5 Ways to Build Margin Into Your Ministry (and Your Marriage)
When your partner in life is also your partner in ministry, room to breathe empowers you to succeed at home and church
My grandmother was a pastor’s wife for over 40 years. From the day they married until my grandfather heaved his final sigh and passed away quietly in his living room chair, Grandmother's full-time ministry was to enable her husband to do his full-time ministry. My grandmother raised her children in the parsonage just 50 feet from the steps of the church, sent them to school directly across the street, sang special music from the front row of every service, and visited her neighbors — both churchgoers and God-doubters alike — along the dusty roads of a tiny western Kansas town.
Grandmother was not paid for this work, but she was her husband’s partner in every way: in ministry, in the home, and in community life; the boundaries between all three blurred. She was never not the pastor’s wife, and my grandfather was never not the pastor.
These days, it’s not uncommon for both husband and wife to hold formal ministerial roles. Married couples often share the responsibilities of churches, youth groups, missionary endeavors and lay ministry. Homes are routinely opened to Bible studies, young people in need of feeding, or neighbors in crisis. These couples serve side-by-side, not just within the walls of the church, but in the streets of their community and by the kitchen sink.
This freedom to follow God’s call together as equals is a Christ-ordained blessing (Galatians 3:28; 5:1).
But if we’re honest, it can also be a curse.
When your ministry is naturally a part of your family’s lifestyle, the line between work and home will quickly get blurred. If we’re not careful, those lines can fade into an unrecognizable mess of unmet expectations and crossed wires.
For those of us who minister alongside our spouses, how do we keep church life from overtaking our home life?
We build margin into our ministries — and our marriages.
“Margin is a term we started using more often in the church a few years ago. It means room to breathe. It’s a reserve,” writes Ted Cunningham, founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri.
We’ve all heard the phrase “margin of error,” and within our human capacities and limits, that’s just what it is: room for failure, room for rest, and room for recalibration. Margin is a wide-open space guarding your heart, mind and relationships. But this room doesn’t magically appear on its own. Margin requires tools, and here are five to help you build it:
1. Set Healthy Boundaries.
“Ministry will take up all of the time one allows it,” write Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie in their book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. “Pastors need to counter the demands of ministry with responsible self-care.”
Self-care starts with setting healthy boundaries — hedgerows of protection for your family, yourself and your ministry. These boundaries can include creating both work and personal hours, deciding how much your children will be involved in your ministry (if at all), setting aside “shop talk” during family meals, keeping Friday nights ministry-free, and saying no to some in order to say yes to what’s best.
2. Define Expectations
Wayde and Rosalyn Goodall share that “finding balance between what you can and can’t do, learning how to delegate and to whom to delegate, are critical for a healthy life.”
Address the expectations placed on you and define realistic ones. What does your church or ministry expect of you? Consider who will work in the office and on what days, and who will take children to and from school. What events will you both be required to attend? Who will be the point person for financial decisions, who will take charge in times of crisis? What do you expect of your spouse at home, and what does your family need from you? What will date nights look like and how often will you get away with your family to recharge?
Some reimagining may be required, but defining expectations — and putting them in their proper place — will lessen the daily stresses of life and work.
3. Embrace Your Limits
“What is my capacity?” asks Trisha Davis, who serves alongside her husband in couples ministry. Knowing our capacity will define how much margin one needs and how strict the boundaries are.
Our marriages — and who we are as ministers in them — are a part of God’s mission for the church.
Davis adds that “couples who have very different capacities unknowingly make one another feel defeated for what they did or didn’t accomplish. Knowing each other’s capacity allows you to set up healthy rhythms of investment in each other and in ministry.”
Several years ago, I asked my husband to remove my name from our ministry team email list. We were in a sleepless season with a newborn, toddler and kindergartener, and I had reached my limit. My “need to know” drastically decreased and I was happy enough to be oblivious to our church responsibilities, at least for a time.
The more we embrace our limits as co-workers in the Kingdom, the easier it will be to recognize and manage them.
4. Find Allies
Working together in ministry can often mean one’s spouse receives the full brunt of emotions, confidences and shared losses.
“Frequently, spouses are the only safe people with whom to share candidly the conflicts, disappointments, and stress of ministry,” say Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie of Resilient Ministry, but that doesn’t mean we use them as a “nuclear dumping ground.”
Though marriage is our sacred safe space, it’s important to find a confidant separate from ministry and marriage. Finding an outside source for encouragement, transparency and accountability will release one’s spouse from the burden of meeting every emotional need and feeling every emotional loss.
5. Practice Sabbath
Over and over again, pastors and faith leaders stress the importance of truly practicing Sabbath.
“God knew we would rebel against the whole idea of rest, so He had to command it,” writes Cunningham. “We are not to treat the Sabbath like every other day of the week. It needs a different rhythm.”
Practicing Sabbath — not just a day off, but a time of intentional refreshment and rest — will realign us to God’s rhythm of work, not man’s perception of it.
Explore ways for you and your spouse to truly clock out: frequent family getaways, shared hobbies, nature expeditions and screen-free days. Together or separately, pursue Jesus’ example of withdrawing by himself to a quiet place in order to better commune with the Father (Luke 4:42; 6:12).
Our marriages — and who we are as ministers in them — are a part of God’s mission for the church. Even now, my grandmother makes house calls, sits on the missions’ committee, and occasionally conducts a funeral. At 95, Grandmother has more margin than she knows what to do with and a body that knows its limits. But she also has a spiritual overflow from which to serve, filled with quiet confidence, sacred rhythms, and the heavenly hope of reuniting with her ministry partner in the sky.