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Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Here is an article of mine on marriage and ministry that was recently published in the Gateway District (Foursquare) newsletter.


Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Marital Stress

Marriage and ministry—the numbers aren’t exactly encouraging.

  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse and that ministry has a negative effect on their marriage.
  • 33% say that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • More than half of ministers’ wives say the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

These statistics, gleaned from research by The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Maranatha Life, speak to the challenges of the pastor’s marriage.

While lay people may be surprised by the numbers, I doubt those of us involved in ministry are. While the church is idealized as being the body of Christ, congregational life can be toxic for the pastor’s marriage.

Maintaining an effective marital relationship is difficult enough. Adding the stressors of pastoral work can make it overwhelming.

When seeking solutions to the troublesome combination of ministry and marriage, we often misplace the focus of our energies. We tend to blame our church, difficult congregants, or the nature of the ministry profession. Misdirection can sound like:

  • “If only church members would stop encroaching on our family time, our spouse would quit nagging us about our priorities, and we would quit arguing.”
  • “Ministry demands make it so we never get to “clock-off.” If we could just get a different job, then we could actually have a vacation like normal couples do.”
  • “If that council member would just stop criticizing our every decision, we would cease being a grouch at home.”

While these factors contribute to our problems, blaming them won’t help.  Blaming only guarantees we will stay stuck in the problem.

When seeking to improve the ministry-marriage interplay we need to embrace the reciprocal nature of relationships. The other party continues to treat us the way they do because we cooperate with them. We often respond to them in such a way that elicits more of the same treatment—the kind we say we don’t like.

For example, we complain that a council member is a controlling bully. Yet we continue to acquiesce to their demands in an effort to avoid their anger. Our response becomes just as much part of the problem as their behavior.

To bring about change, we must focus on our part of the problem. The only leverage of change we have is to take personal responsibility and begin acting and responding differently.

Early in our pastorate, we had a high-maintenance couple who lived crisis-to-crisis. Whenever a predicament arose they would call us, expecting us to drop everything and come to their rescue.

We worked hard to live up to their expectations. We were constantly at their house mediating their latest conflict. We nearly always left them better than we found them. We were their heroes.

Over time their demands began to wear on us. Our private conversations revolved around them. Their stuff became our stuff. It began to affect our own marital interactions.

Slowly we began to realize this couple was not our problem. Our problem was us. We weren’t strong enough to say “no” to their demands. Our identity and sense of self hinged on being their rescuers.

Once we addressed our contribution to this pattern, we began to respond to them more appropriately. We learned to set boundaries and to not cave to their expectations. The ministry became less invasive to our marriage, and our marital happiness increased.

To effectively improve our marriages in the midst of ministry pressures, we will benefit from asking ourselves new kinds of questions:

  • Why does this situation impact our marriage negatively while others don’t?
  • What underlying insecurities, anxieties and unresolved problems does this situation stir up in our personal lives and in our marriage relationship?
  • Does this parishioner or church situation remind either one of us of family of origin issues that are painfully familiar?
  • How have we taught our church people to treat us when they are in this situation? How have we cooperated with them in this interaction pattern?
  • Do we know other ministry couples who have faced similar church problems and yet they seem to thrive in their marriage? What are they doing that we can learn from?

Such a shift toward self-management is an important first step in creating desired change.

Jeff King

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