Navigating the Trail of Marriage and Ministry
How to Get Your Relationship Back on Track
With our nine-month-old son, my wife, Rene, and I decided to take our first hike together on a warm summer morning in Southwest Missouri. Our goal was to enjoy the great outdoors. However, the trail seemed to disappear about 90 minutes into our hike, and we were lost.
Don’t worry, I did the responsible thing any self-respecting 26-year-old husband would do in this situation … I pretended to know where we were going for the next 15 minutes. Well, it didn’t take my discerning wife too long to realize what was happening. We were lost!
I was reminded of this experience while sitting with a couple who had recently navigated some difficult terrain and unsteady ground in their ministry journey. The weight of ministry had exposed the weakest part of them and certainly took its toll on their marriage.
The husband summarized, “I just thought it would work itself out. If we just kept moving forward with ministry responsibilities, things would get better.” At this, his wife’s eyes began to tear up as she later expressed, “I’m not sure how much more I can take.”
Marriages of those involved in ministry carry a unique set of stressors in addition to the spiritual weight of leading Christ’s church. Ministry offers complex challenges, unrealistic expectations, external pressures, and financial stress. Consider some of these statistics from Soul Shepherding that describe the realities for many couples in ministry:
- 90% feel fatigued and worn out every week
- 70% have a lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.
When pastors are over-stressed, their marriages and families suffer too:
- 80% feel unappreciated, left out, and unappreciated by church members
- 80% wish their spouse would choose another profession.
In ministry, we lose our way in our marriages when we believe lies. Yes, as ministers … we, too, can believe lies! The lies are subtle and often couched in spiritual language, but they are lies that steal, kill, and destroy marriages, and by default, ministries. Let’s briefly expose a few of these lies.
1. I’m the exception, not the rule.
Like me on the trail, I’m a smart guy, I won’t get lost. Most of us want to think that the rules don’t apply to us. Let me be clear, “A man reaps what he sows!” (Galatians 6:7). That includes you and your marriage relationship. What you sow today, you reap tomorrow. And yes, this applies to you!
2. I can figure this out on my own.
I thought that if I just kept moving forward, I would find my way. However, the opposite happened. The farther we traveled, the more lost we became. How do our marriages get lost along the way? One step at a time!
It is not if stressors will occur, but rather how you will deal with them that makes the difference.
3. If I take care of God’s business, He’ll take care of mine.
This is not in the Bible. God has never mailed my bills for me. He has never taken my wife on a date. He has never attended my kids’ sporting events sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines. God entrusts us with our marriages and families as a responsibility to manage well. Yes, ministry is important, but so is your marriage and family.
4. It will work itself out.
Most challenges do not go away on their own. They only get worse over time. From a couple struggling to be sexually intimate because of the effects of childhood trauma, to two strong-willed leaders who find themselves married in the ministry, the time to address challenges and correct problems is when they begin.
Lost on our hike, we stopped for a snack. Soon we were back on the trail. However, our goal had changed. Instead of forging forward, we chose to backtrack on the familiar trail and head back the same way we came. It is intriguing how a crisis can bring great clarity.
As ministry couples, we must simultaneously navigate the pathway of marriage and ministry. It is often the pressures of ministry, family, and marriage that cause us to reevaluate strategy and reconsider our direction. Unfortunately, far too many couples in ministry wait until the crisis hits before they make midcourse corrections. Like my wife and me, you may need to sit down and recalibrate your marriage. Here are a few suggestions to rediscover your path:
1. Set appropriate boundaries.
Boundaries define your responsibilities, and what is outside your area of responsibility. They keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. Boundaries protect what is yours. Boundaries express your values and priorities. The truth is, if you do not schedule your priorities, someone else will schedule their priorities for you.
Making your marriage a priority in no way makes it the only priority. A robust ministry should also mark your life. Invest in yourself, your marriage, your family, and your ministry. Boundaries, when established correctly, bring balance and health to all areas of your life.
2. Connect regularly.
The more complicated and involved life becomes, the more important it is to create moments of intentional intimate connection. The key word is intentional. Often, if you rely on spontaneity, the urgent crowds out the important. Finding the rhythm of these connections is vital to the health of your marriage.
Upon departing in the morning, kiss each other goodbye. When returning home, greet one another with a smile and a hug. Weekly dates have blessed our marriage and scheduling family priorities (i.e., vacations, sporting events, school plays, birthdays, etc.) are wise investments of time and energy. Both quality and quantity of time make a difference.
3. Enjoy sexual intimacy.
Most would agree that sexual activity is designed for the marital context. Yet there is great confusion, frustration, and at times pain when it comes to sexual intimacy. So much can affect one’s enjoyment of sexual intimacy in marriage. Traumatic experiences, medical issues, lack of emotional intimacy, among many other items can negatively affect your sexual relationship with one another.
While few are comfortable addressing a pastor’s sex life, a healthy sex life in marriage is God’s design. Sex in marriage is a gift from God and is designed to lead toward greater intimacy. If you are not enjoying sexual intimacy in your marriage, seek out a Christian mental health professional who can help you and your spouse get the healing necessary to enjoy this gift of God. The apostle Paul wrote, “Come together again so that Satan will not tempt you” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
4. Find safe places and safe people.
Individually and as a couple, you need to intentionally cultivate life-giving relationships with safe people and safe places. While it is hard to find such relationships and even hard to find a safe place to get help, we justify our lack of real relations with reasons such as: I’m too busy. It's not like I’m having an affair. I can fix it, after all, I help other marriages of those in our church.
We all need friends, and we all need counselors. Every couple needs friends who want nothing from them and only want the best for them. In addition, counselors listen objectively to your challenges and offer a different perspective or approach. These counselors might be a mentor couple, a wise (maybe retired) minister, a relationship therapist or another trusted voice in your marriage. Don’t let the enemy of your soul (and marriage) scare you into isolation. We need one another.
It is not if stressors will occur, but rather how you will deal with them that makes the difference. If your marriage is experiencing the pressures of ministry and life, let me humbly suggest that you take the time to invest in your marriage, tapping into some of the resources that might be a blessing (if not rescue) for your marriage and your ministry. Do what it takes to get your marriage back on the path.
WHERE TO TURN:
- Christian Marriage Counseling
- AG network of suggested counselors from across the United States are available.
- Soul Care Intensive for Couples (Emerge Counseling Ministries)
- A 3-day, in-person program designed for ministry leaders, individuals, and couples seeking a more specialized and focused experience.
- Marriage Intensive (Hope Restored)
- An intensive is a period of counseling over 3–5 days that allows licensed counselors to help you get to the root of your issues.
This article first appeared in the fall 2023 issue of Called to Serve, the Assemblies of God ministers' letter, and is published her by permission.