In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott suggests, “A good marriage is where both people feel like they’re getting the better end of the deal.”
However, I can readily identify with Winston Churchill’s assessment: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”
Amanda and I celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary Sept. 7. We were married in 1985 at Post Oak Springs Baptist Church near Jacksonville, Ala., her home church and my first pastorate. Since that time, our journey together across these 37 years has been quite an adventure with lots of unexpected twists and turns, a journey that has enabled us to learn and grow and to forge a remarkable number of treasured friendships along the way.
After a reception in the Fellowship Hall, we departed for our honeymoon, and the real work of marriage began. Even for a pastor and spouse, the merging of two lives is never easy and often messy. Amanda and I have tasted both the “for better” and the “for worse” experiences of life, and our relationship has grown stronger and more durable as we have confronted obstacles and embraced opportunities.
Marriage is perhaps the most unique of all human relationships. The privilege of partnering with one person for life is a blessing and a challenge. But for the pastor’s family, the stressors are specific and peculiar. While every marriage has its challenges, a pastor’s marriage is lived out in a distinct context.
“Most pastors are satisfied with their spousal relationships.”
According to research released in 2017 by the Barna Group, most pastors — 96% of whom are married — are satisfied with their spousal relationships. Seven out of 10 say it is excellent (70%), and one-quarter considers it good (26%). By way of comparison, less than half of all married American adults rate their marriage as excellent (46%), and one-third says it’s good (35%). So, by and large, pastors report greater marital satisfaction than the general population. They also divorce at lower rates: About 10% of Protestant pastors have ever been divorced, compared to one-quarter of all U.S. adults (27%).
I certainly believe God calls ministers from a diverse pool of candidates from all walks of life. Although marriage is not a qualification for ministry, the majority of ministers currently serving are married.
Marriage for ministers and faith leaders is not a piece of cake. Minister’s families are not exempt from miscommunication, financial worries, parenting issues or serious health concerns.
Fawn Weaver insists, “Happily ever after is not a fairy tale. It’s a choice.” When it comes to marriage, it is important for all couples to make wise choices and to recover from not-so-wise choices.
To build a healthy marriage, a minister and spouse should take proactive steps to navigate the peculiar stressors of ministry with faith, discernment and intentionality. As we have grown through 37 years of marriage, we have gained a few insights into what makes marriage work for us as a pastor and spouse:
- Embrace the uniqueness of the “ministry life.” Life for a minister’s family is not abnormal. It is just a different kind of normal. We try to live into the uniqueness rather than avoiding it or denying it.
- Avoid unrealistic expectations. You likely will encounter a few church members who have unrealistic or idealistic expectations for your work schedule, your preaching topics and your family life. You will be a more effective minister and you will have a healthier family life if you live out of the wellspring of your gifts and convictions and not the expectations of others.
- Set reasonable boundaries. There are two extremes: One is to set no boundaries and be available and accessible 24/7. The other is to set rigid boundaries that are not sustainable, such as “no evening meetings” or “no funerals on my off day.” Almost every boundary has exceptions in times of trauma or emergency.
- Schedule time for dates. There is a lot of demand on a pastor’s schedule. Calendaring can often be like doing triage. So, I schedule appointments with Amanda for lunch dates, dinner dates, sporting events and other fun activities. Otherwise, my schedule becomes full and we miss spending quality time together.
- Avoid taking the stress and stories of work home. Often when I leave the office, I am still in ministry mode, making evening visits or phone calls, working on preparation for upcoming services or processing the events of the day. And while I may occasionally need to share news about a death, illness or event that will soon be made public, I generally avoid rehashing the specific details of ministry with my spouse.
- Take your off days and your vacation. I am still working on this. Only a couple of times during our 37 years have I taken all the vacation time provided to me. However, the older I get, I find it is more important to take time to rest, refocus and rejuvenate, for my physical health, my spiritual health and for the health of our marriage.
- Cultivate friendships outside your congregation. Although we have developed treasured friendships with members of the congregations we’ve served, we have been blessed to have friends outside the church with whom we have visited, dined and traveled. With friends outside the church, we can enjoy a social outing without thinking about church matters.
- Use discretion in telling stories involving your marriage or family life. Our congregation loves stories, and they seem receptive to illustrative stories from our personal experiences, such as our adventures in tennis, golf or travels. However, I try to tell only stories that highlight and illustrate how our lives intersect with faith, fun and friendship, and I avoid sharing illustrations that are intimate or critical.
- Do ministry together occasionally. Amanda has her own passion for ministry, and she invests her time and energy in serving, just like any other member of our congregation. However, we occasionally enjoy making hospital visits together, engaging in mission projects together and even reading and discussing the same devotionals, books or Bible passages.
- Take care of your health. During our wedding, we pledged to be faithful to each other in sickness and in health. Obviously, we prefer to be healthy. We do a pretty good job of keeping up with our doctor’s visits and we are proactive in caring for our health.
- Learn when to say yes and when to say no to invitations. We enjoy being socially active, but there is no way to say yes to every invitation. It is a biblical imperative to “let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
- Keep growing, together. I don’t think anyone, especially a minister and spouse, ever reaches a point where you can put your marriage on cruise control. A healthy marriage requires ongoing nurture. There is a big difference in growing old together and getting old together. We want to grow old together by continuing to grow spiritually, intellectually, and intimately.
A healthy marriage may not necessarily make ministry easier, but an unhealthy marriage certainly makes ministry more difficult. If you neglect your marriage in order to preserve your ministry, you are likely to lose both.
I love being married and I love serving as a pastor. And I hope to enjoy both in some way for an extended season. Amanda and I have shared a partnership in life and ministry for 37 years now. And I look forward to many more.
As Robert Browning penned, “Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.”
Barry Howard serves as pastor of the Church at Wieuca in North Atlanta. He also serves as a columnist and leadership coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.
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