The Secret Life of a Pastor’s Wife (or Husband): Ministry Marriages

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This morning, I was  made aware of a headline about another prominent Christian leader who resigned due to an affair (Actually, both husband and wife had affairs). My heart aches for this couple, their extended family and their church family. Unfortunately, this seems to be occuring more and more. Or at least being made public. Which is both good and bad. Good because coming clean with God and others is best. Bad because who wants their ‘dirty laundry’ aired for all to see?

What causes a pastor, minister, or their spouse to have an affair? How is this prevented? How can we be proactive to invest in our marital relationship? How can we be more protective of our marriages? I don’t pretend  to have the answers. Yet, I continue to ask the questions.

Although I have never personally been in this situation, I have journeyed alongside of dear friends who were on either side of this scenario. And some things just don’t make sense, can’t be figured out, or easily explained. All I knew to do was to love them, to listen to them, and to pray for them (and their kids). It wasn’t pretty. It was messy. It wasn’t something that was easily forgiven or fully forgotten (by either party). It was heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. And the casualties were many and varied.

Absolutely no one is immune to relational difficulties in marriage, not even pastors.  The reality is that ministry life can be a pressure-cooker of unrealistic expectations, never-ending demands and prioritizing work over marriage and family to ‘get the job done’. There’s a fine line between doing your job well and sacrificing your marriage on the altar of ministry. Sadly, many cross this line without even realizing it.

And I’m well aware that folks who work in professions across the spectrum experience these to some degree. Yet, unlike other professions and vocations, when one works in vocational ministry, a marital impropriety not only altars the marital relationship–oftentimes, dissolving the union–it brings about relational carnage with extended family, especially children; as well as causing disillusionment and mistrust within the congregation of which the pastor was shepherding; not to mention, potentially sidelining the pastor from ever working in vocational ministry again. Thus, leading to a plethora of other issues to navigate: financial, vocational, relational. And at the top of the list: spiritual.

Just last week, I was listening to a podcast where Donald Miller was sharing about how to avoid the “performance trap”.  He, specifically, related this to pastors and ministers. Addressing how they feel the pressure to perform, or to always ‘be on’. Never giving themselves permission to go unmasked.  Never having found a safe place to land. Never having developed relationships with safe, trusted friends outside of the ministry context with whom they can share their dark side in a healthy manner. Therefore, they seek out expressions and experiences which are unbiblical, unsafe, and unbecoming of the ordination vows for which they took.

Both the news of which I heard today and the podcast that I listened to last week, hit home with me. Why? Because both my husband and I are pastors. He is the Lead Pastor (full-time) of the church where I serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time). In addition, I also maintain a piano/voice studio of 20 students. And we share the responsibilities of homeschooling our two kids (ages 10 & 12).

As much as we adore our pastoral responsibilities and church family, we don’t allow the work of ministry (or other vocational endeavors) to come before investing in our marriage or nurturing our children. Of course, there are ‘busy seasons’, but it’s just that: a season, not constant. During these types of seasons, we are in on-going discussions. Giving one another the opportunity to express concerns and needs. Together formulating a plan how best to navigate our vocational responsibilities without sacrificing our marriage or family on the altar of ministry.

It’s been a journey to get to this point. One that has required each of us to listen both to what is spoken and to what is unspoken. In marriage, we’ve discovered what one doesn’t say is much more important than the words that are voiced aloud. It’s also been a time in which we’ve learned to give and take. It’s not just about me, or my husband, or even our kids. We have learned to make decisions for what is best for our family unit, not merely an individual.

So much so, that during a particularly trying season in our lives, we resigned from a church position where the leadership expected my husband to work 60+ hours, in addition to being out four nights during the week with work responsibilities, meetings, etc. Quickly, we realized this pace wasn’t healthy for him, our marriage, or our children. Was it scary? You bet! Were we misunderstood? Yep! Did we care? Nope! Early on, we realized if we don’t fight for our marriage and make it a priority, no one else will. Not even the church we serve.

Years ago, one of my mentors shared with me that you train others how you will allow them to treat you. And it’s true. We realized it was necessary to have and maintain healthy boundaries, to invest in our marital relationship, and to prioritize the needs of our family. Do we always hit the mark? Absolutely not! Nothing is ever perfectly balanced. EVER! We don’t always get it right, but we are committed to never giving up!

So what have we done?

TAKE DAYS OFF
Perfect, we are not. But we make sure to take our days off. For us, those are Monday and Tuesday. In ministry, emergencies do arise. But thankfully, our church staff doesn’t call us unless it’s a true emergency. Likewise, we don’t call upon our staff on their days off unless it’s a true emergency, and their presence is absolutely required.

Mondays are our Sabbath. We rest. All of us, even our kids. No work, no homeschooling. As a rule, Tuesdays are for running around, doing errands, completing house/yard work, etc. By prioritizing and setting aside these two days, we are better prepared for the demands of ministry, the emergencies that do arise, as well as day-to-day responsibilities of home and family.

Although I have another job (music studio), I have made the decision to organize my work schedule to match my husband’s to where we have our days off together. This has prohibited financial gain and reduced the number of students I’m able to accept into my studio. But once again, my marriage and family are more important. In the midst of it all, we’ve learned to live below our means, maintain a creative budget, and to be frugal with our finances, especially with residing in a high cost-of-living area. This affords us the opportunity to work lower paying jobs because we are called to them. As a result, quite a bit of stress has been taken off of us.

FAMILY MEALS
Gathering around the table is just as much (if not more) about nurturing relationships as it is about nourishing appetites. Even though we have non-traditional work schedules, we make family meals a priority. The meals we eat together isn’t always dinner, but it’s at least one meal during the day. No matter how busy we are with work or kids’ activitivities (this is another discussion, but we keep these to a minimum), each day, we eat at least one meal together. This provides us the opportunity to check-in, communicate, and simply enjoy a nice meal with the people we love. Sometimes, we have to get really creative. Case in point: This past Christmas Eve, both of us were on pastoral duty at church. So, I made a crockpot of soup, and we enjoyed a Christmas Eve family dinner at the church in the conference room.

DATE EACH OTHER
After 16 years, we continue to date. Even when our kids were much younger, we made sure to have a weekly datenight. Since we have never lived near extended family, specifically grandparents, we’ve had to purposefully and specifically budget for babysitting, date nights. We’ve been blessed by having two college/seminary students live with us who gifted us a weekly date night for a few years. Best gift ever! And one that we never took for granted. We also got creative with date nights at home after the kids go to bed. This was much easier when they were younger, and their bedtime was 6:30/7PM.

You do not have to “keep up with the Joneses” when it comes to date nights. Get creative! Breaking the bank or busting the budget doesn’t have to happen when it comes to date nights. Can’t afford an expensive restaurant or dropping $50 at the movie theater? No worries. Cook a simple meal at home, then enjoy it on the deck or at the table with fine china. Then, watch a Redbox movie! (It’s only $1). This is totally what we do!  It’s still a date, but much less expensive.

Sometimes, we take a walk in our neighborhood sans kids! Can I just say there’s a newfound freedom since they can now be home alone for a small amount of time. Occasionally, we go out for a coffee. Or simply make coffee at home; then, sit around the fire pit talking, dreaming and connecting. A couple times a year, we do it up right, and go into the city to catch a show and enjoy a restaurant meal.  Mostly, though, it’s smack-dab in the middle of the ordinary and mundane that we purposefully connect with one another. 

HAVE NO SECRETS
Although I trust my husband implicitly, and he trusts me, we don’t keep secrets from one another. We may have surprises as in a special gift, or celebration. But we don’t keep secrets in our family. If our children tell us something, and ask that we not share it with the other parent, they know that we simply can’t do that. What you tell Momma, she will tell Daddy, and vice versa. Unless, of course, it’s a surprise.

In the age of technology, how is this practically applied? Well, we simply give each other access to everything. We share log-ins, passwords, everything. Rarely, do we feel the need to ever read one another’s texts or emails, but we know the other as complete access. We are open with one another. We are honest with one another. And having an intuitive spirit and being a confronter, if concerns ever do arise, they are nipped in the bud pretty quickly.

Over the years, my husband has learned to trust my instincts. We have been in a coupe of churches where certain ladies were getting a bit to clingy and flirty with him. To be honest, he was a bit oblivious, but my radar zoned into it almost immediately. And he trusted my instincts. He trusts me, and I trust him. In the same token, there have been folks who gave me the heebie-jeebies and he listened to me, and never left me alone around these particular individuals. Don’t have secrets. Even if it’s awkward to share, or you are concerned about overreacting, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

And for the record: This no-secrets and open-access policy within our marriage goes hand in hand with ministry. However, because I work for my husband on his pastoral staff, there are things I simply don’t need to know about regarding people in the congregation, or don’t want to know for that matter. Although, we don’t keep secrets, as an associate pastor on his staff, I am on a need-to-know basis. If I need to know, he tells me. If I don’t, well, there ya go!

GO TO COUNSELING (OR A MARRIAGE RETREAT)
You don’t have to be at the point of no return before you make a counseling appointment. Pastors, worried that your congregation might see you in the waiting room? Good! If you see them you know they’re working on their marriage. If they see you, they know you’re investing in your marriage. Be proactive. Don’t wait until a minor problem has snowballed to seek help!

Over the years, my husband and I have attended a couple of Marriage Encounter Weekends, and are now part of the ministry team. Marriage Encounter is for every marriage. Regardless of whether you have been married for five years or fifty-five, you will benefit from attending one of these weekends. You will gain new insight, new communication tools, and find new levels of closeness as you and your spouse examine your relationship to each other, and to God. ClICK ON THIS LINK for more information about Marriage Encounter. 

SAFE PEOPLE
Having served in various roles in vocational ministry for the last twenty years, I totally understand that as a ministry family, you can’t share all your ‘junk’ with people in the congregation.  No matter how close you are. And for the record: I believe (and know) you can have good friends in the church. Some of you may have been told otherwise, but that’s HOGWASH!

Even still, you have to be smart about what and to whom you share. Therefore, it is imperative that you have friends, mentors, and safe people—known to both husband and wife— who are not in your congregation. In these relationships, you can ‘take off the mask,’ get real, and be yourself. Not having to ‘perform’, be the pastor (or pastor’s spouse), or have all the answers.

For the last several years, I have met monthly with a spiritual director who works with Soul Formation, an organization who is committed to the spiritual and emotional health of Christian leaders. My spiritual director,  listens to me, and, sometimes, sits in silence with me as we listen to God; prays for and with me, and seeks God on my behalf. Personally, I don’t think anyone in ministry leadership should go this road along. And I would highly recommend that all who serve in vocational ministry meet regularly with a spiritual director. Someone needs to pastor the pastor (and the pastor’s spouse).

GIVE ONE ANOTHER SPACE TO SHARE
Especially as a ministry couple, it is important to give your spouse space to express his/her needs and concerns. Even if, or especially when, you do not want to hear it. If either husband or wife is feeling as if the church is the ‘other woman/man’ in the relationship, something has got to change. That’s not how God ever intended for it to be.

I’m a confronter, so I’m quick to express my concerns. On the other hand, my husband is a stewer. Nevertheless, we have learned the importance of giving one another space to express our concerns, our hurts, our fears, our failures, our needs, our wants, and our dreams. And we are able to share how our work – specifically the work of vocational ministry – may be negatively impacting our marriage relationship.

In closing, please know, we know we don’t have it all together. Neither do we have it all figured out. These are simply a few things we implemented in the early years of our marriage, and continue to practice to this day. Ministry friends, your marriage is important. More important than a position, a job, or your image. Invest in it! Prioritize it!  Protect it! 

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