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Partnering for Ministry: Challenges, Opportunities, and Strategies

Wise strategies can minimize the unique challenges of tandem ministry and help ministry couples realize the amazing opportunities such partnership affords.

BY MIKE AND KERRY CLARENSAU

Should husbands and wives work together? Since women began joining the workforce more than a half-century ago, many industry leaders have simply said “no” and established corporate policies to prevent such situations. Even today, a quick search of articles on the subject seems to offer two “no” votes for every thumbs-up to this challenging question.

Yet somehow pastoral ministry and congregational life have generally managed a very different answer. Pastoring, at least in Assemblies of God churches, reveals a husband-wife partnership more often than not. Just over 3,300 of the Fellowship's credentialed women (41 percent) are married to credentialed men — and this is only the tip of the iceberg. In thousands of other congregations, husbands and wives minister together, though one or even both may lack official recognition of their ministry.

It's easy to idealize the image of a husband and wife, with sleeves rolled up, working alongside one another in ministry. Yet making this tandem idea work isn't always easy. Leading a church together requires intentional effort. Wise strategies can minimize the unique challenges of this assignment and help ministry couples realize the amazing opportunities such partnership affords.

Challenges

While living and working together presents marital challenges in any setting, leading a local church offers its own unique slate.

First, the often-overwhelming pace of ministry life can seem doubled with both husband and wife immersed in the schedule. Even when a couple divides tasks and responsibilities, the stream of phone calls, committee meetings, counseling appointments, hospital visits, and hectic Sundays have a way of piling up. When both husband and wife bring their primary focus to local church ministry, these schedule demands, and the expectations that accompany them, can add great stress to life in the parsonage.

Team ministry can also bring unhealthy congregational attitudes to the surface. Once or twice we had to deal with the dislike some people have for women in the pulpit — the old, “if that's the kind of church this is, our family will worship elsewhere” conversation. While we have little difficulty answering such statements, it's disappointing not to have the opportunity to lead people past such blind spots.

Third, a pastoral marriage's plan for managing relational conflict requires a different set of rules than other couples live by. Common marriage issues don't just sweetly skip past the pastor's house. When disagreements over ministry direction and responsibilities join the fray, it can magnify disagreements at home. Most couples need their marriage as a refuge when workplace conflicts intrude into their off-hours. Ministry couples lack such an outlet. When a spouse is also a co-worker, and off-hours are virtually nonexistent, it blurs the boundaries between work and home.

Finally, ministry life exerts an enormous emotional toll. Times of loss may touch one church family at a time, but pastors engage every grief journey up close. Family crises, failed marriages, conflicts between members, financial uncertainties, and the occasional choice some make to worship elsewhere are just a few of the regular heartaches. Pastors may rejoice in their people's best moments, but they also spend a lot of time with them in their worst. The emotional toll often doubles when both members of this husband and wife team experience the trauma.

Opportunities

These challenges, and perhaps many others, can make ministering together difficult at times. However, the perks significantly outweigh the potential struggles. Pastoring together offers enormous fulfillment and can benefit your congregation in many ways.

Most couples begin their ministry careers with the dream of serving together. While some pastors' homes are “single-calling” households — where the pastor serves the church, and the spouse pursues a different life path — a great many of us originally engaged ministry life with a shared sense of purpose. In most cases, both must possess some sense of divine direction to survive full-time ministry's often-arduous road.

But it's more than surviving. Serving together can mean thriving. This is the life we hoped for — side-by-side, caring for people, and connecting with those beyond our walls. The idea that “we are pastor” reveals the first and most valuable ministry team in the church. When husband and wife work together for God's kingdom, their relationship can deepen as they live God's calling together. It's hard to imagine a more wonderful partner in ministry than the partner you've chosen for life.

A second benefit of this shared sense of calling is the chance to model ministry together. While most churches try to create a sense of family, the truth is many families don't engage the local church with a shared sense of zeal. Serving together in the role of pastor shows other married couples how to make their own spiritual connections work more effectively. When we commit to doing church together, husbands and wives will more easily see the path to serving God together themselves.

Of course, the greater modeling opportunity is the chance to demonstrate a healthy marriage. We always told our staff members and other leaders that the greatest gift they could give our church is a healthy marriage. In healthy ministry, a lot of ministry strength comes from your marriage relationship. As you minister together, people can observe and learn from that strength. The more visible your healthy marriage is to your church, the more likely congregants will be to build healthy marriages themselves. If a pastor ministers alone, the strength of his or her marriage will be less visible.

Ministry together also opens doors for effective gender-based discipleship. When a couple shares ministry and visibly works together in serving the church, both the men and women of the church have a mentor to follow. Less healthy scenarios can occur when the women of the church see a male pastor as their primary role model or the men try to follow a female pastor in their pursuit of Christian manhood. When both husband and wife are visible in church leadership, healthier discipling can occur.

We're not implying that a pastor leading ministry alone creates unhealthy discipleship patterns in the church, but ministering together offers a great opportunity. As we ministered together in our congregation, both men and women could connect to a ministry leader who understood their daily lives from experience.

A great benefit of pastoring together is the balance of gifts the partnership produces. Few husbands and wives are identical in their personalities or leadership styles. Seeing traits we wish we possessed is often what attracts us to our spouses. An outgoing, friendly person may draw an introvert. Or an emotion-driven person may come to love the steadiness of a less-expressive individual. There are hundreds of other possible combinations that make life together something we chose to pursue. The point is that when we minister together, the church gets the full complement of traits the husband and wife team brings. Perhaps he's the stoic scholar, and she's the relational glue. Maybe she's the amazing organizer, and he's fun-loving but a bit scattered. We've seen such a variety of ministry couples; there seems to be no limit to the unique gifts God may bring together. Whether you're like Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, Andronicus and Junia in Rome, or you bring your own unique marital blend to the parsonage, together you offer so much more than either of you could on your own.

That gift balance also can potentially lighten the load. Shared ministry not only brings our differing gifts to the table, but it increases our ability to operate in those gifts while allowing our partner to carry the load in areas where we are weak. There are many occasions where his abilities fit the need of the moment, but just as many settings where her gifts should take center stage. When we work together, we can take advantage of this variety and avoid the exhaustion that often accompanies functioning in our weaknesses.

Finally, partnering in pastoral ministry allows husbands and wives to share the rewards together. While working together can strengthen our bond, celebrating victories together goes even further in cementing our relationship. There are many rewarding moments in ministry, and the apostle Paul tells us that sharing them doubles the joy. Experiencing this compounded blessing with the person who shares life's journey makes it that much sweeter.

Strategies

Clearly, the opportunities of ministry together can easily outdistance the potential challenges, but how do you make it work? After many years of uniting our sense of calling under the roof of a local congregation and watching amazing couples whose ministry together has demonstrated true partnership, we suggest a few best-practice strategies to help maximize your experience.

Prioritize your marriage first. Ministry life has a way of consuming every available minute and even trying to steal some you can't afford to give. For your ministry together to stay healthy, your marriage must keep growing. Plan regular time away from ministry responsibilities. We changed the name of our day off to “family day” because we wanted our congregation to know how we'd be spending it. A few of our folks weren't convinced that pastors needed days off, but no one wanted to intrude on our needed family time.

While a full list of healthy marriage steps isn't possible here, it's critical that you invest in your marriage's intimacy — what we call “just us” time. These are the things you don't share with anyone else. It may seem silly, but you need your restaurant, your vacation spot, your song, your inside jokes, and a few other things of your own. These are the places you don't take church friends and the stories you don't tell them. Ministry can drain the time and life from your marriage, so you have to be intentional about pouring time and life back in.

Clearly discern your gifts and abilities. Know where each person is strongest, and assign tasks appropriately. If she's the more effective communicator, let the preaching schedule reflect that, or find other ways to benefit from that capacity. The New Testament has a lot to say about Christians exercising their unique gifts. Be sure the pastors are a living demonstration of that idea, and you'll see your people start using their gifts, too.

There will always be necessary ministry tasks that aren't our favorites, but each of us should spend significant time doing what we love — the things God created us to do. Work together to discover what those things are, and then take steps to help each other spend more and more time doing them.

Always stay on the same page with good communication. Keep each other up-to-speed on important information, even if your spouse isn't really involved in that area of the church. Remember that when you pastor together, your people will see you as a team — maybe even as “one” — and they will assume you know everything your partner knows. Your circle of confidentiality should never exclude your spouse if you're truly pastoring together.

Staying on the same page isn't just for informational purposes either. When you communicate direction, decisions, and the “why” behind the “what,” you will want to speak with one voice. When you minister as a team, every word you speak can be viewed as coming from the inside, even if you weren't a part of that particular meeting with your spouse. Good communication between you, then, requires careful communication with others.

Visibly value each other. Publicly applaud your spouse's contribution, and affirm his or her value to the church's ministry. Since you're a team, the more you build up your spouse, the more your own ministry efforts will benefit. Don't tease or ridicule your spouse in ministry settings. She may laugh with you, or he may be a good sport, but those they lead may interpret your fun jabs in different ways. Show your high respect for your spouse's ministry, and don't let anyone treat him or her differently. You're a team, so attitudes toward your partner reflect on you as well.

Establish no-church-talk zones. Because work among the congregation consumes both your lives, church issues — even the good ones — may dominate much of your conversation. Since you minister together, and ministry is the kind of work one often takes home, you'll have to be intentional if you're going to talk about something else. Regularly decide that tonight's dinner or tomorrow's family day is a no-church-talk zone. If your spouse is people-weary or tired of an issue, let him or her call a no-church-talk zone for a few hours. Don't make your spouse have to get away from you to get away from the church. Go off the clock together so you can rejuvenate together.

Keep disagreements private. You may have different ideas about how to handle church-related situations. You may wish your partner had dealt with a certain circumstance in a different way. Yet such conversations must remain between you. At all times, put your ministry together ahead of your personal opinions. You can debate and disagree on various issues, but never do so with an audience.

Celebrate victories together. Don't just talk about what went wrong on Sunday. Celebrate what went right. Rejoice together in the people you have at the church instead of just strategizing how you can get more. Remember that victories play a major role in our encouragement, so build each other up with the reasons you see every day for rejoicing.

Never forget that the same God who called you is the One who put the two of you together. Your side-by-side ministry is His great purpose for your lives and your church. Give your best to Him by giving your best to each other, and embrace the amazing joys ahead as you find creative ways to serve Him together.

Neil B. Wiseman  

MIKE AND KERRY CLARENSAU, live in Waxahachie, Texas, where Mike serves as dean-elect for Southwestern Assemblies of God University's College of Bible and Church Ministries. Kerry serves as director of the National Women's Department for the Assemblies of God.

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