A Pastor’s Relationship with his Wife: The Make-or-Break Relationship

In the introduction to his classic work A Handbook to Marriage, Theodore Bovet states, “Today for most people the man-woman relationship [of marriage] is decisive. It can lead to the discovery of self, neighbor and God, or it can lead to hopeless entanglement and inner ruin.” Strong words, indeed, but never more true than for a pastor. Without a doubt, a pastor’s marriage is the decisive relationship for his emotional, spiritual, personal, and even professional well-being. The quality of a pastor’s marriage will have an outsized effect, for good or ill, on his congregation. More than in any other vocation, a pastor’s marriage will impact his life’s work. It may matter little to the life’s work of a doctor, a mechanic, or a politician if his marriage is defective or fails. It makes all the difference in the world for the work of a pastor. The influence of a pastor’s marriage spreads far and wide among his flock and into the wider community.

Let me make some general observations about the importance of a pastor’s relationship to his wife, and then some specific thoughts on how we as pastors can strengthen our marriages.


The Divine Mystery

Marriage more than any other human relationship reflects the spiritual intimacy between Christ and His people, the church. In Ephesians 5:32 the Apostle Paul declares that marriage “. . . is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” In some mysterious way that the Apostle does not fully explain to us, marriage is like a miniature diorama of the cosmic drama unfolding between Jesus Christ and the people He is forming into an eternal people of God. A pastor’s marriage and the church are connected, not just for the pastor but for all the members. As a pastor and his wife strive to live their marriage with love and authenticity, they answer that ancient Prophet’s question, “How can two walk together as one?” (Amos 3:3). Their marriage reassures others that God can fashion a loving emotional, spiritual, and physical union out of two disparate individuals. 

The Credibility Factor

For a pastor, the most important sermon he will ever preach is the quality of his relationship with his wife. This is expressed in the observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you do speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” A healthy marriage helps authenticate your ministry in a way that no words can. When there is moral failure on the part of a pastor, the damage of his sin on his church is incalculable. It causes great sadness, disappointment, anger, and confusion for the congregation and for the wider community. Even if there is no moral failure, the quality of a pastor’s marriage will inevitably have an influence on the married and single members of his congregation.

An Eternal Legacy for Your Children

A happy marriage is the single greatest gift parents can give to their children. I still recall the sign that hung above the nurses’ station in the maternity ward where my first child was born. It read THE BEST THING A FATHER CAN DO FOR HIS CHILD IS TO LOVE THEIR MOTHER. That sign, displayed in a secular city hospital, made perfect sense and was a powerful message to every father coming to see his newborn. I’d paraphrase the sign this way: THE BEST THING A PASTOR CAN DO TO RAISE CHRISTIAN CHILDREN IS TO LOVE THEIR MOTHER. More than anything, Christian parents long to impart a love for the Lord to their children. An old American gospel song expresses it poignantly—“Will the circle be unbroken, bye and bye?” Little else matters in life if we do not eventually see our children walking with the Lord. While a good marriage in no way guarantees one’s children will grow up to walk with Christ, it makes sense that a good marriage not only provides children with a solid emotional launching pad for life, but it also goes a long way to validates what we say about the Lord to our children. Parents need not have a perfect marriage; no one does. Instead, strive for a marriage and home in which there is emotional warmth, tenderness, grace, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. The grace and forgiveness that husbands and wives can demonstrate to each other in the day-to-day frictions of a marriage will speak volumes to their children about the grace and forgiveness that God offers to them in the struggles of their lives.

The Crucible for Growth

His marriage is a pastor’s most transformative experience. Put simply, marriage is a couple’s best environment for spiritual growth. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Church regarded a celibate life dedicated to the service of God as the holiest calling of all. As the Reformers, especially Martin Luther, studied the Scriptures, they came to see that marriage and family life were a holy vocation and God’s primary means for Christian formation. Luther confessed that his own marriage to former nun Katharina von Bora taught him more about Christ and the holy life than all the years he spent as an Augustinian monk. He rightly understood it is the daily stresses, strains, and joys of a marriage, submitted to Christ, where the angularities of our personalities are smoothed and Christian character is best formed. In a healthy Christian marriage, each partner spurs the other on to a greater likeness to Christ.


Clarify Your Ministry Expectations

Early on in their married life or even before they are married, a ministry couple should have conversations about their own expectations for ministry, as well as the church’s expectations for them. Are both partners called to active, remunerative pastoral ministry? What is expected of the pastor’s spouse who works outside the home, or within the home, or both?  It is nearly impossible for a pastor’s spouse not to be involved in some way in the local church ministry, but unless there is clarity around both pastor’s and spouse’s roles, ministry can quickly overwhelm a marriage. When I received my first call to pastor, I was barely 30 and had been married only a short time. The church had the mistaken notion that my wife would be serving as the Sunday school director, as a previous pastor’s wife had done. My wife had a full-time professional career and was pregnant with our first child. I gently but firmly made it clear in my first sermon that my wife would be serving in the church as every other member did, according to her gifts, calling, and availability. That clarification seemed to satisfy everyone. In time, my wife held many different volunteer roles in the church, including Sunday school director, women’s ministry head, small group leader, and many others. Although we could have received a salary for some of the positions she held, we believed that would have reasonably subjected her to evaluation and possible criticism. A pastor never wants to be in the situation where he must defend his wife against his flock. As much as possible have realistic expectations of ministry life beforehand.  That being said, no pastoral couple is fully apprised of the conditions “on the ground” when your ministry starts. There is probably no other career where the educational requirements are so high, the hours so long, the criticism so intense, and the pay so low as pastoral ministry, so don’t add to the burden with misunderstandings about roles.

Put Your Marriage Before Your Ministry

The one adulterous relationship that is tolerated in today’s church is workaholism. Like all adulterous relationships, it never ends well. Mix a pastor’s strong need to serve with a vague job description and a congregation’s clamor for attention, and you have the recipe for workaholism. It will require strong work boundaries to push against this form of adultery. As pastors, we have more discretion over our work schedules than just about any other profession, so we have no one to blame but ourselves if cannot manage our time. If may take drastic action, such as rewriting your job description with your leadership so that it better reflects your spiritual gifts and strengths. It may require reorganizing your workweek according the rhythm of your personal or family life. It may mean leading longer term cultural changes in the church’s understanding of the pastoral role as “equipping of the saints for ministry” rather than the passive, consumer Christianity prevalent in many churches.   

Maintain Relational Boundaries

Boundaries are those usually unwritten guidelines that help us know how to proceed in our personal and professional lives. Boundaries help pastors avoid any inappropriate interactions with parishioners or those outside the church. They protect parishioners from abuse of pastoral power, and they safeguard pastors from false accusations. Here are some suggestions for boundaries:

  • Be aware of your own needs and find godly, appropriate ways of meeting them.
  • Be careful when accepting gifts from church members; be certain you are not expected to reciprocate.
  • Never discuss your own marriage or personal problems with those who come to you for help.
  • Limit your meetings with members of the opposite sex to regular hours, in church areas, and at times when other people are present. Avoid the “appearance of evil” by refusing to meet members of the opposite sex alone, even in public places such as restaurants. Be totally scrupulous in all social media contact with members of the opposite sex. Be open and honest with your spouse about your whereabouts and your personal contacts without betraying parishioner confidentiality where needed. Share your calendar, your bank accounts, your passwords, and your computer with your spouse.  
  • Be aware of any sexual feelings toward congregants or staff members. Because ministry can be relationally intimate, it is not uncommon to have feelings of attraction toward others you are serving or working with. Be honest in acknowledging these feelings to yourself, to your mentor, or to your spouse, but never to the person who is the object of these feelings, and never to a congregant or staff member. In your preaching, communicate to your congregation the value you place your marriage. One dynamic, young pastor I know includes his bio on his church’s website and lists among his personal interests “enjoying a glass of wine with my wife.” He is signaling to all that his marriage is good and sacrosanct. It is a gentle “keep off the grass” boundary sign.  

Find Joy in Your Marriage

Proverbs 5:18 advises, “Find joy in the wife of your youth.” Or as philosopher and spiritual formation expert Dallas Willard says in his book The Spirit of The Disciplines, “It is the responsibility of every Christ-centered follower to carve out a satisfying life under the loving rule of God or else sin will start to look good.” The expression “carve out” is apt because it takes deliberate, decisive action for a ministry couple to create the space needed for joy in their marriage. Local church ministry can be grueling, so it is essential for pastoral couples to create regular time and space for emotional, spiritual, and physical closeness. Have date nights and dinners out, preferably without the children. Find time for prayer together. Make the effort to attend pastors’ conferences or retreats so that you grow together spiritually.

Don’t Ask Your Wife to Be Your Best Friend

When a man tells me his wife is his best friend, I suspect he is really saying that he doesn’t have real friends. While a healthy marriage definitely has a companionable dimension to it, husbands and wives each need their own friends. Men find that friendships are often formed over shared interests such as sports or hobbies. In rural New England where I live, many pastors I know have forged strong friendships with men in their church and in the wider community over hunting and fishing trips. Out of these friendships can come mentors or accountability partners who will help boundary your marriage.

Finish Well

One of the Old Testament words for blessing at its root means to “be on the right road.” We can see how, in the ancient world, finding the right road as you traveled could mean the difference between life and death. We still think of blessing in this way when we talk about being “in the right place at the right time” or note that our children are “in a good place” in their lives. The Shakers sang of God’s blessing as a gift to be simple and free and to come down “where you ought to be.” The greatest blessing in life is knowing that you as a couple—or your children or your grandchildren—are “on the right road” in life, in the center of God’s will. The blessing and fruit that accrues from a lifetime of two walking together as one in the Lord in a happy, healthy marriage are beyond measure. Many times over a quiet dinner out, my wife and I will receive messages or photos from our children or grandchildren sharing events in their lives, and we shake our heads and marvel at the goodness of God in allowing us to have journeyed this “right road” as husband and wife.   

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