member whom I considered a friend. Is there a safe space where pastors can open up? I admit, it is definitely not easy to find that space, but if you do not have this haven, you are a certain candidate for depression.
I took a general survey at a pastors meeting about what they did on a Saturday night after a busy Sabbath. I was shocked. Six out of 10 pastors did not want to see or talk to anyone. All they wanted to do was to sit and watch a television program. This is how they processed their suppressed emotions because there was no safe person they could talk to about their concerns.
So, where can a pastor be vulnerable? For me, hanging out with two fellow pastors—twice a year—on a three-day trip. We call it burnout prevention training. We reserve a hotel room somewhere, talk until late, drive go-carts, go bowling, or hiking, then talk again. Yes, it costs money and time from family and ministry. It also takes some organizing—but it is worth the effort. By becoming a calmer, more balanced person, I have become a better husband, a better father, and a better pastor too.
5. Protect the boundaries of your marriage
We are reminded in the Minister’s Handbook that, as pastors, we occupy positions that may make us the objects of thoughts, emotions, and even the sexual desires of some members, with no deliberate intent on our part.4 These thoughts are often connected to the influence and public regard given to our status, as well as to the attention, kindness, and interest we show to people as part of our job description.
It can easily happen that during a one-hour pastoral conversation, someone can receive more attention from us than she or he has received from their parents and/or spouse during the past few years. The most painful pastoral counseling and couples therapy sessions I have experienced as a therapist have been cases where a pastor was involved in infidelity. To prevent this from happening, we need to set very clear rules for ourselves in order to mark and guard the boundaries of our marriage.
For me, it is important to show up with my wife at speaking engagements, even if we have to pay for her expenses. My preference has been to travel with my wife for international speaking assignments rather than to travel alone. If there is a lady coming by herself to my counseling practice, I make sure we are not the only ones in the building. I often ask the person cleaning the office to find something to do in the room next door during the counseling session, or I leave the office door slightly ajar.
I also plan my work so that I never have to travel in my car alone with a woman who is not my wife. While the book of Proverbs speaks repeatedly about external dangers, the apostle Paul speaks extensively about internal dangers. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15, NIV) (Romans 7 verse 15, N.I.V.). Since the danger is real, the protective measures need to be real too.
Is it possible to have a happy and satisfying marriage as a pastor? I truly believe it is. By intentional, ongoing attention and some bold decisions, your marriage can be your strongest resource.5
Yes, God has given many of us two great gifts: a family and a pastoral ministry. I have learned—sometimes (unfortunately) the hard way—that these gifts can enhance, rather than destroy, each other.
- See Gábor Mihalec and Róbert Csizmadoa, No More Games: How to Build a Faithful and Satisfying Relationship (Grantham, UK: Autumn House, 2018).
- Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 32.
- Kyle Benson, “6 Hours a Week to a Better Relationship,” The Gottman Institute, December 9, 2016, gottman.com/blog/6-hours-a-week-to-a-better-relationship/.
- See “Ethics and Sex” in Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1997), 50, 51; see also John A. Trusty, Why Some Pastors Cheat . . . And What Can Be Done to Help Them to Be True (Gaithersburg, MD: Signature Books, 2010).
- See Gábor Mihalec, I Do: How to Build a Great Marriage (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2014).