When it comes to marriage, I chose wisely.
I can readily identify with Winston Churchill’s assessment: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”
This week, my wife, Amanda, and I are celebrating our 30th anniversary. This journey has been an adventure with unexpected twists and turns, enabling us to learn, grow and forge a remarkable number of treasured friendships.
The merging of two lives is never easy and is often messy. We have tasted the “for better and for worse” experiences. Our relationship has grown stronger and more durable as we have confronted obstacles and embraced opportunities.
Marriage is perhaps the most unique of all human relationships. The privilege of partnering with one person for life is a blessing and a challenge. For the pastor’s family, the stressors are specific and peculiar.
A pastor’s marriage is lived out in a distinct context, with several factors testing the stability of a minister’s marriage:
1. The glass house syndrome.
A minister’s family life requires more transparency and is often scrutinized more publicly than the average marriage.
2. The swinging pendulum of emotions.
Because a minister deals with the emotion of everything in life from birth to death, their family is subject to lots of emotional fluctuation.
3. The burden of confidentiality.
A minister deals with sensitive confidential issues perpetually. Although a minister’s spouse is not privy to many of those issues, the duress of confidentiality often bleeds over into the home.
4. The flexibility challenge.
A minister’s schedule is always tentative. Interruptions are a constant. Vacation plans change. Kids’ ball games and concerts are missed. A minister’s life demands extraordinary flexibility.
5. The fatigue factor.
Many ministers confess to teetering on the brink of burnout or pastoral fatigue. A minister’s family must contend with a parent who is often physically or emotionally tired, and lacking a sense of balance and a time for refreshing. The entire family can experience “church burnout.”
Hebrews 13:4 instructs, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.” Although this admonition is for the entire faith community, it is especially important for ministers.
To build a healthy marriage, a minister and spouse cannot be naÃ¯ve to the aforementioned stressors, but rather should take proactive steps to navigate these challenges with faith, discernment and intentionality.
As we have grown through 30 years of marriage, we have gained a few insights into what makes marriage work for us as a pastor and wife:
1. Embrace the uniqueness of the “ministry life.”
Life for a minister’s family is not abnormal; it’s a different kind of normal. Live into the uniqueness rather than avoiding or denying it.
2. Avoid unrealistic expectations.
You will likely encounter church members with unrealistic or idealistic expectations for your work schedule, preaching topics and family life. You will be more effective and have a healthier family life if you live out of the wellspring of your gifts and convictions, not the expectations of others.
3. Schedule time for dates.
There is high demand on a pastor’s schedule. Calendaring can often be like doing triage. Schedule lunch dates, dinner dates, sporting events and other fun activities. Otherwise, you’ll miss spending quality time together.
4. Avoid taking the stress and work stories home.
While I may occasionally need to decompress by discussing an extremely stressful situation, I try to avoid discussing the daily debris of ministry with my wife.
5. Take your days off and your vacation.
Rarely have I taken all of my allotted vacation time. However, the older I get, I find that it is more important to take time to rest, refocus and rejuvenate, for my physical health, spiritual health and marriage health.
6. Tell stories involving your marriage or family life with discretion.
Many congregations love stories and are receptive to illustrative stories from personal experiences, such as adventures in tennis, golf or travels. However, I try to only tell stories that highlight and illustrate how our lives intersect with the application of the biblical text, avoiding intimate or critical stories.
7. Do ministry together occasionally.
Amanda has her own passion for ministry and she invests her time and energy in serving, just like other congregants. However, we occasionally enjoy making hospital visits together, engaging in mission projects together and even reading and discussing the same books.
8. Take care of your health.
We pledged to be faithful to each other “in sickness and in health.” Obviously, we prefer to be healthy, which requires keeping up with doctor’s visits and being proactive in caring for ourselves.
9. Learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
We enjoy being socially active, but you cannot say “yes” to every invitation. It is a biblical imperative to “let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37).
10. Keep growing together.
Marriage cannot function on cruise control. It requires ongoing nurture. There is a big difference in growing old together and getting old together. You grow old together by continuing to grow spiritually, intellectually and intimately.
A healthy marriage may not necessarily make ministry easier, but an unhealthy marriage certainly makes ministry more difficult. If you neglect your marriage in order to preserve your ministry, you are likely to lose both.
Barry Howard serves as pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and as a leadership coach / consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He served previously as an EthicsDaily.com board member.