“How can a pastor nurture their marriage and family in the midst of the pressures of ministry?”
This was one of the questions asked at the Global Proclamation Congress for Pastoral Trainers held in Bangkok last year (2016). It is a question that probably haunts more ministry couples than we care to admit. It is no secret that ministry can be extremely stressful, and the demands overwhelming. Ministry can demand a lot, if not all, of a pastor’s time. Pastors can end up becoming so busy with “God’s work” while neglecting their marriage and their family in the process. And yet, despite the hard and even damaging effects ministry can have on marriage and family, it is an issue that continues to be ignored. If ever it is discussed, it is very rare.
These realities may be hard to swallow and painful to admit, but realities nonetheless. They exist. They happen. They may already be knocking on your door. And unless we come to terms with these realities—of what is actually going on in our support net (i.e. our spouse and children) and admit where we have fallen short—then we cannot move in the direction of improving or reversing any damage that the neglect for family has already caused. We all wish these challenges could be wished away, or perhaps more appropriately, prayed away. That at the word “amen,” our family situation would be better, our spouse would be happier and our children emotionally healthier. But it doesn’t happen that way, does it?
For ministry couples, marriage and ministry are intrinsically connected. We cannot keep one from affecting the other. But how do pastors respond to the overwhelming pressures of ministry and the effects of these pressures on their marriages? Very seldom do they pause to analyze the problem and focus on working at it. Instead many “continue to press on, ignoring the family consequences until a crisis occurs.” The common refrain:
“I didn’t realize the strain that ministry was putting on our marriage. I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted or what it should be. Yet at the same time, I’d just keep going. Then, when we got away for awhile, it all came crashing down. I feel like the toll on my family—the damage to me, my wife, and my son—has not been worth the fruit of the ministry.”It is not easy to respond to the issue of balancing marriage and ministry in just a few words, in one sitting or in one article. There is a lot to be discussed. So let’s start. Let us begin by doing a reality check.
1. Evaluate Yourself.
Evaluate your own understanding of the relationship of ministry and marriage. While it is true that ministry is an “absorbing lifestyle,” it doesn’t mean that the marriage must suffer. Marriage and ministry should never be in competition with each other, but instead they should support and strengthen each other. Ministry should begin with making sure your marriage is healthy. The way pastors navigate this lifestyle will influence their marriage and family. Conversely, their marriage and family life will directly affect their churches.” It is therefore critical that pastors learn to navigate through this lifestyle without neglecting their commitment to their spouse. A strong and thriving marriage leads to a happy pastor. And when a pastor is happy, his ministry becomes more fruitful.
So, what are your core beliefs? Do you believe that ministry should be primary to marriage or that marriage is primary over ministry? It is imperative that you are clear about what you believe, because your core beliefs affect your attitude, and your attitude affects your actions. Take a close look at your cultural background, your family upbringing as it relates to marriage and to ministry. Are they consistent with what the Bible teaches? Are they glorifying to God?Take Action!
2. Talk With Your Spouse.
It is also a growing concern how many pastors take their spouses for granted, without intending to. I know of pastors who have assumed that their wife will one day embrace or already has embraced his calling to full-time ministry. One wife once said of her husband who was in his first year in seminary, “I didn’t sign up for this pastorate thing!” She was obviously distraught. I could hear in the tone of her voice that she felt cheated. They were married only a year and she was pregnant with their first child. It made me wonder if they ever talked about his decision to go into ministry, but I was almost sure that if they did, it wasn’t a two-way discussion.
Pastors, you will want to have your spouse on your side, not just on the sidelines. Her willing and loving support is critical to your pastoral ministry, especially in sustaining leadership in the church (conversely, marriage difficulties can derail ministry leaders). Let’s be reminded of the word “helpmeet” in Genesis 2:18, “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (also in verse 20). The Hebrew word used is EZER. The word ezer appears in the Old Testament 21 times—twice for the woman in Genesis 2:18 and 20, three times for nations Israel turned to for military assistance when they were under attack, and—take note of this—16 times for God. So what does this information tell us? How does it affect you? Pastor, your spouse can be your strongest ally, your staunch supporter and your faithful warrior if you allow her to. Now can you understand why you would want her on your side?Take Action!
3. Recognize the Stressors.
Why do we need to know the stressors that affect our ministries and marriages? Simply, because one cannot treat an ailment that he/she doesn’t know about. One cannot defend himself from an unknown enemy. There are two kinds of stressors present for those in ministry: the usual stressors and the ministry-related stressors. In the book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us About Surviving and Thriving, the authors have identified “five primary challenges facing marriage and family for those in ministry.” They are (with the first one being common to all married couples and the next four being the ones unique to ministry couples and families):
1. The “normal stressors” in marriage and family life.
2. The nature of ministry, which demands being always on the job.
3. The conflicting loyalties of church and home.
4. Abandonment of the spouse from always being on the job.
5. The unmet needs of ministry spouses for confidants.
Based on stressors 2-4 mentioned above, which ones are happening to you and your family right now? What do you intend to do about it? With your spouse, discuss the specific things that comprise that stressor in your life right now. Then discuss what action you can take to manage these stressors together, so that they have the least effect on your marriage and family.
I would like to end by reiterating that marriage is important to God.
1. It was the first institution He ordained.
2. It is the second relationship, next to man’s relationship to God and vice versa, that He directed man to nurture.
3. It is the only relationship that He often mentions alongside Christ’s relationship to His Church.
It is for this reason that the enemy targets pastors and their marriages so much. “The enemy strikes at marriages…When marriages are destroyed, their witness to the Gospel (Ephesians 5:25) gets distorted and future generations are harmed in the process.” The enemy knows too well that when church leaders fall, followers are wounded in the process, and the integrity of the church is tarnished. Knowing this, even more so, must we safeguard our marriages, not only from those that want to destroy them from the outside but also from within.
Then pray for strength to face the challenges in a manner glorifying to God.
Then pray for the grace to continue to honor each other as God has ordained it—honoring your wife by loving her, and honoring your husband by respecting him.
Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman and Donald C. Guthrie in Christianity Today. Accessed 05 March 2017
Chuck Lawless Accessed 15 February 2017.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donna Tan was a pastor’s wife for 17 years, and is a pastor’s kid to this day. She is also a minister, serving in the area of mentoring women and couples. Donna has a graduate diploma in Christian Counseling. Her ministry experiences span cultures, including leading youth and women’s ministries in the Philippines and women’s ministries in the United States (as a leader from 2010-2012 with Trinity Wives’ Fellowship, a seminary student wives’ ministry in Deerfield, IL). Over the past seven years, Donna began to develop a passion for the welfare of pastors’ wives, having been one herself, while encountering their struggles in her counseling. She is currently writing a book for pastors’ wives.
Donna is married to Dr. Jason Richard Tan (Ph.D. Intercultural Studies), and they have two children – Joshua (15) and Elisha (11). They have been married for 18 years. Jason and Donna are missionaries under GlobalGrace Fellowship (based in Pasadena, Calif.) serving the Philippines and Asia. She is the Admin Director of Great Commission Missionary Training Center. She is also a writer, professional editor and blogger.