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Maintaining Your Marriage for Lifelong Ministry

By Wayde I. Goodall

As I watched the candidates for licensing and ordination that evening, I could not help but notice their eyes bright, full of anticipation. Some cried, some laughed; all were sincere. Through intuition, I interpreted what they were dreaming and sensed their boldness. They were full of hope and faith about their futures.

Several candidates were middle aged and were entering ministry as their second (or third) career. The younger couples and single people were likely receiving credentials because they were involved in ministry or just finishing their education. My mind rushed through a series of questions:

In 10 years, how will they feel?

Church conflict has a damaging effect on a minister’s marriage. Like anyone else, pastors carry their stress home and the pressure of conflict affects their marriage and family. Conflict also significantly challenges a ministry couple’s ability to manage stress and their careers. Recent studies by Pulpit and Pew show that a minister’s worst battle in the ministry will be conflict in the church. Many pastors quit the ministry because it is so intense and/or so unending.1

To withstand church conflict, ministry couples need to continually work on communication and on seeing ministry as a team effort. Men and women naturally have different styles of coping when faced with problems. Men tend to withdraw while ladies express their concerns verbally. The enemy endeavors to keep ministry couples from talking through their concerns, from praying together, and from brainstorming for wise solutions to issues they face.

Will their marriages grow or will their priorities get complicated and the joy of being a couple fade?

H.B. London, of Focus on the Family, writes in his book, Pastors at Greater Risk, that:

Will they live a holy life and keep their focus on Jesus?

In an interview with H.B. London for Viewpoint, the radio arm of Save America, host Chuck Crismier cited some statistics that startled many:

My wife and I believe we are called to serve together and that we are accountable to each other. This is important. She understands me and instinctively knows when things might be getting to me. She knows when I am tired from just pushing through issue after issue, project after project.

Years ago, I learned to listen to her. I want to know how she feels about my schedule and my work, and I inform her when I am battling with something. My ministry involves much travel. I am careful, however, to build boundaries around my life as a protection against temptation. Our mutual accountability and trust is a constant safeguard and helps protect me.

Will any of them go through a severe temptation where the enemy will persuade them to fail? If they fail, will they get back up? Will people allow them to get back up?

I also saw in some eyes, especially in the men, a determination that says, I’m going to do this no matter what; my wife will just have to get it.

When watching many couples in the room who were down the road in ministry, I saw wives who had gradually realized they had lost their husbands to the ministry. Each of these wives needed to find ways to help her husband understand what a great asset she could be in what God was calling both of them to do. Some of the ladies would succeed at that and some would not. Perhaps their marriage would eventually become an agreement, “Let’s just find a way to get along.”

With the information we have today from H.B. London, George Barna, and others, we know it is easy for ministry couples to drift apart. Ministry is hard work and can easily get complicated. Working with people who are in numerous stages of growth can be exhausting. Carnality is an issue that is more difficult in some churches than in others; but, when pastors need to deal with an extremely carnal segment of the church, it will take both the husband and his wife to intercede, to think, and to seek assistance as they deal with it.

The call to pastor, or to serve as a missionary or evangelist, is a heavenly calling that must be supplied with heavenly strength. Some (including board members) may look at it as just a job when it is much more than that. When a pastor looks at ministry as a career he must succeed in, his career becomes his primary focus. This attitude is pervasive among those in full-time ministry. There is no question that any career can injure a marriage if the career becomes more important than the marriage. This is especially true for those in full-time ministry.

Pastoral Ministry Is Complicated And Can Compete With The Family

Thirty-two percent of pastors say that the first things they put on their schedules each week are appointments. Nearly 28 percent said meetings; only 13 percent said the first things they schedule are family time.6

How pastors divide their time on the job

When there is major conflict in one’s work/ministry, there is no question that this pressure can cause significant tension in one’s marriage. Ministers are not insulated from feelings of inadequacy and fear, or from experiencing conflict in their work.

How do pastors find balance?

To grow, pastors need to know the hindrances of growth and learn to keep focused on their goals. Marriage is a living organism — emotionally and mentally — and can become stronger through pain, trials, and pressure, or it can become weaker.

Pastors can become afraid, concerned about conflict, and/or overwhelmed with their work. They might compare themselves to others they perceive as successful. This constant bombardment of pressure gets to them and affects their marriage.

My wife and I were recently with Josh McDowell. He was talking about ministers who have subtly let their priorities get out of order (concerning their marriages). He said, “Ministry should not be the No. 1 priority in your life.”

I asked him to explain.

He said, “Ministry to your family should be the No. 1 priority in your life. Minister to your wife (or husband) and your children, and do not let the work take you from this God-given commitment.”

I agree.

God understands the challenges of our day, and He can show pastors creative ways to meet those challenges while still allowing their marriage to grow. Some key factors for marital and family health are:

Live within your budget

We may wonder, Will we be able to take care of our family’s personal needs, meet the church’s dress code, pay medical bills and insurance, and buy a home?

Financial pressure is the No. 1 issue that causes marital problems. If pastors do not live within a budget or have an agreed on way to save, spend, or take care of upcoming emergency needs, they can add undue pressure to their marriage.

Ministers worry about how to pay their bills, if they will survive the challenges of their church, or if they will they lose their jobs. In our research with Pulpit and Pew, we discovered that 30 to 40 percent of pastors who are no longer in ministry were forced out.11 They had lost their job. Often, in ministry, there is considerable concern about what other kind of occupation pastors would be suited for.

These are legitimate financial concerns that go through many ministers’ minds and can take the joy out of ministry — and marriage. What can pastors do?

Establish a financial plan and set ground rules about discretionary spending.

It is okay to spend if there are agreed on priorities. Over the years, I have noticed Christmas presents, clothing, food, and mending in the trunk of our car — things I knew were not for our family. I discovered that Rosalyn frequently purchased things that poor (sometimes destitute) people in the church needed. Not expensive things, but necessities. She has never gone outside of our budget. When I find out who the items are for and what they are going through, I am embarrassed about my criticism: I could have bought a new shirt for what you spent on that!

We have agreed on how much we can spend on discretionary items, have goals for saving, and, even though we hate the thought, have found a way to put a little money aside for retirement.

Couples need to communicate when there is an upcoming financial need (concern about braces for one of the children or if something needs to be repaired at the house). When needs become priority in a given month, discretionary spending is put on hold for awhile.

Many ministers are car poor or house poor. Many churches are building poor. Let me explain. The pastor may feel he needs the newest luxury car or a beautiful home. The church might have built a fantastic facility, but now has little else. Because of that car, house, or building, taking care of the basics becomes difficult or impossible.

Harris Interactive™, a market research firm, found that nearly one in every three Americans in a committed relationship is guilty of infidelity — not the kind that occurs under the sheets, but in shopping carts.

Stealth spending is becoming so common it is almost a given. A pattern of secret spending can damage long-term planning, as well as lead to credit problems, and can eventually hurt the bond of trust and the overall relationship.12

If pastors do not live within a budget and trust in the Lord to supply their needs, finances can become a major issue in injuring their marriages.

As A Couple, Understand The Nature Of Conflict And How To Lead Through It

Since we know that conflict is a major concern of ministers and missionaries, we must remember the verse, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). The fear of man, however, is a common fear for those who serve in the ministry. The “fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Proverbs 29:25).

Many ministers are afraid and insecure. Will the board like what I do? Will they give me a raise? How can I confront a particular person who is a friend of one of the deacons? If I preach this message from the Word, am I likely to offend a particular group who has influence, or who gives a considerable amount to the church?

Pastors need to be diplomatic, tactful, and sensitive to the feelings of others, but they cannot be controlled by the fear of man. If pastors are, why have they chosen ministry for an occupation?

A pastor’s work is to help sinners find Christ, teach about discipleship (which involves discipline), and, in a Christlike spirit, confront those who are wrong. Pastors are sometimes called to face the Jezebel spirit and the Goliaths in their congregations.

If pastors are paralyzed by a fear of people and what they might do, they will not walk by faith and may miss opportunities to bring the cleansing power of Christ to their congregations.

Most pastors enter the ministry because they receive a call from God. God picks people and selects them for pastoral ministry. Therefore, He is our Source, not man. When the board or pastor thinks that the church is the source of the pastor’s income, they have gotten their theology out of order. While pastors are grateful for their income and benefits, they need to be mindful that without the blessing of God, they have nothing.

Avoiding conflict can be injurious to one’s ministry and can cause undue tension in one’s marriage. Handling conflict in the right way, such as talking with one’s spouse while addressing the conflict, and praying together for wisdom, timing, and favor, will help pastors manage challenges with a lesser degree of anxiety.

Richard L. Dresselhaus suggests several steps to follow for successful resolution of church conflicts:

Describe the predicament. What is the story that has been pieced together about the conflict? What are the strands and patterns of events that have converged to create the crisis?

Define the plight. Who are the persons in conflict? That is, whose self-esteem has been significantly threatened to move him from stress to distress?

Identify the coulds. What are the could haves and the if maybes that may have prevented the escalation of events to the point of conflict?

List the cans. What needs to be done to move those in conflict to a point of resolution? Make an exhaustive list of the options.

Evaluate the shoulds. What are the pros and cons of each option? What is the anticipated conclusion of each option?13

Ministry couples can determine together a way to manage conflict in the ministry. A pastor and his wife are a team. There is spiritual power when a couple in ministry agrees on a scriptural strategy and supports one another in prayer.

Sometimes, the conflict couples face is with each other. A pastor and his wife must learn to resolve their interpersonal conflict in nonthreatening ways. Following are some rules that may help:

Determine the best time. It is important to know each other well enough to understand the best time to talk about an issue. Whether the topic is the discipline of children, financial concerns, or an issue in the church, timing is important. It is not good to talk about a difficult issue before bed, after just getting home from a tiring day, or when feeling overwhelmed because of work, life, or even a flat tire. Being sensitive to each other and knowing when to discuss an unpleasant issue is important.

Determine the best temperament. Knowing one another’s moods is something couples learn over time. Couples need to be observant of certain times of the month, certain days in the week, and times when we do not understand why our spouse is feeling discouraged, agitated, overworked, or even depressed. For example, Saturday night is not a good time for me to discuss something that is upsetting or could be a topic on which we might disagree. My mind is on Sunday. Rosalyn and I, however, do need to find an appropriate time to discuss important subjects.

Determine the best topic. There will always be issues, subjects, and opinions on which couples do not agree. Every married couple has topics that need to be handled with tolerance and compromise. Someone said: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken.” I sometimes say to myself: This isn’t a big enough hill on which to die.

The bottom line for marriage is commitment. Within that commitment are numerous issues that we choose to understand are the opinions of our spouse, or perhaps issues that they may need to work on for years because of their history. When a pastor needs to discuss topics that are difficult for his spouse to talk objectively about, he prays for her, and finds ways to love her through it.

Determine the best transition. It is important to know when to transition from discussing to ending the discussion. Ministry couples can exhaust the subject and not come to a conclusion. This is when they need to choose to agree that at this time they do not completely agree, and, for the time being, they will lay the issue aside. Most conflicts or discussions can have an agreeable ending. Knowing when couples reach that point and then deciding to conclude is part of dealing with conflict in marriage. Remember that the purpose of discussing a conflicting issue is determining the truth, not winning an argument.

Agree to be a committed team. Occasionally, when going through an especially difficult time in ministry, my wife has commented, “If we need to compromise what God and the Scriptures are telling us to do to keep peace, I would rather leave.”

I know that my wife is wise and spiritual, that she prays for me, that she is committed to our unified call, and will support me — even when that involves difficult decisions. I listen to my wife. She has talked to me when she senses that I might be wrong or when the timing for a decision might be off. Listening to her has saved me from many potential problems. We are committed to each other and committed to doing the will of God together.

Relationship expert, Scott Stanley, says commitment is two-fold:

Commitment involves constraints.Constraints are those forces that keep a couple together: children, in-laws, money, friends, value systems, faith, even the threat of divorce. The constraint aspect of commitment, however, is not strong enough to keep couples together and happily married forever.

Commitment involves dedication.Couples with dedication not only plan to stay together, but they also have a constantly evolving plan on how to do so. They rededicate themselves to each other regularly through planning events and talking about the future.

In his book, The Heart of Commitment, Stanley gives guidelines for couples who want to encourage their spouse’s need and desire for a lifelong commitment. He suggests:

  1. Plan several activities and dreams to do together over the next 20 years.
  2. Write out an agreement on what you plan to do for the next 20 years to keep your love alive.
  3. Express your lifetime commitment in words. Gary Smalley says, “Print it on a plaque, say it with gifts, just plain say it. I will be with you forever and keep loving you until death do us part. Write a poem and print it for the whole family to see.”14
  4. Become a student of your mate.
  5. When conflict arises, employ the three skills (living within a budget, dealing with work-related conflict together, and being committed to each other for life) that can take you to the deepest level of intimacy.
  6. Another type of commitment that couples need from one another is a willingness to keep searching for solutions to problems between them.

Your Marital Health — Your Physical Health

“A 51-year-old male with symptoms of depression, who has high blood pressure and is overweight, presents a heightened risk of heart disease and other illnesses. He works 60 to 70 hours a week in a sedentary job, does not currently engage in any physical exercise, and reports considerable work-related stress. Patient is married, with three children, one of whom expresses interest in following patient’s career path. Patient expresses little enthusiasm for encouraging child to do so.

“While the case history may sound routine, Dr. Halaas and her patient are, in fact, remarkable — perhaps even historic. That is because the patient is not a specific individual, but a statistically based overview of a typical … pastor.”15

The stress, conflict, long hours, and other issues common with the ministry can affect the physical and emotional side of us. Although data is limited, research indicates that some of the most critical issues facing clergy appear to be weight, mental health, heart disease, and stress.

Many clergy health problems may be rooted in the nature of ministry today — what Stephanie Paulsell, a visiting lecturer on ministry at Harvard Divinity School and author of Honoring the Body, calls the overwhelmingness of ministry.17

“It’s a job that is conducive to eating on the run, not taking time to exercise, and not getting enough sleep.” Forced by overwhelming need and filled with a genuine desire to help, many pastors, consciously or not, set themselves up for problems, thanks in part to a misguided notion of ministry.18

“There is a false notion that effective ministry is about the imitation of Christ,” says Pamela Cranston, chair of the Clergy Wellness Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of California. “There is the idea that ministry is about living a life dying to the self and living to other people, and that to be a true minister you have to kill yourself, to give your entire life for others. The theological problem around that is that Jesus already did it and we don’t have to.”19

My wife and I have discovered that we must guard our health by disciplining our lives. Too many ministers (and spouses) are in bad physical health. The Mayo Clinic has determined that the health of ministers is as bad as, or worse than, the general population in the United States. The stress, conflict, and other issues pastors deal with can affect their bodies. By disciplining themselves to be careful with their diets, to get enough consistent exercise, and to make sure they take vacations and days off, pastors can be healthier and happier in all that they do. Discipline is involved in a variety of areas, such as choosing to live within a budget, handling conflict in a healthy way, working as a committed team with one’s spouse in the calling as ministers, and leading a healthy and balanced life.

Ministry couples face many issues in church ministry, missions work, and other types of full-time ministry. Admittedly, younger couples may read this and think that they would not want to be a full-time pastor. However, understanding some of the hazards and issues that will possibly be part of their future is important. Someone said: “I don’t mind going to war … I just want to know who my enemy is.”

It is important to consider our calling as an opportunity to grow together and be extremely fulfilled in what we do. There is nothing like understanding that ministry is “God’s work and God’s call on our lives.” When couples discover that, and can find ways to communicate, live balanced lives, and determine to be a team in this wonderful work of the ministry, they will find deep contentment in their lives together.

WAYDE I. GOODALL, D.Min., is executive director of Benevolence, Bethesda Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado.


1. Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).

2. H.B. London, Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2003), 86.

3. The Barna Group, “Pastors Paid Better, but Attendance Unchanged,” 29 March 2001, PressRelease.asp? PressReleaseID+&Reference=B (accessed October 26, 2002).

4. A Hartford Seminary study quoted in “The State of Ministry Marriage and Morals,” Save America, n.d. (accessed October 30, 2002).

5. Injoy Ministries, “The State of the Pastor,” Partners in Prayer Report, quoted in “The State of Ministry Marriage and Morals,” Save America, n.d., (accessed October 30, 2002).

6. London, Jr. and Wiseman, 216.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Pastors in Transition, 49.

11. Ibid.

12. Helena Oliero, “Secretive Buying Can Wreak Havoc on Finances,” Winston Salem Journal, n.d., E1.

13. Richard L. Dresselhaus, “Developing a Model for Conflict Resolution,” Enrichment 10, no. 3 (2005): 34.

14. Rick Warren’s Ministry ToolBox.

15. Bob Wells, Which Way to Clergy Health?” Divinity (Fall 2002): 5.

16. Ibid., 6.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

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