A few days ago, Amanda and I celebrated our 34th Anniversary. We were married on September 7, 1985 at the Post Oak Springs Baptist Church. Our wedding was simple but beautiful. The church was packed. And our journey together has been quite an adventure with lots of unexpected twists and turns, a journey that has enabled us to learn and grow, and to make quite a few friends along the way.
Our wedding party was small by design. Amanda’s mother served as her matron of honor and my youngest brother served as my best man. The front of the sanctuary was decorated with a lush garden of ferns. After we recited our vows and exchanged our rings, the officiating minister served communion to us and asked God’s blessings on our life and ministry. It was quite a memorable and worshipful occasion, which is the ultimate purpose of a Christian wedding.
After a reception (which in those days featured wedding cake, nuts, mints, and unspiked punch) in the Fellowship Hall we departed for our honeymoon and the real work of marriage began. The merging of two lives is never easy and is often messy. Amanda and I have been blessed. We have tasted both the “for better and for worse” experiences of life, and our relationship has grown stronger during all seasons.
When it comes to marriage, I chose wisely. I resonate with Churchill’s assessment: My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.
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 challenges are unique. While every marriage has its challenges, a minister’s marriage is lived out in a distinctly translucent context which adds a few additional challenges:
• The glass house syndrome. A minister’s family life requires a little more transparency and is often scrutinized more publicly than the average marriage.
• The swinging pendulum of emotions. Because a minister deals with the emotion of everything in life from birth to death, a minister’s family is subject to lots of emotional fluctuation.
• The burden of confidentiality. A minister deals with sensitive confidential issues perpetually, and although a minister’s spouse is not privy to many of those issues, the duress of confidentiality often bleeds over into the minister’s home life.
• The flexibility challenge. A minister’s schedule is always tentative. Interruptions are a constant. Vacation plans change. Kid’s ball games and concerts are missed. A minister’s life demands extraordinary flexibility.
• The fatigue factor. Many ministers confess that they teeter on the brink of burnout or pastoral fatigue. A minister’s family must not only contend with a parent who is often physically or emotionally tired, but without a sense of balance and a time for refreshing, the weariness can drive the entire family toward “church burnout.”
According to Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.” Although this admonition is for the entire faith community, it is especially important for ministers.
To build a healthy marriage, a minister and spouse cannot be naïve to the aforementioned stressors, but rather should take proactive steps to navigate these challenges with faith, discernment, and intentionality. As we have grown through 34 years of marriage, we have gained a few insights into what makes marriage work for us:
• 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 will likely 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.
• Schedule time for dates. There is a lot of demand on a pastor’s schedule. Calendaring can often be like doing triage. Across the years I learned to calendar appointments with Amanda for lunch dates, dinner dates, sporting events, and other fun activities. Otherwise, my schedule becomes full and we will miss spending quality time together.
• Avoid taking the stress and stories of work home. Usually when a pastor leaves the office, that pastor is 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 occasionally needed to decompress by discussing an extremely stressful situation, I always tried to avoid discussing the daily debris of ministry with my wife.
• Take your off days and your vacation. I wish I had been a better practitioner of this insight. Only a couple of times during our 34 years have I taken all of my allotted vacation time. However, the older I get, I find that 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.
• Use extreme discretion in telling stories involving your marriage or family life. All of the congregations I served loved stories and they seemed receptive to illustrative stories from our personal experiences, such as our adventures in tennis, golf, or travels. However, I try to only tell stories that highlight and illustrate how our lives intersect with the application of the biblical text, and I avoid stories 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 books.
• 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. Monitoring and managing your health is a part of your stewardship of life.
• 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 wife, 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 especially love being married to Amanda. We have shared a partnership in life and ministry for 34 years now. And I look forward to many more.
(Barry Howard is a retired pastor who now serves as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife Amanda reside in Pensacola, Florida.)