Building a thriving marriage in the midst of ministry
I’m what many in the church refer to as a “pastor’s wife.” I haven’t always been one. I gained this title or label almost nine years ago when my husband, David, accepted his first pastoral position as associate pastor of our church. Up until then, we both had careers but were very involved in lay ministry together.
The day he accepted the position, I remember David smiling as he said, “I guess it’s time for you to take piano lessons!” We joked about what my role would be as a pastor’s wife. I responded with a teasing glare and told him, “That will be the day.” We both knew that the thought of fulfilling that stereotype was not me.
As time passed, I found myself completely surprised at how stressful David’s role as a pastor was on our marriage and on me. In the early days, I had an inkling that this would be difficult, but never anticipated the challenges we would face: the demands of ministry on your personal and family time; the frustration and concern of having a spouse always on call; navigating the unspoken expectations of the church; managing marriage and family needs; going through a church split and then helping it heal; the isolation you can feel; the lack of deep friendships; not knowing who you can trust at times; giving so much of yourself; and let’s not forget the spiritual attacks. As you know, these are just a few experiences of ministry which can quickly cause even the healthiest marriage to wobble.
Through the challenges, I have discovered some keys that help my marriage and me not only survive but thrive.
- Make self-care a priority. I believe that the health of the marriage is directly related to the health of the two individuals in that marriage. Self-care is looking after myself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I once believed David was responsible for caring for me and my needs. The problem was that he rarely did it well, and how could he? I am the only one who knows how to care for me and God has given me the job. When I don’t care well for me, I am easily frustrated, hurt and I’m not someone you want to be around. If my tank is empty, I have nothing left to give to my marriage or my ministry. However, when David and I are healthy, our marriage is a sweet place we both want to be.
- Give each other freedom to live your own lives. Research tells us thriving marriages are all about autonomy – the freedom for each spouse to be themselves and live his/her own life. For years I thought I had to be doing what David was doing, and in ministry we needed to be involved in the same thing. We are not the same people. We are two unique individuals in this marriage with different personalities, giftings and callings. When we allow each other the freedom to live the life God called us to, we are honouring the free will God has given each of us. The miracle is that rather than pushing us apart, it draws us together.
- Let go of perfection. It’s addictive and destructive. According to researcher Brené Brown, perfectionists believe, “If I look perfect, live perfectly and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.” If you’re like me, a recovering perfectionist, you hear a nagging voice of fear saying, “You’re not good enough,” and living perfect is my attempt to silence the voice and prove it wrong. It is a relentless taskmaster. Furthermore, it doesn’t end with me; I will demand perfection from David and everyone around me. Instead of demanding perfection of yourself, accept your limits and know with God, you’re enough.
- Talk about expectations. As married couples, we assume we know what each other is thinking, but truthfully, we are wrong most of the time. David and I have expectations of each other when it comes to roles, time spent together, family issues, ministry issues, vacation time, finances, household chores, in-laws and I could go on. Talking about expectations creates understanding, care, and connection, and minimizes disappointment, frustration, and conflict. May I encourage you to take it further and have a conversation with your church leadership about what they expect from you and your spouse. This can be so freeing for the non-salaried spouse.
- Cherish your spouse. Ministry demands a lot from each spouse and it’s easy to find yourself frustrated and in conflict. When this happens, we naturally lose sight of the person we fell in love with. Negative thoughts swirl around in our head along with statements like, “He never . . .” and “She always . . .” which only increase the hurt we are feeling. I’ve been here more than I care to admit, but I have found a tool to help pull me out of the swamp of negativity. It’s called a Cherish List. On my phone I have made a list of the good things I love, admire and appreciate about David. After conflict, I will stop and read them. My list includes things like: he is so caring; he is an amazing father; he sacrifices so much for our family. This one action can activate a shift in me to move from angry and hurt to compassionate and loving again.
As a married couple involved in ministry, we will face challenges that at times threaten our marriage. As we make God and each other a priority, we continue to find health, understanding and connection.
Vicki Hooper is a marriage intensive therapist with Focus on the Family Canada’s Hope Restored program.