Eight Challenges Every Ministry Marriage Will Face

Every vocation provides a degree of challenge for a marriage. Coaching has really funky hours and seasonal rhythms. Politics feels like it must be a 24/7 job. Doctors who work at hospitals have a pretty crazy schedule. And shift work at a manufacturing plant or on a police force. Yikes.

Pastoral ministry presents challenges, too.

So, if you are married and considering pastoral ministry, or an unmarried pastor who is thinking about taking the plunge, here are eight potential challenges you will face as you enter the wonderfully surreal world of “the ministry marriage.”

1. A RIVALRY BETWEEN MINISTRY AND MARRIAGE.

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 tricky river to navigate. Which recruit is going to get your primary attention? Will the other feel neglected if attention is given to someone else?

You can see how the same dynamic of rivalry can place in ministry and marriage. Both are really, really good and vie for our attention and focus. ​

But this happens in all kinds of marriages. The spouse of a writer may call himself or herself a “writer’s widow” during a season of completing a manuscript by the deadline. We’ve heard of a “coach’s widow,” a “surgeon’s widow,” and others. Obviously, this does not mean that their spouse has died, but that they are so focused on the job that the marriage feels dead because it is, even if temporarily, being neglected while the other spouse writes, recruits, or whatever.

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. But not just a rival. A threat. The next step is a spirit of resentment toward the ministry. More on that below.

How can we avoid this potential rivalry? Here are some suggestions.

FIRST, BE REALISTIC.

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.

SECOND, 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.

THIRD, THE WIFE CAN BE A CHEERLEADER FOR HER HUSBAND’S MINISTRY.

The more she values his role in the church and supports him, the more likely her heart can be protected from seeing ministry as a rival. [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.]

FOURTH, THE PASTOR NEEDS TO FIND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS IN JESUS AND NOT IN HIS MINISTRY RECORD.

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. It may be that a ministry and marriage rivalry will lose its intensity when the pastor no longer sees marriage as a rival to his ministry. This is a work of the Spirit for which every ministry marriage can pray.

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 at least 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 calendar. 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, but you may end up neglecting your own kids. If you feel guilty about this, please read this article on how to overcome pastor guilt.

Some ministry couples use an objective grid of x number of events to attend per week or month with 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 marital intimacy, emotional, intellectual, and physical.

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. No, 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 proximity that they are spending time together, like a coach on Friday night with his wife in the stands are together. 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 work — as ministry.

Although there may be exceptions, I just don’t think ministry time should necessarily be counted as quality marriage time.

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 an ordinary member of the church. This is my opinion. For example, how many names of apostles’ wives do we know? Not one. Were they co-pastors with their husbands? Apparently not.

This means that if a pastor’s wife should use her gifts, it should be as an ordinary 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.

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.

This does not mean that you can’t talk about ministry together. Please do not make this a legalistic principle! 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.

6. IT IS EASY TO BE EMOTIONALLY DEPLETED BY INVESTING IN CHURCH MEMBERS VS INVESTING IN MY SPOUSE (WHO IS ALSO A CHURCH MEMBER).

For extroverts, social engagement will charge your emotional battery. Depending on other wiring factors, even conflict may not take that much out of you.

But for the reflective introvert, “people time” will drain your emotional battery quickly, with conflict having the capacity to drain 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?

FIRST, CONSIDER THE CYCLES OF YOUR WEEK.

Which days do you tend to engage more people? Sundays and Wednesdays are fairly common. 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 your self available at the office, send emails to people on the church prayer list, and make phone calls to check on folks.

SECOND, 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.

7. JUST BECAUSE I AM TEACHING THE GOSPEL PUBLICLY DOES NOT MEAN I AM LIVING BY GRACE 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), it can happen to me.

While calling others to repent in public, I can be defiantly defensive and hard-hearted in my own marriage. 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 to manifest hypocrisy, faking spiritual maturity with ecclesiastical authority.

Quite understandably, this hypocrisy can cause the pastor’s wife to grow disillusioned, bitter, and angry. It can make her feel as if the ministry is a sham and cause her spiritual life to wither on the vine.

What can be done? Only a work of the Spirit to bring necessary conviction to the pastor as well as renewed hope to the pastor. Essentially, he will need to start again in the gospel, discovering the liberating grace of repentance and joyful freedom of looking to Jesus as his only but perfect righteousness. Not his ministry. Not being right. 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.” Not merely guilt or fear, which may last for a moment, but does not 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.

8. WE CAN HAVE UNREALISTIC MARITAL EXPECTATIONS, THINKING THAT A MINISTRY MARRIAGE SHOULD BE IMMUNE FROM THE ORDINARY SINFULNESS THAT OTHER MARRIAGES EXPERIENCE.

Some of what we discussed in the previous point is just the seepage of sin from the enemy within. Guess what? Ministry as vocation does nothing for your sanctification. Nada.

Yeah, that is a bummer. But the same sin tendencies present in other humans is present in the pastor and his wife… and his kids. 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 our sinless hero.

But pastors are not heroes. They are just messengers. 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 any marriage for that matter — where all of life and ministry is tied and tethered to the cross.