Jake and I have had many conversations with couples who struggle in their marriages. Sadly, many of them feel alone and that their problems are unique. People in ministry have even more of a tendency to project an image of the perfect Christian marriage, yet grapple with deep issues in private.
Ministry has a propensity to demand much of marriage and we see all across the country, more and more couples burning out and find their marriages in shambles.
Four years ago we found ourselves in this exact place. Jake had burned out working as a Youth Pastor for a church with unhealthy expectations and it took a huge toll on our relationship. As we made a much needed move to a new church and things began to slowly improve, we realized something.
Much of the hurt, pain, and struggle we experienced could have been lessened had we admitted our problems to others and sought help.
We found it difficult to accept that our relationship was crumbling…we had only been married two years at that point. This was still supposed to be the honeymoon stage! However, as we eventually sought counsel and began to share our true reality, we recognized that Christians and especially those in church leadership positions have an impossibly high standard for marriages. We recently watched a YouTube video called Happy Face Christians which depicted a family fighting on a Sunday morning before church. As they leave home, each grabs a happy face mask to wear. When they return home from church, they put the masks down and continue to fight.
If all of us would be honest, we’d admit that this happens in ministry marriages all the time. Church leadership roles often come with the unspoken expectation that we aren’t allowed to have problems, especially when it comes to marriage and family. We feel that if someone finds out about our imperfections, we’ll be somehow disqualified from serving and unfit to lead.
Jesus has a different idea. We’re challenged as Christians to confess our sins to one another and pray for each other…“so that you may be healed!” (James 5:16) There is something healing, intimate, and healthy about sharing our difficulties with others.
In John 15, Jesus talks about being the vine and his followers are the branches. Specifically, in John 15:5, He says that if we remain in him then we will produce fruit. A lot of us get caught up in the producing fruit part. We ministry workers feel the need to prove ourselves by displaying “fruit” even if it’s not, in fact, real.
What we forget about farming is that in order to grow fruit, you sometimes need a heaping pile of fertilizer to prepare the soil.
At the beginning of James’ letter to Christians, he tells us to “consider it pure joy whenever we face troubles…because it will teach us endurance…which in turn, and over time, will make us perfect.” (James 1:2-4)
This progression is important because it shows us that growth goes hand-in-hand with struggle. Think about your own life, your marriage, and your relationships. Isn’t it the times of conflict, struggle, pain and hurt that have taught you the most and challenged you to grow in your character and understanding? When you share these times with others, don’t you find it eases your own pain and also helps the person you’re confiding in?
When Jake and I look back at our years of dating and marriage (10 years together!), we like to define it as a “Holy Mess”. The holy parts of a relationship go hand-in-hand with the messy parts and in fact, to have a truly deep and Godly relationship, you can’t have one without the other.
So how can we as couples in ministry change our marriages for the better?
First, we can strive to conquer the fear of “fertilizer” in our lives. Our God can take the messiest of situations and turn them into beautiful stories of grace and salvation. Having faith in God during the midst of marital difficulties isn’t easy, but as we stop being afraid of admitting our problems, we allow God to begin to work and heal those issues.
Second, we need to invite others into our lives by sharing the good and the bad with them. Whether it is a good friend, ministry colleague, spouse, or counselor don’t keep your “fertilizer” to yourself. Find someone to talk to, so that together you can tend the garden of your life, pull out the weeds and produce some good fruit. As we learn to allow others into our true realities, we’ll find healing, redemption, support, and courage for the future.
Networking with other ministry workers/couples in your area is an awesome idea as well. Try to create a space where you all come together to worship and pray, but also share marital and ministry struggles. The goal should be to encourage and help one another.
Lastly, we can be bold and work together to change the perception that ministry marriages should be perfect. Whether it’s a church, pastor, or parishioners that have this expectation, we can gently and wisely begin to share the concept of the holymess of marriage. You can also prayerfully consider how God could use your past struggles and triumphs to help someone who finds themselves in the thick of a similar situation now. We’d be willing to bet that you and your spouse didn’t make it through alone, but that someone supported you in your time of need. Now it is time to do the same for others.
If you’re facing difficulties in your marriage right now, we want to encourage you that there is hope and you are not alone. We’d challenge you to seek help through a counselor, mentor, pastor, or friend and begin to open up about your challenges. Ask for prayer and advice. You’ll find that many others have experienced similar things and can guide you towards health and healing.