Helping Your Marriage Survive
the First 5 Years of Ministry
By Mike And Kerry Clarensau
It seemed ministry should be natural and easy. After all, we both felt called to serve God full time — a calling we each had known since childhood. Finding each other on the same path brought bright visions for the future. Our I dos were undergirded by many we wills as a life of serving God together defined our sense of destiny. Now, more than two decades later, we have found that ministry is as wonderful as we had hoped, but the road was much different from what we had anticipated.
Ministry and matrimony offer the promise of a match made in heaven, but when these powerful forces converge in the lives of a young couple, the results are sometimes mixed. Each year a new batch of fresh faces walk arm-in-arm across the Bible college lawn and into the real arena of calling. The hard earth and the needy hearts of local church life replace semesters filled with the challenge to bring a not-of-this-world Kingdom to a prodigal planet of billions. While a few boxes of textbooks reveal an education to meet the challenge, the marriage may not be so well prepared.
Many young couples have found the early years of ministry to be difficult and even disillusioning. They discover that alongside the marital adjustments every young couple must make, the new life of ministry they have embraced together is ripe with surprising hardships. They quickly discover that this side of the pulpit does not naturally strengthen their relationship. Instead, obstacles emerge that few of the people they serve understand.
The challenges a young couple may experience in their early years of ministry are potentially numerous, but they typically melt into five familiar realities.
People bring high expectations to those who minister to them
Few classroom lectures prepare students for the level of expectations awaiting the minister and his spouse. Depending on the setting and the success or skill of previous leaders, these expectations can swamp the unsuspecting pastor. A new pastor may find his assignment defined by the demand for ever-growing programs, while he simultaneously tries to prevent his converts from slipping into sin’s carnage. Meanwhile, his bride must manage a series of best-friend relationships so not one of a host of ladies feels slighted or unimportant. This pile of expectations also includes a pleasant home environment where the door can swing open at all hours and reveal the flawless hospitality within. For those who can manage such responsibility, added agendas of administration, availability, and wise counsel are expected as well.
While such expectations may seem exaggerated, most ministry couples know they can be even worse. The time demands of ministry can undermine a couple’s effort to build their life together, sometimes causing one spouse or the other to feel neglected and left out. The arrival of a new baby and the pressure to minister effectively while being a good spouse and parent seems overwhelming. Whether their first 5 years are spent leading a department or an entire congregation, the expectations of others can swamp a ministry couple’s marriage.
Caring for people and their needs can seem unending. When one person’s crisis is averted or conquered, sirens blare for the next. The minister is expected to answer each time, bringing the strength and wisdom his position promises. While most people in his congregation understand that his schedule is demanding, few respond well if he fails to minister to their need. This nonstop level of expectation often leaves little time for the one who made that “for better or for worse” promise of loyalty.
Ministry demands enormous emotional energy
With ministry expectations comes the reality of the work and its impact on the minister. Walking through life’s traumas with the hurting brings its own emotional weariness. Every person faces his moments of crisis, whether they are random or the result of flawed choices, and the minister must attend to them all. So, counseling and emergency prayer moments can consume much of a minister’s day and strength.
That same minister returns home each evening to a spouse who needs some of his emotional energy, too. But he is weary or she has little left to offer the one she claims to love most. The couple leaves their own needs on the back burner while the ever-present urgencies of those they serve take first place. When they do find strength for each other, it is often consumed by the concern they share for the flock — a concern that keeps them responding to the steady stream of other peoples’ issues at the expense of their own.
Nearly all occupations require an emotional investment, but few confront trauma and life-altering moments more than ministry professions. To survive, a minister needs emotional strength from his spouse, but often finds he has not given enough of himself to his marriage relationship. His spouse, neglected and alone, lacks what is needed despite her desires to help.
Family needs are not easily accommodated
Another stress couples face in the early years of ministry is the changing demands of the home and the rigors of ministry make it difficult to manage them. Many young couples find it necessary for one or both to work additional jobs to pay the bills. The ministry they envisioned giving their full strength to is compromised by another work schedule. Frustrations build and the congregation they serve may be unaware or unable to help them address their struggle.
When a baby comes along — a common occurrence in a young minister’s life — one or both spouses become less available for the daily ministry they previously carried out. While most congregants understand the responsibilities of parenting, many are unwilling to adjust their own expectations for the minister and his wife. Criticisms such as “he doesn’t spend time with us like he used to” or “she’s always too busy for us” drift toward the ministry couple’s ears. Soon the minister feels he must constantly choose between the needs of his family and the people he has committed to serve.
It is hard to keep everybody happy
One of the great traps for a young minister is believing his success is attached to his ability to keep everyone happy. If he serves as staff pastor, then the senior pastor’s expectations must also be met. But within the couple’s own scope of leadership, people — including their own relatives — must be pleased as well, because any level of unhappiness will be reported to the senior pastor, thus making him unhappy.
The pressure to please people confronts every minister. Obtaining a level of maturity derived from a few experiences that prove pleasing everyone is a hopeless task is often needed to dispel this notion.
For many young ministers, the early years of ministry require an incredible balancing act to keep home and office satisfied, and few succeed. Those who do may be the worse for it because such patterns harden and destine the minister to a life of people pleasing.
When a minister seeks to please everyone, his family usually gets the leftovers. His spouse and children are expected to understand because, “after all, we’re in this together.” But there is no real together when the minister places the demands of others ahead of the needs in his own home.
This is not what we pictured
In the early years of ministry, many young couples are devastated when their dreams of ministry seem far from reality. Perhaps they had anticipated ministering side-by-side, giving their full attention to the calling of their hearts. The ministry, however, only provided an office for him as senior pastor or only included him in staff meetings as staff pastor. Instead, she must fill a secretarial role at a law office or work the cash register at a department store. By the time they find each other at day’s end, both are too tired to share in ministry.
Many young couples find that a ministry income is insufficient to meet their financial needs. School loans and burgeoning responsibilities steal a portion of their thoughts — a portion they hoped to invest in God’s work. No. This is not what we anticipated at all.
Sadly, many young couples leave each other or the ministry in the early years. Others feel such pressure in their current location that they resign and bounce from church to church, looking for stability and family strength that every move seems to push farther away. But the early years of ministry can be healthy, and they can be a time of establishing principles and patterns that will keep a marriage healthy through decades of ministry.
Before we consider these principles, it is essential that the ministry couple understand the importance of choosing them now. Thinking that the right choices can be made later — when things get better — is a pipe dream. If you resist making the choices today that will make your marriage strong, you and your spouse may never find the strength to make those choices later.
Choose to prioritize your marriage
When God established marriage, He intended it to be the most important horizontal relationship in our lives. No other relationship is described as a “one-flesh” experience (Genesis 2:24), nor does God illustrate His own relationship with us using any analogy other than that of husband and wife. God intends pastors to enter marriage with a keen sense of the relationship’s priority, and no ministry commitment alters that premiere position.
When a minister puts his work ahead of his marriage, he misjudges the God who called him. Such actions also reveal that the minister is seeking his self-worth in the same manner as the workaholic husbands of his congregation. Sadly, many ministers reflect the same misguided priorities as the people in their congregations who frustrate them most.
As a couple, establish shared priorities for your marriage and determine what you want it to be like. Both spouses can express their expectations and needs, and together find strategies for meeting their needs. Do not let public statements about your marriage priority be undermined by inaction. It will not take long for your failure in this area to become visible or worse, to be mimicked by those who follow you.
Communicate your marriage commitment to those you serve
For your marriage priorities to survive, they must be communicated to those you serve. Some young couples are afraid to speak to their leaders about the health of their marriage. Perhaps they witness their leader’s weakness in this area and assume he will either not understand or be critical of their desire to put their marriage first. Nevertheless, do not sell your pastor or your congregation so short. Your choice may provide the momentum necessary for others to choose as you have.
You can assure those you serve that the fruit of your commitment will follow. Among our ministry team we have consistently insisted that the most important gift any ministry couple brings to our congregation is a healthy marriage. A minister who functions from the strength of a healthy home offers an example and a joyful demeanor that will enrich the lives of others. Regardless of the ministry task, a healthy marriage is an asset, but an unhealthy home will quickly become a heavy anchor.
Some may question if such a commitment will be well received in their setting, but the alternative is unacceptable. If a senior leader or congregation rejects the leader’s priority of his own home, it is time to demonstrate that priority by finding a healthier setting in which to minister.
Guard your ability to live that priority
Demonstrate the priority of your marriage and home by taking time off from ministry responsibilities. Ministers must take time off. Taking a sabbath is essential for ministers. Despite his efforts to appear superhuman or the congregation’s willingness to attribute such qualities to him, the minister must rest, and he must spend time with his family.
Most churches and ministry teams have discovered the importance of taking time off, but not everyone is good at implementing it. Some ministers mistakenly view their day off as a personal day and spend it on the golf course or in some other venue that does not include their family. Instead of thinking day off why not consider the time as family day. While some ministry couples may not be able to coordinate their schedules to spend time together, most can if they will plan to.
Our regular family day is Monday. On that day, we do not answer the phone or have direct contact with those we serve. We let our voice mail inform us of needs, and we only respond to emergencies. Consistently guarding time for you and your spouse will train those you serve to respect it; and you will even find that they will soon help you guard it.
Similarly, vacation time should not be neglected. Time together is necessary for you and your spouse to refuel the intimacies of your relationship and your ministry strength. Some ministers struggle with the thought that time away is time taken from the church, but the investment in your marriage relationship and your own physical rejuvenation will ultimately give the church a stronger and healthier ministry.
Set goals together for your ministry
Though the work of ministry may involve one spouse more than the other, ministry couples need to work together to establish their goals. Plan time each year to discuss short- and long-term ideals so you both can find ways to contribute. The more you plan ministry together, the more you will both feel a part of that ministry as it unfolds. Be partners at the beginning of ministry initiatives, and you will have an easier time remaining partners throughout the implementation.
As you set goals, pray together concerning those goals. Even though one spouse may be more involved in the day-to-day fulfilling of those ministry dreams, he should not assume his spouse is less committed to or less interested in the work. One mistake often made by the more involved spouse is believing his partner lacks sufficient connection to provide meaningful input. Each spouse brings unique gifts and insights that God intended to be used in ministry as couples work for Him.
Listen to each other and trust the advice of your partner. A husband will likely never master the people nuances his wife can easily see, and she will find that his insight will provide necessary perspective for ministry success as well. As a package, these critical bases can be covered, and the marriage can grow strong as trust in this shared calling matures. Neglecting each other in ministry planning can likewise create distrust that spills into the marriage beyond the boundaries of ministry work.
Include each other in ministry life
By any and every means possible, do ministry together. If schedules and other demands conflict, include your spouse by sharing as much as possible through close communication. A working spouse can feel a part of a ministry event if she is included on a deep level.
If you and your spouse fail to include each other in your ministry efforts, your marriage will grow apart — even if your offices are adjacent to one another. The work God has given can bring you closer together if you will be careful to include one another. You started out pursuing this kind of life, and you will find this kind of life the most rewarding.
The early years of ministry can be devastating to a marriage, particularly if the ministry couple allows the ministry to be in the driver’s seat of their relationship. You can have a healthy marriage that strengthens your efforts to serve God, but you must be intentional in your choices. Keep your marriage ahead of your ministry, and you will find the strength and health you need to be successful at both.