Every vocation provides challenges to marriage. Whether it is the demand of long hours, the accumulation of stress from on the job conflict, or the schedule disorienting impact of shift work, marriage is impacted by any and every field of employment.
Pastoral ministry presents challenges, too. Unique challenges.
Whether you are married and considering pastoral ministry or an unmarried pastor who is thinking about taking the plunge, it is better to be prepared for these challenges than to be surprised by them.
If you are ready for a wild ride into the wonderfully surreal world of “the ministry marriage,” let’s look at eight challenges you will face along the way.
NOTE: My ecclesiastical tradition reserves the pastoral role for males. If your context allows women to serve as pastors, just substitute husband for wife, or whatever fits your context.
Challenge #1 — Ministry and Marriage May Become Unseen Rivals
The best rivalries between athletic programs are those where both teams are really good. However, if one side dominates the other year after year, then the rivalry isn’t nearly as intense. But if both regularly vie for championships, not only is the game a big deal but recruiting becomes a year-round necessity.
I’ve heard of coaches who sleep at the office, eating, sleeping, and drinking football. It consumes every waking hour. With the pressure we place upon coaches with expectations of wins, I understand the temptation to install a cot in the film room.
Whatever professional rivalry may exist in his life as a coach, there is an unseen rivalry that exists between his job and his marriage.
The same thing may happen in a ministry marriage. A pastor may not set up a cot in the church office, but he very well may give other signals that communicate his priority is job success rather than marriage success.
We all have some kind of cot that has the potential to say, “My ministry is more important than you.”
- It may be the cot of time.
- It may be the cot of hobbies.
- It may be the cot of addiction.
- It may the cot of silence, where the neglect may not be physical distance as much as it is emotional distance.
We need to find a way to put the cot away.
This does not mean that there will not be times in a marriage when the job requires extra attention.
For example, when a writer is on a manuscript deadline, we call his or her spouse a “writer’s widow.” This does not mean that their writer has died, but that they are so focused on the job that the writer’s spouse feels alone while the other spouse works overtime to meet the manuscript deadline.
If the “widow” is not prepared for such a season, she can begin to feel as if her spouse’s work is a rival to their marriage. Not just a rival but a threat. When ministry feels like a rival threat to marriage, resentment begins to grow like mold in a damp basement — unseen but dangerous.
How can we avoid a ministry marriage becoming a rivalry?
Ministry can have crazy hours and, like coaching, there can be an ebb and flow to the seasons. There will be those really long days and weeks. But that should be the exception, not the rule. Nevertheless, going into a ministry marriage with realistic expectations of the demands of pastoral ministry will help offset some of the bitterness than can set in if and when ministry and marriage begin to feel like rivals.
Functionally prioritize the marriage relationship.
In my experience, I have found that it is easier to neglect my marriage than my ministry. One corrective for this tendency is to have a weekly date night. Paying the sitter is worth it. The date doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Just being together so that you can listen well and be fully present.
Another way to functionally prioritize the marriage relationship is to focus on your spouse immediately when arriving home. Whether the husband or wife arrives first, giving focused attention to each other can go a long way. Something as simple as sitting on the sofa together for ten minutes to share the highs and lows of the day. A time to listen and share. A time to connect.
Don’t underestimate a simple touch. A hug in passing and a soft kiss.
Cheer for your husband’s ministry.
The more you as a pastor’s wife value your husband’s role in the church and supports him, two things will happen. One, your heart will be protected from seeing ministry as a rival. Second, your encouragement will be a powerful motivator for him to value you, creating a cycle of mutual appreciation that strengthens the marriage bond.
What does cheering look like? No, we are not talking about pom-poms. We cheer with words.
- “I liked that message. Thank you for your work on preparing it. The story about the dead tree coming back to life really spoke to me.”
- “I appreciated the vulnerability in how you prayed before the service this morning.”
- “It was thoughtful of you to call Roger to check on his son.”
- “Even though giving is down, I want you to know that I think you are doing a great job and I am thankful for your leadership.”
Sometimes, you as a wife would rather hit your pastor-husband over the head with a pan than serve him a dish of encouragement. Does he deserve encouragement? Probably not. There is always plenty for which he can be criticized. And he will be. That is why your words of support and gratitude become words of grace and life — not only for his ministry but for your marriage.
Find your righteousness in Jesus’ ministry record, not in your own.
At its root, a ministry marriage rivalry is a gospel issue.
If I am spending time with people in meetings and working on messages so that the congregation will give me their approval and praise, I will neglect my wife. Not just with my time, but with my heart, using the value and importance of ministry to excuse my overwork and emotional neglect.
Why? Because I am trying to achieve righteousness out of my own ministry record, using ministry to make a name for myself.
If you as a pastor can recognize that idol and repent before God and your wife, finding your identity is Jesus’s ministry record rather than your own, really good things are on the horizon — for both your ministry and marriage.
Challenge #2 — Activities that are Optional for Church Members Feel Like Requirements for the Ministry Couple.
While the average church member will find attendance at a church picnic to be an optional activity, the ministry couple likely will feel this, and any other church event, to be a requirement. There certainly are some activities at which the pastor is expected to be in attendance as part of his job. Sunday worship, staff and elder team meetings, and most church-wide social events are fairly standard.
The challenge is with the many other activities that take place in the church and community that would crush most people’s calendars. While my church does not place such expectations upon me, some congregations expect their pastor and his wife to attend sporting events, school plays, community fundraisers, birthday parties, ribbon cuttings, city council meetings, and all kinds of other events.
The principle is this: due to human limitations of time and space, the pastor and his spouse simply cannot be everywhere and participate in everything. Otherwise, if you try to meet this expectation, not only will your marriage suffer ministerial burnout, but you will end up neglecting your own kids “for the sake of ministry.”
Discover the Cure for Pastor Guilt
Knowing these three causes will help you start walking the road to recovery.
Some ministry couples use an objective grid of “x” number of events to attend per week or month with a prescribed maximum “x” number of nights out. Others gauge their participation in optional activities by how they feel about what kind of bandwidth they have at the time.
Either way, my suggestion is to keep an eye on the calendar, making sure you carve out plenty of time to focus specifically on cultivating and enjoying marital intimacy and time with the kids. How? Establish that weekly date night we’ve talked about. Make it sacred and unalterable. Also, set aside a family night for dinner, games, a movie, a walk, etc. — a time when you are together and undistracted.
Challenge #3 — Ministry Time is not Necessarily Marriage Time.
This is something that I wish more churches (and pastors) understood. If an event is a ministry requirement, then the pastor is wearing his “pastor” hat. Not literally. But he is “on the job among the people” so to speak. In that environment, his focus is the ministry, not his marriage.
Some pastors think that because their wife is in the same proximity that they are spending time together, like a coach on Friday night with his wife in the stands are in the same proximity. Or like a surgeon at the operating table with her husband in the observation deck are together. They are… but they’re not.
There may be marital proximity, but there is not marital intimacy.
Ministry meetings. Dinners with members. Attendance at a church picnic. Sunday morning worship. I could be wrong, but all of these feel like they should be classified as ministry work.
Or to put it this way, “Ministry time is not necessarily marriage time.”
Necessarily is the qualified word, because there are exceptions. It is possible to have real friends in the church with whom you are able to remove the pastor's hat. If so, then those connections may be life-giving marriage friendships where ministry time is marriage time.
But as a rule (and I try to have as few rules as possible), I don’t think ministry time should be counted as quality marriage time.
Challenge #4 — There are (Usually Unspoken) Expectations for a Pastor’s Wife to Serve the Church as an Unpaid Staff Member.
Whether the music leader, the children’s director, or women’s ministry coordinator, the wife is often seen as an extension of her husband’s ministry.
Unpaid staff. Free labor.
My opinion is that a pastor’s wife should be free to function as any other non-staff member of the church. For example, how many names of apostles’ wives do we know? Not one. Were they co-pastors with their husbands? Apparently not. This is not to undervalue the role of a pastoral spouse but to liberate her from unbiblical expectations.
The implication is that if a pastor’s wife should use her gifts, it should be just as any other member of the congregation. If that gift is teaching, let her teach. If it is administration, let her coordinate. But do not demand or expect her to take a role of leadership if she is not gifted or called to that position just because it is vacant or because she is the “pastor’s wife.”
If she takes on a role that is typically a paid position in the church, she should receive compensation just like anyone else would.
How amazing and life-giving would it be if congregations encouraged the wife of the pastor to be her unique self, setting her free to develop her gifts and pursue her passions as any other disciple of Jesus?
Challenge #5 — Marriage Can Become a Ministry Partnership of Co-Workers vs Co-Lovers.
If a ministry marriage becomes a functionally two-pastor (husband and wife) relationship where the primary marriage conversation is essentially a long, drawn-out staff or elder meeting discussing the shepherding needs in the congregation or making strategic plans, it is possible that the relationship will take on the feel of co-workers vs co-lovers.
Some pastors who are trying to use their wives to help themselves become more successful will be okay with this for a while, but not the wife. She wants to be loved and treasured, not used.
Can’t blame her. One. Bit.
This does not mean that you can’t talk about ministry together. Please do not turn ministry talk into a legalism.
The point is that as the emotional demands of pastoral ministry weigh on you both, marital intimacy will give way to mental exhaustion. The danger is that you will become roommates and business associates, going to bed without even a kiss goodnight.
The application may be to have a male “confessor” or counselor outside of the church with whom you share the more sensitive, emotional, weighty pastoral issues rather than place them upon your wife. She might want to know everything. But for the sake of emotional health, she probably doesn’t need to know everything.
Discussing this together in the presence of the confessor/counselor may be a helpful step in relieving some of the emotional pressure you both feel under what can be a massive burden.
Ideally, you as the pastor are able not only to take it to a confessor/counselor but directly to Jesus, casting your cares and the cares of the church upon him. It is a weight you were not meant to carry. So, don’t place upon your wife what only Jesus can carry.
Challenge #6 — It is Easy to Become Emotionally Depleted by Investing in Church Members vs Investing in Your Spouse (Who is also a Church Member).
For extroverts, social engagement will charge your emotional battery. But for the reflective introvert, “people time” will drain your emotional battery quickly, with conflict having the capacity to empty the tub entirely.
The implication is that the introverted pastor who is married (and especially with children) will need to limit social engagement outside of the home in order to reserve emotional energy for engaging his family.
How can you do this?
Consider the cycles of your week.
Which days do you tend to engage more people? Sundays and Wednesdays are fairly common engagement days for pastors. If that is the case, maybe you could plan Tuesdays and Thursdays as days alone for study and/or sermon prep. Wednesday afternoon could be your pastoral contact time, where you make yourself available at the office, send emails to people on the church prayer list, and make phone calls to check on folks.
Limit your counseling appointments.
In the same way that there is a need for full-time, vocational preachers, there is a need for full-time, vocational counselors. Teaching and preaching is a specialized ministry. So is effective counseling. One is geared toward study, writing, and speaking to a general audience, while the other exercises the gifts of listening and responding to specific needs with practical guidance. There is overlap, but not enough for the typical preacher to be a counselor or for most counselors to be preachers.
Nevertheless, I still make myself available to provide counsel for folks in the church I serve. Since I teach a minimum of four times a week including the Sunday sermon, Sunday night college Bible study, Tuesday night seminary classes, and a mid-week theology class, I find that chunking my days is really important in order for me to stay on course with my teaching prep load.
Monday mornings I study and do administration in the afternoons after our weekly church staff meeting. I reserve Tuesdays and Thursdays for study, writing, and message preparation. I take Friday as my day off and usually work on the weekly sermon on Saturday from morning until lunch.
The only time remaining for counseling is Wednesday. I prep the evening theology course in the morning so that I can reserve the afternoon hours for anyone who desires counsel or who just wants to drop by and get time together. I have four one-hour slots that I keep open on Wednesdays for anyone who wants to make an appointment.
How do folks make an appointment? They just ask and I give them a link to my calendar (I use an app called Doodle) so that they may pick the time that works best for them. If my calendar is booked up, I will refer them to a professional until there is a break in my schedule. However, it is rare that all four appointments are booked. The result is that I am almost always available to meet at some point on Wednesday afternoon. Yet if I discover that their issue is beyond my capacity to adequately and effectively diagnose and treat, then I will refer them to a professional counselor, which still being glad to meet with them for ongoing pastoral care.
Challenge #7 — Just because I am Teaching the Gospel in the Pulpit Publicly Does Not Mean I am Living the Gospel in My Marriage Privately.
One danger of being a public ambassador of the gospel is the fact that we will not always walk in line with the gospel. If it can happen to Peter (see Galatians 2:11–21), it can happen to me.
While calling others to repent in public, I can be defiantly defensive and hard-hearted in private. While exhorting others to believe the good news, I myself may be trying to build a record of righteousness through ministry success. While preaching for change among the congregants, my own life can be a mess, filled with addictions, outbursts of anger, and other unsavory behaviors.
In other words, our very calling sets us up for hypocrisy, faking spiritual maturity with the cover of pastoral authority, titles, degrees, etc.
Quite understandably, this hypocrisy may cause the pastor’s wife to grow disillusioned, bitter, and angry. It can make her feel as if the ministry is a sham, influencing her own spiritual life to wither on the vine.
What can be done?
A work of the Spirit can be done, where through necessary conviction, a pastor learns to start again in the gospel, discovering the liberating grace of repentance and the joyful freedom of looking to Jesus as his only righteousness. Not looking to his ministry. Not being right or free from sin. Not being respected or praised.
A word of advice for wives. If your husband is displaying hypocritical tendencies, the temptation is to hammer him with the law, making demands and threats. I understand how frustrating it can be. I’ve been that pastor who deserved the hammer. But let me encourage you not to pound on him, but to pray for him. Keep loving him and caring for him. Doing good to him. He doesn’t deserve it.
And that is the point.
I suppose “tough love” is necessary at times, but it may do us well to remember that it is “the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.” Guilt and fear may produce temporary results but cannot do the deep, lasting work that is possible when we rediscover afresh how deep, wide, long, and high is the love of the Father for us in Jesus.
Challenge #8 — We May Have Unrealistic Marital Expectations, Thinking that a Ministry Marriage Should be Immune from the Sin that Other Marriages Experience.
Some of what we discussed in the previous challenge is just the seepage of sin from the enemy within. Yes, that enemy of indwelling sin remains — even after ordination to pastoral ministry.
Just in case you missed this in theology class, graduating from seminary and receiving ministerial credentials contributes nothing toward your sanctification.
The very same sin tendencies present in other humans are present in the pastor. He will struggle with personal sin. His marriage will experience the same friction and frustration as any other marriage. He will sleep on the sofa, too. But not to watch game film. His children, as his children, are sinners, too.
When pastors do stupid things, we may be sad but we shouldn’t be surprised.
What? Did we think he was Jesus?
Ah, there is the problem. For some reason, we treat pastors like Golden Calves. We know that God is up there with Moses on the mountain, but we want a living, breathing, tangible expression of God for ourselves. One whom we can put on a pedestal and worship as our sinless hero.
But pastors are not heroes. They are just sinful messengers in desperate need for the same good news they proclaim — good news about the true Hero, Jesus.
This is why we need the gospel to be the functional centerpiece of a ministry marriage and family life — any marriage and family for that matter — where all of life and ministry is tied and tethered to the cross.