The first year we were married and in full-time ministry together, my husband, Jeff, and I worked all the time, rarely finishing before 10-11 pm. One weekend, I counted 29 extra meals I served to university students we had invited to our home. Students would come and use our computer so late at night that they would see themselves out after we had gone to bed.
Probably not the best way to start building intimacy in our marriage!
We did get things sorted out, but it continues to be an area we both work on together. And important work it is. It’s possible to get so focused on ministry and the calling God has put on our lives that we get sideswiped in our marriage relationship, bringing us crashing down, and causing extensive damage to our spiritual life, the people we love, and our ministry.
Though both marriage and ministry are demanding, I don’t believe that God ever calls us to two things that conflict with one another. From both my personal experience and my training as a marriage and family therapist, I want to discuss four dangers in the area of ministry and marriage so that we can get a “heads up” on what we are up against. Then I will suggest five tools to help build marital intimacy.
Danger #1: Spiritual warfare
Satan would love to destroy our marriage and disqualify us in ministry. “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10a).
Here are two ways Satan may work to deceive our thoughts:
We can start entertaining vain imaginings and confusing thoughts. I remember a function we were at about five years ago where I saw an attractive woman, and I thought that Jeff would find her attractive as well. I started to have all kinds of vain imaginings about Jeff and this woman. My thoughts were out of control and not based in reality. At the same time, I seem to remember that Jeff was angry with me for something. (Isn’t it funny how I can recall that he was mad, but I can’t remember what I did?) Anyway, one day, it occurred to me that Satan was attacking our marriage. Once I realized this, I shared it with Jeff and we prayed about it — and it stopped.
We can start to rationalize our sinful behaviors. Satan can twist our thinking, and we can start to believe that compromising morally won’t affect our lives all that much because we can keep it secret, or that it really isn’t bad. Or, we can think that since our spouse is not meeting our needs, we have a right to meet our needs some other way.
A pastor who had an affair was asked how such a thing could happen. He said that he had convinced himself that God was allowing this relationship and saying it was OK because he was working so hard and deserved this outlet.
Danger #2: Our flesh
As wives, we can become resentful of the time our husbands spend in ministry, and use this as an excuse to feed our flesh or sinful behaviors. I imagine some of us are substituting other things for the lack of our husband’s attention: focusing on our kids, our career, our home, shopping, or whatever.
Another danger is to downplay the needs of our family, or to use the ministry as an escape so that we don’t have to address the challenges that may be at home, putting on the back burner decisions about the kids or issues with our spouse because we have important ministry work to do.
It’s possible to have an affair with the ministry itself. You may have “divorced” your spouse and “married” the ministry – seeking to have your emotional tank filled through your service. You may not have even done this intentionally, but the result can be similar.
Danger # 3: Our “it’s about me” culture
Our culture tells us that marriage should be self-empowering. A book came out a number of years ago called, Get Rid of Him. Its thesis: if your husband is not empowering you to be the best you can be, you can find someone else who will help you reach your full potential.
Our culture also offers us numerous choices every day: what to eat for meals, which car I will drive today, what clothes I will wear, etc. We are accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. But marriage is not a drive-through window.
Danger #4: The demands of the ministry
Needy people — Jeff and I were assigned to train another ministry couple one year, and it turned out that they had the same problem we’d had when first married. The husband’s philosophy was that if he wasn’t physically at work, he wasn’t working – even if he was working at home. The wife was a magnet for needy people, and would spend long periods of time talking with them on the phone. As the husband continued to work these crazy hours, the wife got so depressed she couldn’t take care of the kids. One time she got so frustrated, she got out a 10lb bag of rice and threw it all over the house! In ministry, needy people never go away. Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you”. If we take on the Savior role, or, as my friend Dave likes to say, “Manager of the Universe,” our families will pay the price.
A noble task — Who can argue about the nobility of the task of taking the salvation message to those who are lost and will perish without it? Or the job of equipping the saints? How can a spouse argue against time spent on such a noble task? Not only is it noble, but it is also ominous. The task is gigantic and the ministry is never done. You don’t just clock out and feel, “wow, I’ve finished my work for the day”.
Emotional investment —The emotional energy it takes to care for the spiritual lives of others is enormous. It is tiring to work in the front lines of spiritual battle while people’s souls hang in the balance.
So how do we hold the enormous task of ministry on one hand and take care of our marriage on the other? I believe God can empower us to have both a healthy ministry and a vibrant marriage. Here are five tools that can help you nurture and grow your relationship.
Tool #1: Boundary setting
Because ministry is so demanding, it is imperative that we set boundaries around our work.
“No” can be a good word — While we were on a vacation in Florida, my husband took flack for not returning calls, even though he had taken his cellphone along. But in the end, the universe didn’t suffer a meltdown, the family knew that they were a priority, and my husband got a much-needed mental break from the ministry. “No” can be a good word. People are usually in the ministry because they want to help people. Often we find it very difficult to say no. Saying no can be even more difficult if we think we are letting people down, or if we feel we are saying no to “good things.” I wonder what would happen if we said no more? Maybe more leaders would be raised up, who knows? There may be times that instead of saying no, we could just do ministry differently. Perhaps that item of ministry doesn’t need to be done right now or in the usual way. Think of new and creative ways of doing ministry. Remember that saying yes to others all the time means saying no to your family.
Find creative ways to spend time alone — Set boundaries around the number of evening and weekend commitments. Take a Friday/Saturday weekend away with your spouse. Or take a day trip on a Monday or Saturday. Schedule lunch or breakfast together. Whatever you can think of to spend time away from the phone and the demands of ministry, do it. By living out our priorities the way God intended: God first, our families (spouse, then children), then our ministries, we will set a good example for those under our spiritual care and guidance. We will also teach our children how to set healthy boundaries around involvement in activities outside the home. And our children will see that we place value on our marriage relationship and on spending time with them.
Tool #2: Sharpen your communication
Communication is the fundamental building block of intimacy in a marriage partnership. Here are some practical ways you can improve your communication.
- Identify and express your desires and opinions, rather than hinting at them or waiting for the other person to guess. Be specific; avoid making general statements.
- Express your desires positively rather than negatively. Communicate what you would like vs. what you do not like.
- Focus on your own ideas and opinions rather than those of the other person. Avoid blaming. Make “I…” statements rather than “You…” statements.
- Keep it fairly short and give the other person the opportunity to respond to what you are saying.
- Try to maintain symmetry with time and voice volume (not gradually speeding up or raising your voice).
- Hear the concerns of both yourself and the other person.
- Respond to the other in a way that takes them seriously.
- Build a single conversation cooperatively rather than maintaining two separate, competitive lines of thought.
Tool #3: Sexual intimacy
The demands of the ministry can leave us emotionally and physically drained. So make sure that your boundaries around ministry leave time and energy for your spouse and time to nurture your sexual relationship. It is interesting that Scripture does not outline a lot of specific behaviors in marriage, but it does teach about physical intimacy. Once we are married, our bodies don’t just belong to us, but to our spouse as well (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
Tool #4: The language of love
Find out what your spouse’s love language is, and then you will know best how to meet his/her needs. Is it touch? Time? Gifts? Words? Practical tasks? Often we make the mistake of thinking that our spouse would appreciate the same things we do. You can be breaking the bank buying gifts, and if your spouse’s love language is quality time, your money could have been better spent.
Tool #5: Everyday acts of caring
Small, frequent acts of caring are the lifeblood of positive relationships because they offer both partners signs that they are valued and that the relationship is important.
A decline in the rate of caring behaviors is an early sign that a relationship is about to undergo stress.
Both partners are likely to respond to stress by waiting for good feelings to return before acting positively toward one another, despite the fact that such good feelings grow from experiences created by positive actions.
Therefore, a helpful first step in improving the relationship is the planned increase in the rate of exchange of caring behaviors.
Here’s an idea to try. Each spouse chooses 15 caring behaviors they would like and shares their list with their spouse. They should be specific and easy to carry out (making a cup of tea vs. take me on a Mediterranean cruise). Then, each partner hangs their partner’s list in a private place. Plan to take four of these actions each day. Take note of the caring behavior expressed by your mate and even write it down, as you notice it throughout the day. In the evening, thank your partner for the action they took for you, and gently call attention to any of your actions that may have been missed by your partner.
Being in ministry is a very challenging place to be. There are a lot of real demands, both physically and emotionally. We have to be careful that we do not have such a singular focus on ministry that we neglect nurturing and building our marriage partnership. In a world where 30% of first marriages end in divorce, growing a strong marriage relationship will speak volumes to the world we are trying to reach.