Pastors rarely feel like they can step away from their ministry responsibilities. They feel “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. One pastor explained, “After being an active listener for a lot of other people, I really struggle being interested in my spouse and children and what’s going on in their lives.
How do pastors respond to this strain of ministry?
Many of them continue to press on, ignoring the family consequences until a crisis occurs. One pastor said “I didn’t realize the strain that ministry was putting on our marriage. I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted or what it should be. Yet at the same time, I’d just keep going. Then, when we got away for a while, it all came crashing down. I feel like the toll on my family—the damage to me, my wife, and my son—has not been worth the fruit of the ministry.”
How often do you feel like you are truly off the clock?
Pastors need to counter the demands of ministry with responsible self-care. Exercise, days off, Sabbath, vacations, sabbaticals, hobbies, firm boundaries, and the pursuit of interests outside of the ministry are some of the most helpful ways to break the emotional and intellectual pressures of ministry obligations. When spouses and children are involved in these same self-care activities, the benefits multiply.
Does your spouse serve as a “nuclear dumping ground”?
Frequently, spouses are the only safe people with whom to share candidly the conflicts, disappointments, and stress of ministry. Pastors say things to their spouses they would never share with anyone else. Ministry spouses watch their partners suffer from the criticism, crises, and conflicts that come with the job. Since the information is usually highly confidential, the receiving spouse has nowhere to share the burden and no power to settle it. Later, when ministry leaders resolve the problems, the spouse is frequently left holding the pain, unable to bring closure to the experience.
Pastors need to have relationships with significant allies and valued confidants in whom they can openly disclose what they are facing and how others relate to their leadership.
What can be done to address the emotional cost to both spouses and children?
While there are wonderful people in every congregation, there can also be people who are angry and mean. Yes, the sheep can bite. Pastoral couples must pursue ongoing conversations about how to manage the emotional fallout of ministry.
These conversations should include discussions about how much spouses are expected to handle. The overall objective should be for spouses to feel connected to the concerns of their partner who is pastoring but not become crippled by the emotional difficulties. Take into account that people have different capacities to manage negative issues in a healthy manner. There is a continuum between “need to know” information and knowledge that becomes too stressful to bear.
Many pastors believe that, if they worked really hard during a particular season of ministry, there would be more time for spouse and family when the church reaches a certain milestone—the size of membership, the hiring of additional staff, or a level of income. But the pastors agreed that the next goal would always be looming on the horizon. “Do you think things will change when you reach that milestone?” “No way!
How do pastors choose wisely between family and church responsibilities?
1. Recognize the strategic role of ministry spouses.
Over time many pastors may begin to take their spouses for granted. When pastors acknowledge the importance of their spouses as ministry partners and learn from them, they will find their spouses to be one of the most important resources available for their own growth. However, this will not happen if they place their loyalty to the church above their commitment to their spouses.
Ministry partnership is a fluid concept that must be regularly negotiated between the pastor and spouse. Being unified in their understanding of what the spouse will do and how the spouse feels called to participate can prevent a great deal of stress.
2. Disappoint others.
You will probably need to disappoint people when it comes to the proper care of your family or yourself. It is impossible to be in ministry and not disappoint others.