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Healing for the Broken Ministry Marriage

By Dale Wolery

Listen to a ministry couple who has gone thorugh a difficult ministry experience
and how it strengthened their marrige. (MP3)

He stared at his computer monitor, thinking, She has done it again. He had to finish his sermon. He couldn’t. His cluttered mind threw punches.

What is she thinking? Why unload right now? I’ve been busy, blamed busy, and she knows it! “Why aren’t you ever here for me?”

She slugged back. He jabbed. Be there for her? With the weight I carry? She knows I’m trying. I’m running as hard as I can. She knows what I carry. Two funerals this month. The men’s retreat. A whole church. The weight of all this prep. I never take time for myself. She thinks I don’t care? She’s the one who doesn’t care.

Why God? he screamed silently. Why can’t she just let up, understand me, support me, appreciate me? Can’t she see Your blessing? The church is growing, the people talk about my messages, the board just gave me a raise. She is just not trying. She’s crazy! he concluded.

The blank monitor reminded him of his sermon. Deciding to switch to e-mail, he tried to push forward but stopped. The heaviness of cumulative cycles of conflict and continuous pain overwhelmed him. Last night’s rupture just added to the string of endless beatings pummeling their worn-out marriage. His head dropped into his hands. It was like his wife was constantly knifing him in the heart. He had never felt more weary. He could not imagine feeling more alone. He ached.

The door opened. He moved to greet her and stopped, remembering how wrong she was. She was not smiling. Handing him a slip of paper she blurted, “I’m not going through this again. All you care about is the church. You do not even know the kids and I exist. I cannot remember when I felt like you cared. We need help. I want you to contact these people and see what they tell us to do.”

He started his rebuttal, but the door closed. He sat down. Furious, frustrated, and fuming, he sighed. His only consolation was that no one knew about their daily struggles and broken marriage.

Broken Ministry Marriages Are Too Much the Norm

If you are a pastor or pastor’s spouse who identifies with the above scene, you are not alone. If your ministry marriage is broken or struggling, you are in great company. Some of the most successful ministers in North America have terrible marriages.

Instead of model marriages that reflect well on Christ, many ministry marriages are fighting for survival. The families and staff pictured inside church directories or brochures appear happy and healthy. Off the brochure and in the bedroom, this is seldom reality. Clergy families are not always as they appear. They are in trouble. The increasing disfigurement of clergy family life abounds.

My own ministry marriage knows this pain. Sara and I struggled with the confusion of a marriage meltdown and ministry demands. I had fostered marital conflict, battled addictions, and danced the dance of congregational expectation. When I appeared most successful in ministry, my marriage and personal life were in the most trouble. As long as I convinced myself that our marital struggles were largely Sara’s fault and delayed her seeking help for us, I could proceed without changing. As my church applauded my ministry, I expressed my avoidance to Sara this way, “When I get through with _________ (whatever the stressful project), things will get better between us.”

I found smiling in public — even when I did not feel like it — easier than genuine closeness in daily, married life. Sara courageously asked for more while I gave less. I could have avoided the crisis that began our healing journey if I had been willing to hear her say: “We are drifting apart. We are not as close as we used to be.”

My understanding of pastoral-marriage struggles is personal as well as professional. We have ministered exclusively to pastors and their families for more than a decade. The hope, grace, and healing offered below is an outgrowth of our professional and personal experience. I hand you a slip of paper and pray that you will accept the help it offers. I wish I had done the same earlier, much earlier.

What Breaks Ministry Marriages?

We have seen God work in ministry marriages in which silence and distance never escalate to verbal attack and preaching throats are raw with angry words. God works when addictions are an issue and when they are not. He finds ways to nourish weary people with grace and healing when they stagger under hopelessness. But He works deeply, sometimes using pain as His main language.

I did not willingly embrace His grace and healing because this threatened what I believed and pointed loving fingers at my sin. His healing hand led me to grab after concepts and practices I had preached against. He did not do it my way. What God did for me, He did the long, hard, humiliating way.

To discover the Lord’s constructive work in ministry marriages, one must look deeper than most in the current church are willing. One must analyze the sources of the widespread damage and propose solutions that work, instead of beating the same soundless drums. Worn-out, easy answers are useless.

Dysfunctional churches hurt ministry marriages

One source contributing to broken ministry marriages is the church. The church is a powerful purveyor of ministry marital damage. Churches have devolved into dysfunctional organizations that eat their young and kill their wounded.

Churches are hooked on the powerful god of numeric growth, choked on the we-have-always-done-it-this-way poison, mesmerized by celebrity-status leadership, bound by the business model, and therefore blinded by collective denial. These approaches grind relentlessly on ministry marriages. Without forethought or malice, churches just do what churches do.

Church expectations hurt ministry marriages

In most churches, years of institutionalized dysfunction fray the fabric of pastoral marriages. Churches expect too much and care too little. Under the scrutiny of stated and unstated expectations, the strongest spirits of our clergy wilt. As media-savvy Christians gather on Sunday, most unconsciously form negative conclusions about their church’s leadership team. Church music competes with recording artists they listen to on their drive to church. When the pastor stands to speak, people wordlessly compare him with the crème de la crème. Through the week, church attendees listen to exceptionally gifted and edited Christian radio speakers, and watch communicators on the Internet and television who are at the top of the communicator heap. In the pew, they wonder why their average pastor seems so average.

Outside the pulpit, people expect a pastor’s counsel to rival New Life radio host’s highly competent advice. Others compare his ability or inability to coalesce critical factions in the church to the latest success story from the pens of our nation’s best business executives and authors. These unfair evaluations, comparisons, and other dysfunctional ways of doing church place enormous strain on clergy marriages.

Pastors are supposed to excel in preaching, teaching, leadership skills, people skills, and biblical knowledge. The congregation expects them to work every weekend of the year and have the best marriages. In my own marriage, the dysfunctional, unstated demands of the congregation ignited by my personal ambition burned our marriage beyond recognition, almost beyond rebuilding.

At the time, I was not aware of the church’s systemic sin or my own as I dug the grave of our marriage deeper. I knew churches hurt their leaders’ marriages and leaders’ marriages hurt the church, but I was not aware of these processes at work in my life.

When a leader’s mistakes, sins, and failures — no matter how unintentional — combine with a church’s poorest practices, the combination is deadly to his marriage. Healing a leader’s broken marriage requires honesty regarding church ills. We must also examine the common ills pastors bring to their marriages and churches.

Hurting Ministers Hurt Ministry Marriages

Denial in ministry is powerful

Christian leaders are mostly blind to their sabotaging behavior. The road to destruction in ministry marriages is paved with our best theology, teaching, effort, and intentions. The powerful denial traps that hold us in their grip are largely invisible to us. I did not know how flawed I was. I pray you will be open and, I warn you, it is not easy.

Ministers are pressured to keep marriage-damaging secrets

Courageous self-discovery is necessary for God to change a pastor’s marriage. This is problematic. At the Clergy Recovery Network, where I now serve, we find it is more difficult for pastors to honestly face their problems than it is for people in the pew. Pastors know intuitively that they must avoid the truth about their flaws and keep them covered. The church clings to its notion of the perfect leader family and its corresponding expectations. Your church likes you being the flawless leader. You probably enjoy this, too.

Our culture exerts powerful energy that motivates pastors to keep the lid on the truth. It loves to shoot pastors down when they are less than perfect. Public error by imperfect pastors is easy fodder for a hungry press. The church and culture make it easy for pastors to deceive themselves into damaging silence about what happens behind closed doors. Pastors cannot mend their marriages without admitting they are broken. Honesty is essential. While pastors are pushing for truth, it is important that they be honest about the power of the pedestal.

People place ministers on pedestals that isolate

Churches place pastors and their spouses on invisible pedestals. People intend to honor and distinguish their pastors, but the pedestal becomes a force that hurts their pastors as leaders. The feelings of importance and honor associated with being on the pedestal draw pastors initially, but this shared group dynamic creates unique isolation that breaks its share of ministry marriages.

The clergy/laity caste system fostered by our consuming celebrity mind-set makes normal, nurturing friendships almost impossible for pastors and their wives. As ministry couples face life’s difficulties, they often face them alone. When they hurt relationally or spiritually, the unstated rules of the pedestal force them to suffer in silence. As the Clergy Recovery Network analyze intake forms, we are surprised by how dramatically pastors and their wives declare they are lonely and friendless. The phrase we hear most as we talk with pastors about their problems is, “I had no place to turn.” Pedestals damage marriages.

The enemy works strategically

The most obvious reason for so many broken marriages in clergy ranks is the attack of the enemy. The strategic nature of pastoral marriages makes them favorite targets of the enemy. When a ministry marriage crumbles, Satan wins. No news is more sensational, spreads more rapidly, or sullies Christianity more than the news of a pastor’s marriage gone wrong. Scoffers delight and demons dance when a Christian leader’s fall leaves his parishioners abandoned.

Wounded People Populate Clergy Ranks

The overpopulation of clergy ranks filled by wounded people is a natural marriage-injuring phenomenon. Thoughtful observers believe those damaged most in their childhoods are the ones most likely to enter ministry. People often accuse psychologists of joining their field to fix themselves. We believe many ministers enter ministry hoping they will become closer to God, become better people, and have better marriages. This doesn’t always work. As wonderful as the work of God’s salvation is, it does not save ministers and their wives from their own deep, personal problems.

Focused satanic assault, the pedestal’s isolation, and an unconscious desire for spiritual healing create disproportionate numbers of broken marriages among Christian leaders. This vulnerability to marital breakdown is also compounded by the customary marital challenges other couples face.

Cultural Family Breakdown Damages Ministry Marriages

Ministers were wounded as children, too

The breakdown of the family in the latter half of the last century profoundly impacts ministry marriages today. This breakdown caused increases in divorce, chemical dependency, emotional distance in family relationships, driven lifestyles, uncensored materialism, addictions, abuse, and neglect. Each successive generation produces more wounded children. The arrested development of these wounded children results in wounded children in adult bodies leading more and more churches.

Comprehending this vast change occurring in our character and relationships awakens us to the full import of Jesus’ harsh words. “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2). The sins done to children that cause them to sin are capital offenses. Childhood trauma compounds when it remains unresolved and encounters the rigors of ministry and marriage.

Ministers are hooked on addictions, too

Another byproduct of general family breakdown is a dramatic increase in addictions. This onslaught compromises ministry marriages. The addiction of choice in conservative clergy ranks is sexual addiction. Sex addiction and pornography hook increasing numbers of vulnerable pastors. Unlike crack cocaine, pornography is inexpensive, easily accessible, and highly addicting. No profession is more susceptible to its power than the pastorate. Who else is expected to spend long hours alone in their offices behind closed doors with unmonitored Internet access? This enslavement binds good and otherwise godly men, making them powerless.

Pastors also battle chemical dependency, violent outbursts, inappropriate relationship dependencies, and process addictions, such as watching television. Pastors meeting ministry’s pressure while having difficult marriages find temporary solace in habitual escapes. These grow into consuming addictions.

Congregations unwittingly applaud work addiction, obsessive pleasing, serving, and placating others. Similarly, leaders who display narcissistic arrogance and practice manipulative controlling behavior often rise to the top as powerful Christian leaders. Is there hope?

Hope for the Ministry Marriage

Half measures do not work

Pastors and churches must meaningfully change. Unfortunately, when Christians propose solutions to these kinds of issues, they most often cover reality with biblical sounding words or apply impotent half measures to these deeply engrained marital problems. Therefore, they assume occasional weekends off, annual retreats, or quick fixes, such as accountability groups, will solve these problems.

Half measures and accountability groups usually produce more denial and damage. These add to a church’s group denial because the church assumes a deterrent is in place when it isn’t. They do not help pastors, either. Most pastors who come to us after being caught in addictions are in accountability groups. If a pastor will lie to his spouse, he will lie to a group assigned to check on him. It is hard enough to tell our friends we are struggling, but even harder to tell the truth to people who are appointed to ensure that we do not slip up. Solutions for broken ministry marriages are considerably more complex than appointing hall monitors. Half measures fail.

The Church Must Seek Outside Help

Churches that desire spiritual health must seek outside help. The best outside help is up. God can heal. But a church’s inability to divert board and other leadership groups from the priority of business agendas to the higher priority of prayer is an indicator of how little it genuinely desires God’s help. If we want His help, we will ask for spiritual and relationship growth, instead of praying only for Aunt Suzie’s knee surgery. Our asking Him to reveal and change our systemic and personal bankruptcy is vital. If God does not build the church, we labor in vain.

In addition, the church can enlist consultants, seminary professors, and denominational leaders to observe, survey, and reframe errant institutional values and address blind spots. Healthy pastors invite this kind of scrutiny for themselves and their churches. Using consultants and intentional interims while a church is between pastors is effective in producing constructive change. During this time, churches can become graceful and honest about their own flaws and needs, instead of remaining prideful and closed. When a congregation refuses to allow celebrity seeking, building programs, and numeric growth to drive the church, the congregation can minister effectively to one another in love and care for their leadership teams.

Lay education regarding clergy care, organizational values, how groups change, and the nature of health and dysfunction fosters quality change in the church. When congregations are honest regarding their struggles, allow thoughtful biblical truth to guide them, value-giving grace, and encourage the use of quality Christian counselors, they create healthy environments for themselves and their leadership.

Church Leaders Must Seek Outside Help

Are you and God genuinely close?

If you are a minister or minister’s spouse with a smoldering marriage, you know the church may throw fuel on this fire, but you also know you must put it out. Accepting responsibility is necessary. If you are a leader who is struggling to hide marital pain, you are working against God. He wants to expose the problems so He can use you and other leadership couples to lead the church toward health and renewal. Until the problems surface, they cannot not be healed, and your leadership effectiveness will be blunted.

The complexity of ministry marital issues requires outside help. Again, the best outside help is up. God alone can give you the healing, grace, and intimacy in marriage you desire. This acknowledgment, however, is less helpful when spoken to pastors. The genuine spirituality of spiritual leaders is complicated.

Several months ago a minister who had served the Lord for more than 50 years was arrested for solicitation. Sexual sin had haunted him almost as long as he had served the Lord. When he called, one of the first questions I asked was, “What was it about your relationship with Christ that didn’t work for you?” His response shows the complication.

He said, “Oh, no, my relationship with Christ is fine.”

Because the ministry profession and its functions are so tightly entwined with ministers’ personal relationships with God, it is easy for pastors to assume they are close to God when they are not. For example, pastors continually speak God’s words on His behalf. All of this speaking breeds a casual familiarity that allows them to feel closer to God than they are. This is further complicated by pastoral duplicity. While we speak God’s perfect Word on God’s behalf, professing the availability of resurrection power, we find ourselves repeatedly confessing the same sins. This, too, often diminishes our integrity, instead of motivating us to rely more completely on Him.

Worsening matters, our congregants assume we are close to God. If we are not, this makes it more difficult for us to be honest with them, or anyone else. Our shame is heightened by this complication. What would they think if they knew the truth?

As you can imagine, pastors wrestling with marital problems or struggling in their relationships with the Lord carry a great deal of shame. Despite God’s design in the body of Christ for us to share our pain with one another, pastors prefer to keep it between them and God alone. It is less embarrassing this way, but it does not work.

My embarrasing spiritual struggles are teaching me to only trust the vitality of my relationship with the Father as far as I am willing to seek, find, and honestly engage the safe human help He graciously provides in the body of Christ. In short, if you are part of a ministry marriage in meltdown, you must seek professioinal help. If you are unwilling, I encourage you to question the authenticity of your relationship with the Father who loves you.

Have you disclosed your addiction?

If you are addicted, the addiction must stop. The sooner you disclose your habit before you are caught, the better. Addiction’s preoccupation destroys emotional intimacy in marriage. Healing for your marriage requires your addressing your bondage. If you wonder whether you are hooked, online evaluations will enable you to objectively make an assessment.

Are you avoiding common pitfalls?

All professional help is not equal. If we engage ineffective counseling, our marital meltdown will continue. Six pitfalls commonly defeat the helping process. Quality counselors will not allow pastors to engage in these practices.

First, we must not focus our attention on our spouse’s faults. We can only change ourselves and must focus here.

Second, we must reject spousal accusations because they are only partially true. The slightest exaggeration of our flaws in a spousal accusation mobilizes our defenses against it, even if most of what our spouse says is true.

Third, we must not allow our shame to control our reactions. If we do, we will refuse the truth because we already feel so badly about ourselves.

Fourth, we must realize that childhood trauma intensifies present-day conflict.

Fifth, we must acknowledge that our arrested development causes us to react by fleeing, fighting, and freezing emotionally.

Sixth, we must not approach relationships from a hierarchical perspective. This causes us to react on the fruitless level of I’m right and she’s wrong; or husbands shouldn’t have to do this and wives must do that. Instead of using this controlling destructive approach, we need to move beyond rigid roles and rules to a more godly and helpful relationship approach.

Throw away the shoulds and oughts and ask: How can I change, be more honest, more helpful? How can I give more grace? What can I do to solve the conflict? How is she experiencing me? What is the kernel of truth I’m missing? Who can help me see how I hurt my spouse? Shift your relationship paradigms to engage in this more productive approach.

Reflect on the scenario at the beginning of this article. Despite the wife’s frustration, her instincts were correct. She knew they needed help. To switch paradigms, change from the inside out. Start practicing more graceful approaches with your spouse. To reignite a vibrant relationship with the Lord will require skilled outside help. You and your marriage are worth it.

We always can find reasons to hope. Whether your spouse wants help or wants you to reach for help, I urge you to do so today. Wives usually reach first, but men may surely take the lead.

DALE O. WOLERY, MRE., is founder and executive director of Clergy Recovery Network, a nondenominational resource for ministry professionals in crisis located in Joplin, Montana.

 

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