Pastor, Don’t Ignore the Unhealth in Your Marriage (Part 2)

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In part one, I told you about the worst fight my wife and I have had to date. I warned of the perils of ignoring your marriage by overly prioritizing your ministry. The consequences can be disastrous. In this article, I want to lay out five practices of pastors who take their marital health seriously. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start if you want to avoid the marital drift that often happens with pastors.

Practice #1 – Find Your Identity in Jesus, Not Ministry

Pastors are a special class of employee because ministry is not just our job. It is part of our identity. We can’t leave our job at the office. We are on call around the clock. The stakes of our work are eternal. We do ministry because we can’t NOT do ministry. One day, we wake up and find ourselves having our primary identity in doing ministry. Instead of finding our joy, confidence, and fulfillment in Jesus, we find them in the work of ministry.

Paul Tripp says in his book, Dangerous Calling, “Either you will be getting your identity vertically, from who you are in Christ, or you will be shopping for it horizontally in the situations, experiences, and relationships of your daily life.” For pastors, the situations, experiences, and relationships of daily life are all about ministry. When pastors have a misaligned identity, they tend to work tirelessly trying to fill a void that only Jesus can fill. They may be having great success in ministry. Every success feels like a shot of adrenaline that spurs them to do more.

Instead of finding our joy, confidence, and fulfillment in Jesus, we find them in the work of ministry.

Unfortunately, our wives are the casualties of our misaligned identity. They stand on the sidelines watching as everyone and everything takes priority over them. When Wendy and I hit the skids, my ministry was better than ever. My roles at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary were expanding. People had confidence in my work. We were launching a new ministry, and God was bringing people into the ministry in droves. Our marriage conference ministry was exploding. Honestly, it felt GREAT.

Without realizing it, I had allowed ministry to define me. In many ways, ministry became my god. While God was doing great things, the joy of knowing Jesus was not where I was finding my identity. When our identity is found in anyone or anything other than Christ, then the priority of our marriage will follow suit quickly. The Apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:8, “More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Christ.”

Without realizing it, I had allowed ministry to define me.

Practice #2 – Connect Spiritually With Your Wife Daily

Pastors are notorious for discipling their congregations but failing to disciple their own families. As I meet with pastors, they often confess that they rarely pray or read the Bible with their spouses. They are in the Word daily for their own devotional life or in sermon preparation but find it difficult to carve out the time necessary to connect spiritually with their spouse and talk about spiritual issues.

One of the practices that catapulted our marriage to new heights of intimacy was prioritizing thirty minutes every day to get in the Word together. We began going through Devotions on a Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. In the very first devotional in Thomas’ book, he states, “A God-centered spouse feels more motivated by his or her commitment to God than by whatever response a spouse may give.” When we connect spiritually with our spouse, our God-centeredness becomes the primary motivation of our marriage, not what we see our spouse doing or not doing.

Practice #3 – Pay Attention to the Warning Signs

Marriages don’t spontaneously find themselves in marital crises. Usually, there is a long build-up with warning signs all along the way. What are some of the warning signs that you need to notice? First, a lack of meaningful communication is a dead giveaway for a marriage that is in decline. When marriages begin to drift, spouses stop communicating beyond the necessary logistical communication it takes for a family to function.

Second, spouses stop spending time together. When spouses begin to drift, they stop having fun together. They don’t enjoy life together. Because they feel distant from one another, they don’t feel a natural draw to spend time together. Instead, they fill their lives with activities that crowd out their couple time together. The common refrain of “we’re just too busy” or “don’t have enough time” is repeated over and over again.

Third, spouses consistently blame each other for marriage problems while rarely taking responsibility for their own shortcomings. As couples begin to slide into marital unhealth, their unhappiness increases. In healthy couples, each spouse knows that no one person is to blame, so each spouse takes personal responsibility to make things better. But in unhealthy couples, spouses point the finger at one another and are blind to their own deficiencies.

When spouses begin to drift, they stop having fun together. They don’t enjoy life together.

Fourth, spouses begin to dream of another life. When marriages begin to suffer, spouses often begin to dream of being married to another partner. Even if they are committed to the marriage and know they will never divorce, they fantasize about being married to someone else or having a different life. The longer they allow this fantasy marriage to take root in their mind, the more dissatisfied with their marriage they become. It’s always easier to enjoy the fantasy marriage than to work on your real marriage.

I could fill the pages of a book with additional warning signs. But for the brevity of this post, I won’t elaborate on them here. In short, don’t excuse away signs that things in your marriage are not going well. Don’t minimize the warnings. Recognize them and take them seriously.

Practice #4 – Schedule What’s Important First

Pastors are busy – too busy. Most of them work more than a 50-hour work week. Sermon preparation, meetings, hospital visits, and caring for an entire congregation takes time. The schedule fills up immensely fast. To keep all the activities organized, they develop elaborate calendars and ways of becoming more efficient with our time. Every available minute gets filled with meeting the expectations of others. What doesn’t get scheduled? Time with your spouse.

If you aren’t careful, you begin to operate under the “tyranny of the urgent” – only responding to the most immediate and urgent needs and tasks while pushing everything else to “later.” You make time for everyone else and everything else as it relates to ministry but rarely have time or energy for your spouse. Your spouse ends up getting the leftovers of your time and our attention. You inadvertently communicate to your spouse that your church members and church responsibilities are the priority.

You are in control of your calendar. Demonstrate your love and commitment to your wife by scheduling time with her. Choose at the beginning of every month to schedule talk times, walks, dates, and down times with your spouse. If you fail to schedule time with her, you’ll find yourself saying at the end of a month, “we need to find time to spend together.”  You don’t find time to spend with your wife — you make time to spend with your wife.

Practice #5 – Have a Weekly Check-In with Your Wife

One of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse and your marriage is the gift of intentionality. In ministry, we are successful because we are intentional about what we are doing for Kingdom advancement. We plan, strategize, prioritize, and evaluate what we are regularly doing. We rarely do the same things in our marriage. If you want your marriage to grow and your relationship with your wife to be strong and vibrant, you must plan, strategize, prioritize, and evaluate your marriage regularly.

Wendy and I meet weekly to answer five questions: 1. How would we rate our marriage this week? 2. What do we appreciate about each other this week? 3. What unresolved conflict or issues do we need to discuss? 4. What is happening in our calendar over the next week and the next month? 5. What is one thing we can do this week to show our love for one another? I teach this “talk time” or “state of our union” to every couple I treat in counseling. It’s one of the most transformative skills they learn. Prioritize this time in such a way that your spouse knows that you value them and your marriage.

Marriage and ministry are a joy and privilege. They don’t have to be enemies of one another. Rather, they can enrich one another. But, if you prioritize ministry over your marriage, you’ll lose joy and potentially lose the opportunity to do ministry. Don’t ignore the unhealth in your marriage. Admit it and do something about it.

  • Marriage
  • Pastoral Ministry
Tate Cockrell

Dr. Tate Cockrell serves as the Director of the DMin and EdD Studies and Associate Professor of Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to SEBTS, he was Pastor for Member Care at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham Alabama. He has been in ministry for almost 25 years, serving the local church and several para-church ministries. He has also taught adjunctively at five different graduate schools. Dr. Cockrell travels throughout the United States and internationally speaking in conferences on marriage, family, grief, parenting, divorce, recovery, and men’s issues. He has been married to his wife, Wendy, since 1993. They have one daughter, Tatum, and twin sons, Preston and Spencer.

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