Why Pastors need to love their spouses first and why we moved out of the East Central neighborhood.
The Lord had to remind me that…I was married.
“For a single man is focused on the things of the Lord and how he may please him. But a married man is pulled in two directions, for he is concerned about both the things of God and the things of the world in order to please his wife.” -1 Corinthians 7:32-33
This is a story of me coming to terms with the pastoral life as a married man, learning to love my wife first and embrace the call of God to be a husband, parent and then pastor. Not everything I will share is what happened to us as a couple or was LeeElla’s experience, but these are true tales of ours and others in ministry. Everyone has to figure out how to navigate these challenges in marriage, but pastors have a few unique challenges.
Being reminded that I am married, might sound ridiculous but give me a moment to explain how in ministry, one can come to assume or even demand that wives in ministry are supposed to take a backseat to the call of God, which in practicality means…everyone and everything else. Something my wife has done wholeheartedly as unto the Lord, with passion and vision and unyielding perseverance. She has been side by side with me, as have others in this, but in the drive and enthusiasm of serving the Lord, I under-tended the call of serving my wife in the ways she probably needed.
Somehow the idea that spouses were to serve pastors and the church became infused into my understanding of full time ministry. The edenic language of ‘helpmate’ has not always been seen as a joint call to stewardship, flourishing and fruitfulness but the assignment of a spouse to help pastors fulfill their ministry life.
These religious and cultural expectations can produce a lot of strain and stress on a marriage. When the couple begins to discover that things are not jelling as they expected and conflict, contention and distance start finding their way into the relationship problems can start manifesting like mushrooms. Some spouses turtle-up and retreat into themselves, others may periodically act out when the burden is too much and unleash a fight or flight confrontation. Some fall into patterns of self medicating that can lead to addictions, adultery or ill health. The slow simmer of resentment is the corrosive result of a life of unexpected, unfulfilled and unmanageable expectations. These coping mechanisms can become serious fractures in the marriage foundation, pummel a realistic and healthy sense of self, and steal the hope and joy of the future.
Add to this the self-imposed or spouse imposed guilt that comes from feeling or being told that you are not measuring up or fulfilling some unreasonable role and it can become a recipe for soul-numbing trouble or disaster.
Unfortunately church people can add a whole other layer of expectations on the pastoral couple. There’s a large set of uniquely demanding duties supposedly required by a spouse who is married to a pastor. There’s the idea in the church world, that if there‘s a pastor who is paid, it’s assumed it’s a two for one deal.
So the pastor’s spouse is drafted into the work and if they don’t find a way to measure up to all the various roles of entertainer, counselor, best friend to all, cruise director, interior decorator, administrator, treasurer, worship leader, janitor and public relations defensive line they can be shamed or shunned.
God help them if they also need to work outside the home to help with the financial burdens that are often part of ministry life. Add to that the role and duties related to being married and a parent and you can see why so many couples in ministry burnout, quit or suffer from isolation, debilitating marriage problems or end in divorce.
An environment like this can peck to death the heart and self-image of the spouse who married a pastor. The bloody mess is heart wrenching to behold and any pastor who allows or perpetuates such an assault on their partner will face a day of reckoning in every sphere of life.
We have known, witnessed and worked in, under and around all these issues. By the grace of God and hard won wisdom, supportive colleagues and the help of family and friends we have made it through almost 25 years of full time ministry. That doesn’t include our family history of a generational pastoral family on LeeElla’s side and quasi-religious upbringing on mine. But those experiences and the wisdom derived also comes from failures, missteps, close calls and near soul-death experiences, as well as many, many, many battles.
At this time in our marriage and ministry, we have both grown to see our differences, unique callings and assignments complimented and provided other contexts of meaning and mission. There is supposed to be a freedom in marriage and ministry that touches on some things and revolves around others. What brought a measure of conflict in earlier years is now seen as God’s sovereign design meant to bless us and provide for us a spacious liberty and grace to be who God has called us both to be, together and a part.
So as we both approach the end of our 40’s and the last of our four kids is about to graduate from high school, we have a new chapter of life before us. It’s not surprising that the Lord has had to remind me in this season…that I am married.
For me that has taken on a major shift in my understanding of ministry and empowered me to make some significant changes in the way I am approaching my calling as husband and pastor. This began a number of years ago when LeeElla and I started discussing this upcoming season of life. We had three markers that when they arrived, we agreed to make some significant changes. They were:
When the kids were graduated and/or out on their own.
When Kona our family dog would die.
When we became grandparents.
In June they will have all taken place.
In march of 2017 I was at Mt. Angel Monastery participating in my annual prayer retreat with friends and colleagues. I knew going into the 4 days of retreating that the Lord was speaking to me about taking what would be a huge step for me personally and pastorally…moving out of East Central.
We had been living in the neighborhood for the last 12 years where we and a team of friends had planted Jacob’s Well Church in 2006. The move into East Central was one that was a direct call and based on serious missional vision and ministry values. We were all in and committed to seeing a type of ministry and mission emerge through neighborhood based, incarnational, service orientated, gospel work, witness and worship. All of life, lived and worked out in and among the working poor. We had committed to face all the challenges and opportunities associated with a neighborhood facing serious issues surrounding poverty, addiction, race, crime and violence. It was our burning of the boats season of life. We had chosen a way of being and doing life, ministry and mission and we were going to make it happen by the grace of God or die trying.
Oh the wild life we have lived! We (us, our kids and our church members) have seen miracles and madness, breakthroughs and breakdowns, new life and unrelenting death, growth and church splits, national attention and local derision, unity and betrayal. We have witnessed more than we could ever imagine and more than we ever wanted. This journey has thrown us in the deep end and most of the time we’ve felt like we were drowning or breaking some kind of Guinness book of world records with treading water.
We have fought lions, torn down gates, woke the dead, drove out devils, touched glory and tasted the waters of life in all their multifaceted powers. But we have buried friends, watched good turn to ugly and horror. We have been crushed by personal and public trials, troubles and terrors. Wrestled with friends, police, thugs, blight and neighbors. Been beaten down so low, stretched too thin and almost expired of all sense of meaning and hope and sometimes sanity!
There have been moments when we could feel the breath of the dragon and hear the laughter of hell and yet sung with the songs of angels and stood desperately fast when others fled. We have seen God be faithful, good and more than enough and discovered that we are less than we ever thought we were. We have surrendered to the realization that we will never be enough and we are not messiahs and that is ok. It has been a lesson in the exaltation of Christ and the downfall of us. He has increased but we have decreased and we have grown more and more aware of the insane wisdom of it all. But the book of our life, ministry and church is not over, this is been but a chapter or two, a few decades in the Divine Kingdom campaign we have been blessed to be drafted in but will never see the completion of in our lifetime.
The realization of these truths have been liberating to me, as I wrestled with yielding to the call of the next season of our married life. At the retreat in 2017, one of my pastor friends recommended a chapter in a book that he thought would help me discern what I was coming to terms with in my life. Below are the portions that helped me confirm the call and take the nexts steps of action needed to submit to a new opportunity before me in life, ministry and mission.
The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How transforming your inner life will deeply transform your church, team and the world. By Peter Scazzero
“I informed Geri that I was committed to leading out of the joy of our marriage, out of the overflow of our cup running over with love for one another. And if I could not maintain the boundaries necessary to keep the pressures of church leadership from negatively impacting our marriage, I would gladly resign my position.
“Okay,” she said cautiously, though it was clear she was skeptical.
I wanted her to know who serious I was. “Honey, I know that living in New York City is hard for you. If, at any point, you feel like you no longer want to be here, I will take that as God speaking to both of us. I will leave New Life and we can seek out whatever God has for us to do next.”
The first ambition for married Christian leaders must shift from leading our church, organizations, or team, to loving our spouse passionately. We must cultivate a strong desire to make visible the invisible–the love of Jesus for His church–in and through the love we have for our spouse.
Most Christian leaders believe that the loudest message we preach to the world comes through our words, or perhaps our service to others in Jesus name. In the early years of ministry, I considered planting a church and preaching sermons to be my loudest gospel message. When I say that marriage is a leader’s loudest gospel message, I mean that a Christian marriage points beyond itself to something more important–to Christ. As such, marriage is a sign and a wonder.
My definition of leadership success was transformed beyond merely growing the church to nurturing a passionate marriage that overflows to the rest of the world.”
That chapter was the final step for me, in concluding we were to move. A burden of feeling like I was giving up or giving in was lifted. My internal child of divorce voice that always says “Never leave, never quit, don’t fail” was silenced and I saw the primary call of God for me in the next season was to be:
“…concerned about both the things of God and the things of the world in order to please his wife.”
I have learned a hard lesson, that God has called me to love and serve my wife and that is equally part of attending to the ‘things of God’.
I am learning that the pressures, challenges, joys and opportunities of ministry and mission come after the grand invitation and responsibilities to be a husband to my wife and a parent to my kids and a grandfather to my granddaughter. That “the things of this world” are not opposed to my call but part of my call as a husband. “Pleasing my wife” is not some kind of blame or duty but a freedom from trying to be something God has not called me to be. I am not single, I am married. I am not expected to do the work of a single man but the work of a married man and that is the gift of my vocational life. I don’t have to feel guilty for wanting to please her but I can settle into the knowledge that such a goal pleases and glorifies God. A good and beautiful life and wife is not contrary to a commitment to the gospel or ministry, but a bloom of it’s nourishing root.
So that is part of the story of how we ended up moving out of East Central after 12 years. We are still pastoring Jacob’s Well but figuring out how to do that in a different context and call. Yet again the Lord is taking us into another grade in His school of becoming and it’s both exciting and frightening. The story of where and how we got our next home is for another post. I hope this post has helped give some understanding and perspective to who we are, what we have done and why we are doing what we are doing next. I also hope you will pray for us as we navigate and explore all that God is unfolding for us personally and as a church.