Happily Married in the Here and Now
by H. B. London
The telephone rings. A compassionate receptionist answers the phone: “Focus on the Family Clergy Care Line. How may we help you?” She then transfers the caller to one of our five pastors who handle the 400 to 600 calls and e-mails we receive each month from clergy family members around the world.
Between 35 percent and 40 percent of these calls deal with issues related to marriage and family conflict. Many of these calls are so serious that it is difficult to imagine a Christian leader fulfilling his assignment while enduring such heartbreak and sin. Nevertheless, it happens day after day. Pastors also face many of the family challenges they deal with as they lead their congregations.
Some time ago I was working toward restoration with a high-profile Protestant pastor. Because it was taking a great deal of my time, the board at Focus on the Family asked for a progress report. As I began to talk, I passed out a sheet of paper that contained the circumstances of several other families we were dealing with. All of them were troubling, but not with the same high-profile status. Here are some examples:
- A pastor called because his wife had recently had an emotional attraction with a man in the church. She has a flirtatious nature.
- A pastor called because his wife had recently divorced him after 7 years of marriage.
- A pastor’s wife called after she and her husband had been involved in a heated argument. The pastor has a history of physical and verbal abuse.
- A pastor’s wife called because her husband is dealing with same-sex attractions.
- A pastor called because his spouse was struggling with the abuse he had suffered at the hands of church members. She said she would not stay married to a man who lets people dictate their lifestyle.
The list goes on and on, but you get the picture. Challenges to happy, loving marriage and family relationships affect not only the people in the pew, but also those behind the pulpit.
In a recent survey, we referenced more than 425 of the most recent contacts to our Clergy Care Line. We discovered that 65 percent of those calls came from the pastor and 35 percent came from the pastor’s spouse. Each call had its own level of urgency, but all reflected the subtle method Satan uses to undermine those whom God has called to lead His church.
On our Clergy Care Line we promise four things: (1) we will listen; (2) we will pray for you; (3) we will attempt to get you further help through a reputable referral in your area; and (4) we will resource you if we possibly can. Today, as I write this article, the telephone is ringing at our toll free number — 877-233-4455.
Why does this happen to those who are called to lead people from the abyss of family failure? I encounter several reasons when working with clergy couples. My list is not exhaustive, but it makes the point.
The first reason deals with the intense pressure ministry can have on the family and ultimately on the pastor’s marriage. When a pastor is engaged in the work of the church, he can easily neglect the most important members of his congregation — his spouse and children. The admonition of the apostle Paul covers all marriages, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. ... He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:25,28). “And the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). “Fathers do not exasperate your children” (Ephesians 6:4). These passages are for everyone.
Pastors who refuse to take days off, postpone vacations with their families, are not home for the evening meal, and work long hours with little or no fun in their lives are prime candidates for marital and family shipwreck. My wife, Beverley, used to say to me, “Who do you think you are impressing by not taking a day off — certainly not your church members?” She was right. They would let me work 8 days a week, if that were possible.
The second reason involves one’s upbringing. Many pastors’ wives — especially those who were raised in a pastor’s home — have a greater tolerance for ministry schedules and demands than those not raised in pastors’ home. That is not an excuse, but the truth. Many struggle with the unrealistic expectations of ministry. Regardless of one’s upbringing or background, each family must come to grips with reality and set its own course.
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is a great place to begin. Each one in the household must have the freedom to say what needs to be said: “I am feeling lonely.” “I am concerned about your schedule.” “The kids never see you any more.” “Can’t we just go for a walk?” “Why are you so moody?” “Are you doing okay?” “I want to help you, but you will not let me.” “I was proud of you today.” Any or all of these statements might apply.
Regardless of your background — be it from a home that talked about everything or one that operated as ships passing in the night — each clergy family must determine how it will communicate, and deal with the inevitable roadblocks that affect its family. If clergy families do not, the church and its leadership will continue to pile expectations on them.
Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, writes, “All marriages go through times when love grows cold or lacks the closeness we desire. When our marriage gets into trouble, we hurt. Many times we cannot even pinpoint what went wrong.”1
He is right, but the words of the apostle Paul help keep things in perspective. “Wives, understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master. Husbands, go all out in love for your wives. Don’t take advantage of them” (Colossians 3:18,19; THE MESSAGE).2
We must be sensitive to one another. Just to know someone cares about what we are feeling and why we are feeling that way speaks volumes.
The third reason concerns your ministerial surroundings. More clergy marriages are in jeopardy because of one’s physical placement than we might think.
Before coming to Focus on the Family, Beverley and I pastored four places during our 31 years of ministry. The first two locations were difficult and taxing on our marriage. At the first place we were young and new to ministry. I had come out of four generations of clergy, and she was a layman’s daughter. I thought Beverley would want to become the super pastor’s wife that my mom had been. That was not her idea; she wanted to be a wife and mother. Her greatest concerns had little to do with church attendance or building programs. I could not understand why she felt that way until I realized how she could better use her gifts. Immediately she was happier, and so was our family.
A pastor must let his spouse seek his place. Wives find fulfillment in doing what they do best. Trust me.
Our second church was much larger, but lacked leadership. I thought I had to do it all, and just about killed myself. Bev was a stay-at-home mom to our two boys, but she was lonely. I was so engrossed in doing what I felt called to do that I ignored her silent cry for help. Today, as I look back on that situation, I still get a sinking feeling. She was young, I was ambitious, and the consequences might have been fatal to our relationship.
The time came when we determined that we would make our surroundings a sanctuary. We, as a family, would not compete with the church. Our home, regardless of how humble, was our escape. Bev guarded this sanctuary and our house really became our home. Every clergy family needs a place of solitude and privacy — a safe place.
Ministry Marriage Roles — Finding Your Best Self
In our book, Pastors at Greater Risk, Neil Wiseman and I quote Paul A. Mickey who writes, “In an earlier era of clergy marriages, we find unambiguous, stylized roles and behavioral expectations. The early portrait is of a family in which the minister is male, the spouse is a faithful Christian homemaker who reflects the virtues of the Virgin Mary, works with spiritual industriousness of the mystics, and is willing to martyr herself (on behalf of her pastor-husband and ‘His’ church).”3
Clergy marriages begin to unravel — or a kind of relational malaise sets in — when we are either unwilling or unable to help the other find his best self.
Recently, a pastor’s wife sent us an e-mail. Can you hear her frustration?
“My husband (pastor) has a terrible time balancing church and family. I feel like all I am is a pastor’s wife with the pasted-on smile and the constant check of what I said to whom, or whom I did or didn’t call, or why I didn’t talk to such-and-such on Sunday morning. I’m so sick of it, I just want to go to Wal-Mart. I just wanna be me.”
In Pastors at Greater Risk, Neil and I ask, “What makes clergy marriages different from other marriages? What points of tension do we need to consider?” We named several.
When we were married, we made vows to God and to one another. When we were ordained into ministry, we made vows to God and to the church, but perhaps not to one another. In truth, if we are not careful, the competing vows do not leave much room for one another. It seems almost inevitable that the two will conflict.
Pastors are out saving the world, helping people through difficult circumstances, praying for healing, and preaching life-changing sermons. Then they come home to reality — their house is in disarray, their children are needy, their spouses are spent, their bills are unpaid, and their water heater is leaking. So much for the man and woman of God. Now the real work begins.
Management, not necessarily balance, becomes the key to overload. To be honest, I am not sure balance is possible. Management is.
Temptations accompany any people-based vocation — especially the ministry. Why? Because we encounter people in so many situations in which we might compromise our standards. We counsel and visit in homes and hospitals. We see people who are needy and alone, and we offer comfort. At times, we are bigger than life to some. Each one of these presents a threatening situation. At other times, we find ourselves believing our own press or we use questionable judgment that compromises everything. It is not worth it. Flee from it.
These three things in themselves — along with faulty judgment — can be threatening to clergy couples: lost perspective, grandiose ideas, and arrogance. Any of these can spell trouble for any occupation, but especially for those in ministry.
Maximizing a Ministry Marriage
Several things will minimize the negative aspects of your marriage and enhance your ability to minister more effectively.
Allow marriage to be an adventure. To have a satisfying marriage needs to be the goal of every clergy couple. Meeting this goal requires work, patience, and a great deal of give and take. You must not only continue to renew your commitment to one another, but you must also seek to establish a relationship with your church community that is fair and manageable.
Always keep your marriage growing. When you spend as much time as Beverley and I have spent together, you will begin to think alike, even completing one another’s sentences. You will not be able to fool one another any more.
But marriage is much more than just longevity. Couples need to drape their marriages in expressions of gratitude, and work toward healing when they break promises and speak harsh words. Marriage is a series of experiences that takes you from one event to the next — each event affects how you arrive at the next. You make progress as you unload negative baggage.
Heed the warning signals. Automobiles have a check engine light that comes on when a problem or a potential threat arises. The same thing is true with your marriage. The check-your-marriage light can come on at any time in your relationship. Nowhere in our calling do I find: “Have a successful ministry at any cost.” Do not allow the demands of the ministry to undermine your relationship. Stop. You must be proactive, protective, and pre-emptive of yourself and one another. Nothing is worth a dreary, unfulfilling relationship. Remember, the check-your-marriage light can come on regardless of who might be at the wheel.
Practice what you preach. How many times have you heard that phrase used to characterize your ministry? Add it to your home life. Neil Wiseman writes, “Practice grace, forgiveness, and mercy in the details of your marriage.”
Your relationship and the influence you have on others are powerful when you put biblical principles into practice. For starters, apply the fruit of the Spirit to each day you have together, even when there is a disagreement. Consider what the following biblical actions — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23) — would bring to your union if faithfully applied. When you live like this, our Lord will enable you to establish a high, transparent level of communication. He will celebrate with you “as an example to the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Put marriage on your calendar. Many of us in ministry live by our calendars. If we are good stewards of our time, we are faithful to our schedule. At the top of our list must be our family and their schedule.
This includes games your children are involved in, taking days off, and date night with your spouse. Every clergy couple needs to plan to spend at least one night each week together. We can deal with and resolve most family struggles if we can sit down and calmly work through the various aspects of our situation.
When you say to your spouse or children, “I am gladly taking time to be with you,” you are valuing them. You are giving them a place of honor. You are endearing yourself to them, and setting an example for them to follow in their own relationships.
I am convinced that every marriage can be better. Mine can — yours can. I also know for that to happen couples must pay a price. We must put ministry into proper perspective. Pray for one another. We must continually re-evaluate our relationships. One’s walk with the God who called us must be constant. An unselfish attitude must replace “my way or else,” and we must demonstrate in our marriages that the message we preach concerning commitment, integrity, accountability, and virtue are not empty words, but words backed by consistency. No one is always perfect, but we can always try to be sensitive to one another.
I received a call from a pastor who said, “Out of the blue this morning, my wife called my office and said, ‘Thank you for loving me and our family.’ I’m not sure what prompted her to do this, but it definitely made my week.”
He may not know, but I do, and I can imagine you do as well.
1. Tim Clinton, The Soul Care Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1982).
2. Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright Â© 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
3. H.B. London and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2003), 88.
for a Successful Marriage
Nutrient No. 1 — Prayer Produces a Fresh Perspective
Commit to pray together. Praying together gives a view of each other’s hearts that cannot be seen in any other realm. It gives a fresh perspective when you hear each other praise and confess sin. You begin to see each other in a different — and stronger — light.
Nutrient No. 2 — Prayer Produces an Increased Power for Your Relationship
Practice praying together, even before a crisis comes into your life. It is amazing the difference it will make in your life. When prayer is a serious part of your relationship, there is power in it like no other experience. Grace, mercy, and peace come from Christ when you go to Him in prayer.
Nutrient #3 — Prayer Produces an Increased Passion for God and Each Other
As you grow serious about prayer, you grow more passionate about each other. King David showed this kind of passion for God when he wrote: “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water. … Your unfailing love is better than life itself; how I praise you! … You satisfy me more than the richest feast. I will praise you with songs of joy. … Because you are my helper; I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 63:1,3,5,7, NLT).1
How would you like to have that kind of passion in your relationship with God and with your spouse?
Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D., Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright Â© 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.