Marriage and Ministry Depression

Dr. Paddy Ducklow
(article used with permission)

Paddy Ducklow is the pastoral team leader at Capilano Christian Community inNorth Vancouver, BC and an occasional Professor at Regent College / CareyTheological College. He is also a registered psychologist and marriage counselor who specializes in therapy with clergy couples.


"Quit What?"

Pastors leave churches for about the same reasons that minister's and their spouses leave their marriages. I would guess that parishioners quit church attendance  and some even their faith, for similar reasons. Quitting is necessary, we think. The explanations for quitting marriage and ministry can be measured in pounds while wisdom to help clergy couples in their church and marital lives are weighed in ounces. In the stories of intriguing betrayal, exhausting valor producing soul fatigue and sin saturation, it seems that ministers and their spouses are trying to find out what to quit. "Dear church, we quit!" is a bold statement of despair about something. But quit what?

Some clergy quit the church they have felt called to serve. This means going back on what they believe (or have believed) to be God's will for them. Some ministers even leave their faith, while some simply leave parts of it. Parts like believing in compassion because they are burnt out, or parts like ever teaching on marriage because they have not seen God come through for their inability to talk with each other without hurt. Some clergy or their spouses leave the marriage by not praying for each other, by being too busy so as to avoid confrontations, by keeping conversation and sexual fun predictable. Some clergy couples court divorce. In the fragile balance of marriage, and the ever-delicate mobile of ministry, it is not uncommon for someone to call it quits because something important is not right.

In this article I propose to examine the typically cause and effect reasoning given for marital depression in clergy marriages. I also will comment on some of the explanations with a circular perspective of causality utilizing a systemic family therapy model. I will suggest several "system defaults" with practical "how tos" for the clergy dyad, family and church family. Also note that I have consistently used male pronouns for clergy persons. 

A Catalogue: Enemies of Ministry Marriage.     

I have catalogued from my conversations with clergy couples 14 "enemies of ministry marriage." Some of the stressors are unique to the parsonage but most are just human experiences with a bit of religious flourish. Nonetheless, these stressors are frequently reported by clergy couples who want to quit their marriage, their ministry or both.

Spiritualized adultery (or the daily reality of the church becoming the "paramour") seems to lead the list in clergy marriage complaints. This is the pastor loving his work more than the domestic life. Ministry, for the pastor, is never just a job; it is a "calling", a life-style commitment.  Hence, the compulsivity of it. (Ephesians 4:1 "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.")

"I tried to explain my behavior as immature zeal to serve God but this was yet another spiritual-sounding defense, totally unacceptable. The real issue was whether I loved my work more than I loved my wife. The ministry had clearly come between us. I had never imagined that a call could become a seduction that would destroy a marriage. Nor had I been aware of how subtly a ministry can give one an inflated view of his own importance. How sinister that I could be deluded into believing that it was somehow all right to neglect my wife at a time when her needs for companionship and support were great. What is worse, that I would set her up for spiritual alienation at the same time." (Graeme Irvine, acting president of World Vision International.)

There is no profession on this planet where the ideals, the values, the principles, and the professional commitment are so much part and parcel of one's work. "Doctors and lawyers are affected by their belief systems, but the work of the clergy is belief system."  Beliefs being the essence of being, for most ministers their work is their life. The distinction between getting one's value from being rather than doing doesn't work here. Ministers are doing their being.

However, the compulsivity and intense "oughtness" of ministry usually have more to do with running from something plaguing the minister than running devotedly to something more noble. This is the stuff of extended family field.  The "lust" of much of ministry has the emotional coloring of systemically working out one's history.

Pastors are supposed to give themselves unstintingly and uncomplainingly to God's work while they somehow manage to be husbands and fathers whose families model Christian domestic virtues. Koehler studied 119 Baptist families whose wives kept an accurate account of the minister's time. His research reveals that most pastors (approximately 75%) spend no more than 4 waking hours a day at home. This includes eating meals, watching TV, reading, home upkeep and spending time hacking around with the kids. He also discovered that less than half of the churches think its important that their pastors take one day off per week. True to form, according to their wives, most pastors almost never took a sabbath. Wives of pastors complained because their husbands were on call 24 hours a day, their schedules varied according to the demands of anybody else, and that the occasions when he did spend at home, he was lost in some absent reverie that seems much like simple exhaustion (not meditation or prayer).

The emotional over-closeness or enmeshment between church and home. The perseverating nature of church stress and the impossibility of isolating it from the marriage/family can promote some particularly unhealthy triangles in a poorly differentiated clerical family.

For clergy more than any other profession, work and the family system plug all too easily into one another and significant changes in either system may unbalance the other. That is, changes in the clergy family constellation can be experienced by the congregation in unanticipated ways to the couple. The predictable developmental changes in a congregation, as well, impact the security and satisfaction of the marital dyad. This confusion or over-closeness of church and family "boundaries" can be experienced by the clergy couple as a lack of privacy, as an inability to set limits on congregational intrusiveness, by having to be "up front" even when things for them are falling apart. This means that in order to insure its overall family health, differentiation of self and the setting of clear boundaries is even more imperative.

The marriage dyad can feel trapped by too many said and unsaid expectations (theirs and others) while both husband and wife feel compromised with competing expectations. This is the soup of much marital consternation. The clergy spouse can feel herself to be a pastoral appendage, rather than a teacher, or a business consultant, or a homemaker, or a construction worker, or a musician (etc.). When personal identity is lost (perhaps to gain marital and church stability or to please someone somewhere) the oomph of life is lost, burnout is blazing and the couple are well on their way to marital depression

One particular aspect of the over-closeness of clergy couples with the church is that the couple's rhythm is often set by the intensities of the church life. Successes at church become celebrations at home, while tragedies in the office produce a morgue-like atmosphere for the family. The bipolar nature of emotions undermines the necessary security of even good marriages and is covenant-threatening to weak ones. At times like this, even the strongest couples talk about quitting.

Sexual temptation and vulnerability. It is God's design (Gen.1:26ff) that our sexuality is never far from our emotionality and spirituality. 

So-called "pastoral indiscretion" impacts too many clergy marriages. Leadership reported that 70% of pastors felt that they were particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation. 23% reported that they had done something sexually "inappropriate" with someone while in the ministry; 12% identified this as adultery.

Adultery is a major temptation to the clergy partially because ministers empathize with the spiritual and emotional struggles of wounded people daily. They get “sadness saturated” and soon become “sin saturated” as well. Note: very few minister's wives ever confess to being involved in adultery. These clergy spouses may have many opportunities to care for the needs of others and may be as worn down with the tales of sin as their spouses. But they tend to restrict their helping to the same sex, whereas the minister is not so constrained and cannot be.

Not all clerical adultery is so worthy of understanding. Some ministers are perpetrators, pure and simple; they live off the weaknesses of women and children. These seedy clerics know that when a congregant is experiencing a spiritual high or is bio-chemically depressed, that she is emotionally and sexually vulnerable. ("Transmarginal inhibition" is lowered by positive, often spiritual, emotion.) These clergy marriages are divorce-probable though they may be so fused that the spouse defends the minister for fear of collapse of family and faith. A stable and supportive wife will be essential for the adulterous pastor. However, fused relationships seldom permit the kind of flexibility that permits honest dialogue and change. Counseling would be helpful but it is interesting to note that at the most difficult marriage times, the clergy couples are as reluctant to seek out professional help as they are unwilling to approach denominational leaders for support.

Many clergy also seem more naive than most congregants about sexual temptation. Being "above it all," having a casual over-familiarity with God and with people, can mean that they are surprised when seduction happens to them. Blumstein and Schwartz comment that "couples who attend church or synagogue are not more monogamous that those who do not.... However attached people may be to religious institutions, they do not seem to be insulated from the temptations of the flesh."  This is too true of the clergy.

"Who owns me anyway?" Many clergy couples complain about the stress between being your own person and the problem of being many other person's parson. This is the ultimate intrusiveness: letting others who are not God own your soul, your marriage and your future. The clergy couple become extensions of the needs and wants of their congregants and the church that they serve. This is most visibly experienced in time and intimacy loss.

Ministers with weak egos may find their personal identity totally determined by the expectations and role models expected by the church. "The pastor arrives, little expecting himself to be what others think he is, but as the demand becomes to be the interior decorator, financial wizard, parish priest, prophet, and king, his once weak personal role becomes strong. Implicit roles defined by his parish begin to be incorporated into his life. The incompetent pastor, now believing that he is the authority on virtually everything in the church... almost ignores the concept of the priesthood of all believers...".

Identity issues are not solved by donning a clerical voice and a "take-me-serious" handshake. Having the capacity to define one's own goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say "I" when others are demanding "you" and "we", is the furnace in which identity is forged. Religious types, ever-so-careful to offend no one, seem to avoid the necessity of insisting upon their own identities. For the wife, to be "differentiated" means to be first and foremost a person (e.g. "Betty") than to be an ego extension of the church that assumes that "when we got Harry we got her as well." It includes the capacity to maintain a relatively nonanxious presence in the midst of too often highly stressed family and church networks, to take maximum responsibility for one's own life and marriage mission and psycho-spiritual being.

Differentiation can be effectively measured by the breadth of one's repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. Being differentiated is not doing one's own thing supported by the tithes and offerings of the congregation; it is neither narcissism nor autonomy. It has to do with how the clergy couple connects (not separates) with the church. Differentiation means the capacity to be an autonomous "I" while remaining in good connection to the larger "we" of the church. It has to do with what you got into the ministry for: to invest your lives serving God and leading people to God. It has to do with staying out of the trap of serving people and asking God to rescue you from your fatal attempts. For the minister and his family, it is being part of the body without having to be all the organs, skeletal and excretory structures all at once.

A better question than "who owns me?" is "why do I let others own me when I've already been redeemed at such a great price?"

Role diffusion and role confusion. A tremendous demand laid upon the evangelical clergy is that of handling multifaceted roles that call for a battery of diversified skills rarely found together in any one individual. Pastoral work defies but requires a succinct job description because it is a hodgepodge of responsibilities.

Samuel Blizzard in his survey of 690 clergymen concluded that the Protestant ministry requires six overlapping roles: administrator, organizer, pastor, preacher, priest, teacher.  It is asking too much of any one minister to be omni-competent. He will fail or scrape a bare pass on several of these roles. The experience of some clergy, especially in smaller churches, is that the spouse is covertly intended to supplement the lacks of the minister. Quite apart from her gifting, she may be required to fill a role that she neither wants nor is competent in.

Both clergy and his wife need to ask themselves hard to answer questions. “Am I gifted at this?” “Do I find deep level satisfaction in this work?” “Am I blessing my spouse and children first?” “Is what I am doing consistent with what I am discovering myself to be?” These questions can not always be answered in the affirmative.

The friendlessness  of the ministry. This is a most common complaint of clergy couples and it relates to where you kick off your psychological and spiritual shoes. It relates to who can you talk to, confess to, shoot the breeze with, unload upon, even when its about your spouse. Friendlessness is an important variable in marital depression and is a reliable predictor of things going wrong in the relationship of family and church.

Let's think about this positively for a minute. Pastors are ordained and thereby lifted by many to a loftier level of divine/human relationship. They are thought to be set above the rank and file of everyday believers. They are God's human creature superlatively, engaged in a task that, unlike medicine or engineering, involves eternal values. In their ministerial role, they are the parson- that is, the person, the foremost person in their spiritual community. Read how J. Sidlow Baxter exhorts his fellow ministers to be living reproductions of Christ: "Each of us who dare to represent Him in the ministry of His church is meant to embody a replica of His character." According to Baxter this entails a character that is "1) intensely spiritual, 2) perfectly natural, and 3) thoroughly practical."

Now let’s feel the weight of this glory. These noble anticipations can preclude the simple human needs of marital friendship for the clergy couple. As well, how does a clergy spouse live with such grandiosity? Pastors and their spouses surely ponder with Paul, "who is sufficient for these things?" and may live in persistent psychic discomfort as self-condemned hypocrites. Nothing is more necessary for the ministry couple than people who are peers; where respect doesn't always have to be one way; where expert status is represented according to gifts and not roles; where the glory of Christ is seen in the church, His bride, and not just in the idealized ministerial family.

But friends are not what most clergy dyads have in abundance. One of the pastors on my staff after serving in the church for 10 years found the crushing loneliness of friendliness when he paused long enough for a holiday. Lots of acquaintances, more contacts than a life insurance agent, as many clients as private practice therapist dreams of, but no friends to golf with, except his mate (who shouldn’t be expected to like golfing). Valeriano surveyed 166 ministers wives and termed it the "pastor's wife paradox": "90% of the wives count their roles joy but... 56% report no close friends and 20% say that people tend to shy away from them just because they are pastor's wives."

The task of finding friends appropriate for both husband and wife is extremely difficult especially for young clergy. It has traditionally been taught that the pastor and his wife should not form intimate friendships within the congregation to avoid jeopardizing the pastoral role. This may be okay for the pastor who has opportunity to meet and greet others through various ministerial and business contacts, but not necessarily so for the cabin-fevered wife. The church may be her only social group.

But there is another more contemporary concern: in dual career marriages, the wife's friendships might be largely secular. This can be a great opportunity for living your Christian life and establishing a separate identity. It can also be an enormous cultural cavern such that both find themselves increasingly uncomfortable in each other's worlds and with each other's friends.

Maintaining spiritual passion and concern to empower one another for marriage as well as ministry.Sometimes it’s hardest to pray for and with one's spouse, especially beyond the rote.

I conducted a recent pastor's conference on the theme of "spiritual life in marriage" and the issue of shared prayer was hotly debated. I found it interesting that about half of these clergy couples (about 35 couples married from 1 to 45+ years) didn't pray together regularly and seldom read the Scriptures with each other. Of the "did nots," most of them felt that this was okay for them and claimed to have good marriages. Of the "dids," they seemed a bit miffed that the "didn'ts" didn't and were quick to propound their successes as a result of their shared devotion.

This issue seems not so much whether couples have devotions together (though this is good) but how they decide to, or not to. Now this is a pretty controversial statement. It runs in the face of much well-intended advice, that couples simply solve their problems and build their marriage by praying together. For the ordained, they are in the business of praying, and some of these clergy types have told me that this was a way of avoiding intimacies with the spouse!

Roth's research on 147 married Christians attending churches in Southern California provides support for the hypothesis that "lived-out spirituality is an important factor in perception of marital happiness." Devotions together, attending joint worship services, tithing to the church, all are factors that correlate with marital satisfaction. While she is not surveying the clergy, her study supports the assumption that family worship and practice enhances the experience of marital satisfaction. It is a frequent complaint by wives that their husbands do not pastor them or their families.

Dealing with unpleasant emotions. Living under the imposed (self and other) obligation of "Christian cheerfulness" is a tough enemy for ministry marriages to handle. Where do we go to fight, to complain about the unfairness of the system, or about significant lay leaders who manipulate the church hierarchy? Emotions that hurt are hard to handle if the couple feel they have no right to have hard feelings or have nowhere to go to get help.

Gary Collins speaks to the minister's inability to manage himself while he specializes in managing others. "One characteristic of many Yuppies is that they are very good at managing their careers but not the other parts of their lives. I think pastors are like that sometimes. They are better at managing the church than managing their families, their bodies, their time, or their spiritual lives. And we don't prepare them in seminary. The only thing we taught them was how to manage the Greek text."

Some years ago, I asked a group of church leaders what emotions caused them the most difficulty. Anger was at the top of the list, followed closely by depression, lust and fear. To me this all sounded quite normal, what the unrobed would also say. But to this clergy group, just saying it was a tremendous liberation and validation. Ministers can have particular difficulty with their own feelings while able to deal quite expertly with others'.

Jealousy in the marriage relationship is one of those tough to handle feelings for clergy couples. It can happen frequently because sometimes it is easier to tell your heart to anyone else (e.g. friends, staff members, elders, etc.) than your spouse (the "Oh, nothing" syndrome). Non-communication is the first stage of adultery and, in fact, the initial practice of marital separation. In other words, talk with your spouse even when you don't feel like it and listen even if you are too tired. Emotions buried end up being problems resurrected.

Financing the family when all the church can afford is not enough. (Luke 12:34 "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.") The despair over whether I'm worth it or whether I can do anything else and earn this kind of money.

Ministers frequently face the demand of maintaining a life-style comparable to the standard of their parishioners, while living on a lower salary that does not allow for all the pleasures. The authors of the research project "Clergy Families in Canada" spotlight financial stress as the most crucial element in clerical job dissatisfaction. "There is little doubt that the ministry is the poorest paying profession."  "In our culture money is an important ingredient of job satisfaction (and hence self-esteem), ministers whose incomes are low may feel inadequate and dissatisfied, and may eventually look for another job."

Yet as God's servants, devoted to transmundane realities, pastors condemn themselves if they are concerned about their insufficient incomes and not-keeping-up life-styles. As followers and proclaimers of a certain homeless Nazarene, they tell themselves, one ought never to complain about money. On the other hand, if ministers are well paid and enjoy a bourgeoisie life-style they may feel guilty because of their semi-affluence. "Having begun our careers with commendable idealism, many of us wind up in middle-life thinking, 'I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord, if I can be guaranteed the comforts I am accustomed to'."

Blumstein and Schwartz rank money matters as the most commonly controverted issue with married couples. They also observe that studies over decades rank money problems as the major marital problem plaguing between one quarter to one third of all married couples. 

"Fights about money management were hardest on couples in the early part of their marriage. It is in the early years of the relationship that married couples have to come to terms with each other's spending habits and find a way to coordinate their financial values and styles. If the same conflicts emerge later on, the marriage has proved durable enough to withstand the turmoil.”

Manse kids going their own way (not the way "they should") in the context of a highly public and "model" family.The bind/double bind problems of pretty good Christian families.

The emotional interlock between work and family can promote some particularly unhealthy double binds in a poorly differentiated clerical family. All parents double-bind their kids to some extent, and every family has its own particular style. But for manse kids, the minister and spouse may try to control her or him in terms of the parent's congregational role. The acting out child ("acting away" from control and perhaps even faith) may have more to do with the child not being willing to function as extensions of the parent's ego and image.

Larson and Golz report that in their 1994 study of nearly 1300 Canadian clergy couples that the highest level of marital stress for clergy was their perception that they had failed to fulfill their share of family responsibilities. They particularly feel defeated in their responsibilities as a father to their children.

The "expert factor." This relates to never being able to get the quality of help you imagine yourself to give. Pastors are seen and believe themselves experts in the matters of theology and living out their Christian lives and feel reluctant to seek help from others when help is most necessary.

The problem of professionalism is especially true in the cleric's own family of origin. He is the family's identified clergy person with all the consequences such identifying process has for a fixed role. One result is that he can get professionalized right out of friendship and intimacy. He can also get professionalized right out of everyday humanity. Perhaps a greater problem with professionalism is that the clergy person likes it until it doesn't work for him and then he, the expert, does not know what else to do. The expert factor consequences great loneliness and role resentment. It also frustrates the spouse who is not much interested in bedding a budding sex therapist ("I don't care what Ed and Gay Wheat have to say about this!").

The unhappy commitment to hierarchy and role rigidity in marriage and family. Forced compliance in the name of what should be is damaging for many pastoral couples and is a frequent source of complaint in the evangelical world.

Devotion to life "as it should be" (e.g. rigid rules and hierarchical structure of authority) is one of the biggest significance-satisfaction killers and reality-avoiders in clergy marriages. At the same time, well-defined hierarchies can be a stability and a support to troubled and depressed marriages and families. My biggest concern about marital-family hierarchies (as Christians seem to use them) is that rigidity in religious hierarchies has the potential to lead to significant abuses in the Christian home (e.g. sexual abuse of children, exploitation of the adult woman)  while retaining support of the church leadership.

The standard-bearer. Belief that the clergy couple is to be a model of moral and personal perfection (the “goldfish bowl” syndrome). What are clergy families to model? How about modeling a family and marriage that goes through growth stresses and joys with grace and humility?

Louis McBurney, ever-realistic, says that "ministers are human beings, and the quicker they recognize their humanity, face their limitations, and get help when they need it, the sooner they begin to escape terrible consequences. Ministers are not perfect and they don't have to be." 

If clergy are to bear a standard of excellence before God’s people, what should the standard be? My persuasion is that clergy couples need to model distinctive biblical processes, not necessarily meritorious outcomes (e.g. like having compliant kids or never getting upset when lesser mortals would). Clergy couples should model how to disagree and reconcile while respecting each other's dignity; how to overcome humiliation without retribution; how to say 

“I’m sorry and please forgive me” with genuine repentance; how to affirm thoughtfully without great return; how to let their kids not be so churchish; how to ask questions when you don't know all the answers; how to pray the bible and then obediently and naturally live it; how to fail in the right direction so that failure in the wrong direction is less likely.

Our being perfect as Christ is perfect is more God's job, than ours. And this does not mean having to bear an unrealistic standard of perfection for the congregation.

The minister's personality. Susceptibility to guilt, self-analysis, self-pity, withdrawal, and introspection; periodic "call" questioning: the anxious, guilty and obsessive personality of many ministers.

Of course, there is not collective personality for the minister. McBurney, however, argues that ministers are particular in the same way: "(Ministers) learned in early childhood that they have more value if they didn't have needs... they find it difficult to admit to weaknesses... they find it difficult to get close to people, and they are frightened by revealing their dependency needs... People's ideas about God mirror their attitude toward their parents, especially their fathers. This is true in almost 100% of ministers I see." He also says that ministers suffer with really poor self-esteem: "Low self-esteem or self-image is the number one problem that affects ministers."

To be sure, there is no minister's personality, but ministers who get in emotional and family trouble will often reflect such thoughts. The same is true for the minister's mate, though she may to be more differentiated than her husband and is thus less reactive to developmental issues.

System “Defaults” For Growth For the Clergy Couple. 

Reading the above catalog could make anyone depressed! Many (if not most) clergy marriages are highly satisfying to the both and are remarkably stable through complex social and family stressors. However, healthy couples (clergy or otherwise) do not come for counseling and marital therapy.

The following "defaults"  are designed to make a change within the overlapping systems of marriage and church. They are for the most part circular proposals; that is, they are not so prescriptive (“do this”). These proposals may be mildly controversial because they are designed to promote an inner re-examination; because they do not view the minister's burnout kindly; and because the assumption is that the minister needs to look after himself and stop waiting for circumstances to take care of him (he came to shepherd the flock, not for the flock to shepherd him).

#1. Decide as a couple that you will both take the stance of the sideline coach rather than the omini-competent professional. The sideline coach (if you watch hockey) is an interesting character. You see him questioning, changing, interrupting, being more "crazy" than his team. He is also supportive and affirming of his team and his fellow coaches. The best coaches tend to be cool and a bit aloof when too much craziness is damaging the over all mission. The side line coach is an excellent metaphor for clergy who tend to be too rescuing of those in the church while misusing the courtesies of the family. It is possible as well to adopt the same posture with extended family gatherings (e.g. Thanksgiving dinners at the in-laws).

#2. Model intimacy and immediacy ("I" statements help). Church leaders need to think of themselves as persons with ideas, feelings and beliefs that are their own. However, often clergy got caught as a public spokesman in representing the faith or the church, discounting their own convictions. Stop speaking for God, your spouse and your kids. Let them talk for themselves. "We" statements communicate that someone is fudging something.

#3. Make it one of your ministry goals to further differentiate from your family of origin ("it’s never too late to grow up"). This does not mean separate from your family or to reject what it is that is most valuable in their gifts to you. It means to sufficiently manage your emotions and habits to more autonomously decide the fate of your life and ministry. It means to learn to please God more than the inner workings of your history. Counseling can be very helpful here.

#4. Practice the power of “benevolent disinterest” in handling urgencies. This is the power of the nonanxious presence; not that anxiety is not experienced, but that life’s most important decisions are made when anxiety is less.

Members of the clergy often function as transformers in a psycho-spiritual electrical circuit as far as the church and family are concerned. To the extent that they are anxious, then, when the anxiety in the congregation saturates their lives, it becomes potentiated and feeds back into the congregational family as a higher voltage. By this time the anxiety has quite a zap to it. But to the extent that the clergy couple can recognize and “dial down” their own anxiety, then, they function as step-down transformers, or perhaps circuit breakers. In that case, the presence, far from escalating emotional potential, actually serves to diminish its "zapping" effect. The nonanxious presence of the clergy family to the congregational family has a healing effect.

This same advice is relevant to the clergy dyad. Her nonanxious presence in the face of the minister's imagined rejection, minimal compliment, or experienced failure, functions as a power transformer. Hyperventilating to the rhythm of the manic-depressions of the minister probably won't help; thoughtful and planful listening without interruption and correction and comment probably will. The potential value of listening is not that listening is so great but that the nonanxious presence of the listener is. Have you not felt such in talking to God and experiencing his nonanxious Presence in prayer?

#5. Practice an attitude of gratefulness, an enjoyment of the friendly in the midst of the muck; this attitude will detoxify any emotional situation. This is a discipline, not a spiritual gift or a personality attribute. You, in other words, do not get it-- you work towards it. This is especially important when handling criticism.

Find a way of being non-reactive to criticism (and its ugly twin sister) comparison. Criticism hurts, especially to clergy who are trying so desperately to please God and balance the demands of ministry and life. But criticism and comparison can also be major killers to the spouse who gets to have her rejection from her fasting and meditating “better-half.” Accept the fact that ministry means stress that you can't stand, that it is a job that you can't do, that trying harder will never be enough, that your good intentions will seldom be acknowledged, and that your body and mind cannot take it. But accepting the cost of ministry does not mean you need to role over and bleat and slobber.

It is important to remember that hostile congregations and marriages never victimize anybody automatically. The response of the clergy dyad to their social environment is almost always the main factor that determines how harmful the stressors will be. To the extent that they can reduce their anxiety with such awareness, the less likely it is that they will go to the extremes of prematurely capitulating, victim-like, or hysterically overreacting in an "autoimmune", self-destructive response.

#6. The importance of the life-giving value of playfulness. The capacity of the clergy and their families to be paradoxical, challenging (rather than saving), earthy, sometimes crazy, and even human often can do more to loosen knots in a congregational (or family) relationship system than the most well-meaning "serious" efforts. Please understand me: lets be serious about serious things, but lets not filter everything through the mud of solemnity. Much of life is trivial, hysterical and kinda unimportant (I know this is hard to accept if you've been to Bible school).

Playfulness for most clergy take some planning. Many ministerial types would do well with some marital unseriousness occasionally. Couples can schedule "honeymoons" every 6 months or year. Some clergy couples have weekly "dates” even if it is just to visit Starbucks weekly and talk about how much you would save if you moved to a small town. Also, weed your evenings weekly from un-good things. Uproot time-wasters, energy-destroyers, anxiety-producers and eros-avoiders. Time off can mean the phone on the answering machine, the lights dimmed, and "Forest Gump" on the video. What a wonderful way to begin the next day’s Sabbath.

#7. Learn how to fail effectively. It seems true to me that clergy have so few successes because of their obsession to not fail. If we considered failure inevitable for us, then we would need to determine how to fail effectively so that success was possible.

Everybody fails. The question is in what direction do you fail? If you fail in the genuine pursuit of loving Jesus Christ then this is no real failure (though it may be a lousy sermon or an uninspired weekly bulletin). Succeeding in the wrong direction is no success. It’s like spending your life collecting the most toys and discovering that you don't win after all. Failure happens; it can even be okay if you are pointing in the right direction (look at Peter in the NT for some encouragement on how to fail right).

Fellowship groups of pastors can plan times in which they talk about, be accountable to, and pray for one another regarding the temptations and stresses of the ministry. This takes an honest acceptance of one another’s failures. But ministers usually sabotage such meetings by having speakers, advertising programs, and by talking concepts rather than relating personally. They are also very competitive places ("how many come to your fellowship?") and, in their own religious way, highly critical ("we need to pray for more unity among the leaders"). My advice: watch out for these meetings. Unless they can be vulnerable enough to share failure and kindly help you deal with yours.

The everyday practice of the eight most important words in marriage (or, for that matter, church politics) help in the depedestalizing of the minister: "I'm sorry. Please forgive me. It's my fault". Just the occasional saying of this phrase is liberating for the leader and for his follower.

#8. Understanding the relationship between satisfaction and expectations. Expectations kill, not because they are so bad in themselves, but because of its relationship with reality. If the more you expected somebody or yourself to do something, the more you or somebody actually did it, then it would be okay.

But expectations seem to have no lasting effect lasting on reality. Churches pump expectations hoping to change the world as it is. The oughts, shoulds and musts of the church kill the reality of Christian life. What happened to the pleasure of your early marriage? An "ought" got it. What happened to the joy of your ordination? Expectations crushed it. What happened to the simple reality of enjoying worship of your Saviour? Did the zeal of a "must" get it. It is the gap between expectations and reality that hurts the most. Some with low expectations match their reality fine and they are completely satisfied. My experience with the clergy is that their expectations are so high that reality can never measure up and, hence, they want to quit their marriage or ministry or something.

Consider the following formula: "Satisfaction equals reality over expectations.” Satisfactions plummet as expectations exceed reality. Marital dissatisfaction increases as expectations do not approach reality. The issue is not necessarily to lessen expectation, but to increase reality. Marriage counseling is the process of increasing the bits of reality to correspond to truthful expectations.


The problem with most troubled marriages is that both partners are trying to accomplish far too many things in the world, and in the process, like Martha... they neglect the 'one thing needful.' Next to the love of God, the 'one thing' that is by far the most important in the life of all married people is their marriage.... Nothing on earth must take precedence... (not) even 'Christian work'."

Many clergy couples are blessed with a stable and satisfying marriage. In fact, solid marriages are more typical in Christian ministry than those couples who are the subject of this article. But for those who struggle because of the stress of ministry and marriage and feel like quitting (something), Mason’s words are wise. “Next to the love of God, the 'one thing' that is by far the most important in the life of all married people is their marriage.... Nothing on earth must take precedence... (not) even 'Christian work'.”

1 Throughout this article I will assume comparisons between the nuclear family and the church, as is accepted in most evangelical churches and in the family therapy literature; see Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation (New York: Guildford, 1985).

There is no current research that I could find on clergy marriages with the woman as the pastor. However, in the church I led previously, we had 2 women pastors on our staff with husbands playing supporting roles (as far as church work is concerned) and the pronouns may be quite interchangeable. Future research certainly should study clergy marriages where the woman is the pastor

See Les Steele, "Adult Developmental Periods and Protestant Male Clergy" in Journal of Psychology and Theology (1988, 16:1), pp.15-20.

Graeme Irvine, "Reflection", in Grid, Winter, 1990.

Friedman, op cit., p.210.

Extended family field” refers to our family of origin (original nuclear family) plus all our relatives and those who acted as close family. This is relevant to how we were then; but it is also one of the major influences on how we are today. "When family members are able to see beyond the horizons of their own nuclear family... they can obtain more distance... and become freer to make changes" (Friedman, op cit.,  p.32).

John G. Koehler, "The Minister As Family Man" in Mace, What's Happening to Clergy Marriages? (Abingdon, 1980), pp.63-66.

“Differentiation” may be described as the "degree to which one is able to adapt, that is to cope with the emotional demands of relationships and obtain one’s goal.”

Reading the mystics, it is hard to distinguish sexual and spiritual ecstasy. The "night watches" at camp meetings during the American revivals were to keep liaisons at a minimum (some say that more souls were conceived than converted).

This delightful euphemism means "sin". It is hard to believe that pastors are sinners so we think of their sin in the "whoops" category.

Leadership, Winter 1988, Vol.IX, Number 1. Also see Grant Martin, "Love Addictions and Extramarital Affairs" in Regaining Control: When Good Things Become Addictive (Victor, 1990).

John C. Blattner, "Unmasking the Great Unmentionable" in Pastoral Renewal, 1988, pp.11-17.

McBurney guesses that about 5% of clergy adulteries are as a result of spousal unfaithfulness. See "Private Sins of Public Ministry" in Leadership (1988, IX:1), pp.14-23).

“Fusion” relates to extreme connectedness within the family. This is a "when I scratch, you itch" kind of problem. In my experience this identity and life enmeshment is considered virtuous and desirable in many evangelical churches.

Lyle Larson and Walter Golz, Clergy Families In Canada: An Initial Report. Task Force on the Family, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada: September, 1994.

Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, American Couples (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p.285.

V.B. Gillespie, "Religious Conversion and Personal Identity" quoted in Les Steele, "Adult Developmental Periods and Protestant Male Clergy", Journal of Psychology and Theology (1988, 16:1), p.17.

Reactivity to anxiety results in much triangling, secret formation and emotional cutoffs. A nonanxious presence has less to do with not feeling anxious than it has to do with not responding out of the anxiety experienced.

Samuel Blizzard, "The Minister's Dilemma," cited by Mace, What's Happening to Clergy Marriages? (Abingdon, 1980), p.62.

Webster defines friend as "a person one knows well and is fond of". Roget’s Thesaurus lists 35 synonyms for the word friend. Proverbs offers more than 40 verses dealing specifically with friendship. The major word understanding the meaning of friend in the Scriptures in "neighbor" and this is used more than 80 times.

J. Sidlow Baxter, Rethinking Our Priorities: The Church, Its Pastor and People (Zondervan, 1974), p.145.

 Pat Valerino, "A Survey of Minister's Wives" in Leadership, (1981, 2:4), pp.64-73.

Patricia Roth, "Spiritual Well-Being and Marital Adjustment" in Journal of Psychology and Theology (1988, 16:2), pp.153-158.

I first heard this upsetting phrase in a lecture by a prominent psychiatrist in the late 70s. He was talking about depression and how as Christians we should put on a good face or our witness to the world would be damaged. My experience is that pre-believers are looking for a genuine faith and a real God, and that our emotions witness if we are genuine. Our joy needs to be as righteous as our anger.

Gary Collins in Dean Merril, Clergy Couples in Crisis, (Leadership Library, 1985), p.25.

Larson and Golz, Op Cit., p. A 3. See also: Gerald J.Judd et al, Ex-Pastors: Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry (Pilgrim, 1970), pp.76-78.

Vernon Grounds, "The Highs and Low of Ministry" in Craig Ellison, Your Better Self: Christianity, Psychology and Self-Esteem (Harper and Row, 1983), p.186.

Daniel Walker, The Human Problems of the Minister (Harper and Row, 1960), pp.77-78.

Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, American Couples (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p.309.

Larson and Golz, Op Cit., p. A4.

I don't mind the grace-saying at weddings. It is the "what does the pastor have to say about this?" type of question, usually addressed by an in-law that goes to a church that doesn't believe in remunerated clergy. The "IP" or identified person (parson?) is selected by the family system to bear the particular responsibility of a role (e.g. the sick one, the achiever, the lost child, etc.). The purpose of thinking of the person as "identified" is to avoid isolating the rolled person that has occurred by the process of displacement.

Paul K. Jewett, "Theological Issues in Domestic Violence" in Fuller Theology, News and Notes (June 1982), pp.2-22.

Louis McBurney, Counselling Christian Workers (Word, 1986), p.27.

Louis McBurney, "A Psychiatrist Looks at Troubled Pastors" in Leadership (1980, 1:2).

These ideas are adapted from Murray Bowen. They are meant as a new system of defaults and not as prescriptions that will work in every circumstance. But I think they are probably better defaults than most of us have programmed in.

In Larson and Golz, Op Cit., p. 51. “Over 84% report that they were satisfied with their family life and nearly 45% reported that they were very satisfied.”

“Defaults” is a computer term and relates to the normal set-up of the system. Marriages have defaults that have been prescribed by their family of origin, church culture or by other means of choice. It is valuable for the clergy couple to occasionally examine such defaults to see if they are how they want their family and marriage to be set up.  Mike Mason, "The Mystery of Marriage"