Tony called me on a Wednesday afternoon. Under the pressure of a very difficult pastorate, where his church shrank, the conflicts were explosive, and the church’s leadership was not united, Tony’s marriage to Jillian withered like a dainty flower baking in 110-degree weather. “Our current state is unsustainable,” he told me, dejected and burned out. “And if nothing changes, we won’t make it.” He was desperate for a change.
A pastor’s marriage often lives on a deserted island. Tony doesn’t speak up when he’s hurting, nor does his wife, Jillian. Who are they going to talk to? After all, they’re supposed to be The Example—a picture of spiritual maturity. What do they do when things don’t go well in their marriage?
Tony and Jillian needed help. But often in ministry, a pastor and his wife struggle to find it. Let’s consider why that is and what we can do about it.
Lies About the Pastor and his Wife
What lies make it harder for Tony and Jillian to get help? Let’s consider two. If church members buy into these things, they create expectations that add unnecessary pressure.
Lie #1: The pastor and his wife are super-spiritual.
This lie pretends that the pastor and his wife are so mature, so high above all the rest, that they don’t need help like the sinners around them. This lofty expectation acts as if Tony and Jillian don’t struggle like the rest. But that’s just not true.
Reality check: The pastor and his wife are not super-human. They’re sinners in need of grace.
Spiritual maturity doesn’t preclude one from the need for God’s mercy. Tony and Jillian are sinners desperately in need of grace. The pastor and his wife are intimately aware of their faults and foibles. They might, like Paul, declare, “I’m the chief of sinners!” (1 Tim. 1:15) because they know the depth of their depravity.
The gospel that Tony preaches every week is the same one Tony and Jillian need to hear for their soul’s sake. It’s like a drink of cool water on a blisteringly hot day. It refreshes them in their marathon, helping them persevere.
In their marriage, Tony and Jillian must hear, “You sinned when you got angry and impatient with your spouse, but Christ covered over your sin.” If no one else tells them they are justified (Rom. 5:1), loved (Rom. 8:38-39), adopted (Gal. 3:26-4:7), and forgiven (2 John 1:9), then they should tell it to each other. Every ministry marriage has troubles and fault lines that need the gospel of God’s grace.
Lie #2: The pastor and his wife don’t need friends. They can (and should) survive in isolation.
You’ll hear this lie in seminary classes or from veteran pastors. “The pastor (especially the senior pastor) can’t have friends.” What results is some ministry couples live in self-imposed isolation. The pastor and his wife don’t open up to anyone else, leaving them (and any troubles in their marriage) to suffer in silence.
I don’t understand this advice. Scripture teaches us that no Christian (including a pastor and his wife) can survive on his own—we’re all dependent on God (Acts 17:28) and other believers for survival in this fallen world (John 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10; 13:18; 15:7, 14; Eph. 4:2, 32; 1 Thess. 5:11).
Let’s say a pastor and his wife don’t buy into self-imposed isolation. They’ll still face the problem of finding friends. They minister to everyone around them, with no one acting as a peer. That means they hear their church members’ struggles, but they rarely get asked, “How are you doing? Where are you struggling? What’s hard in your life? How can I pray for you?”
Added to this is that someone rarely invites the pastor’s family to dinner. Instead, they spend their energy hosting others. Tony and Jillian couldn’t remember a time when someone had asked, “Do you all want to come over for dinner?”
Reality check: The pastor and his wife can’t live in isolation. They’re sufferers in need of community.
Ministry couples need friends. They suffer and deal with hard things. They have broken dreams, fears, frustrations, hurts, and pains. They need to lean in on Jesus, of course. But God also provides his people to sustain pastors and pastors’ wives.
When the apostle Paul describes pastors, teachers, and evangelists equipping the saints for the work of the ministry and the building up of the body of Christ, he includes how the body of Christ (the church) helps one another grow and sustains each other in love. He says:
 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16, ESV, emphasis added)
The “it” and “itself” in verse 16 are the everyday members of the church. The members help build up one another in love. What a beautiful picture that is—the pastors equip, and the members sustain one another. But I don’t think the “it” and “itself” exclude pastors and their wives. If you think about it, the pastor and his wife are also members who have a part to play (“each part is working properly”) and need to grow like everyone else.
Tony and Jillian need community just as much as any other members. Their marriage won’t survive if they live in isolation. A pastor and his wife need believers who won’t let them suffer in silence but will bear their suffering with them.
Practical suggestions to make things better
What can be done to help a pastor and his wife? How can Tony and Jillian move into a healthier situation so their marriage can do more than survive but maybe even thrive?
Four Practical Tips for the Everyday Church Member
Church members can do a lot to show love and support for their pastor and the pastor’s wife. Here’s a small sampling.
- Find tangible ways to encourage your pastor and his wife. Express your appreciation verbally. “Thank you for everything you do.” Write notes of specific encouragement. “Your second point in the sermon today helped me see my sin, and I asked my children to forgive me for getting angry last night.”
- Pray for your pastor and his wife and their marriage. Commit to asking the Lord to sustain them in their marriage. Then tell Tony and Jillian that you regularly pray for them.
- Check in on the pastor and his wife. Ask the pastor and his wife, “How are you? How can I pray?” Or ask, “Is there an area in your life where you are struggling?” Or maybe tell them, “I know you have burdens, so know that I’m here for you if you ever need a friend to talk to.”
- Invite them over for dinner. They might be delightfully surprised by your offer! One of my favorite memories as a pastor is when a single male college student invited my wife, myself, and our three kids over for dinner to his college dorm. Yes, you heard that right, a college student invited us to dinner and cooked a delicious meal!
Four Practical Tips for Ministry Couples
If you are a ministry couple, what steps can you take to fight for your marriage?
- Look for friends both inside and outside of your church. My wife and I ate dinner with a couple I had been helping. Afterward, I asked her: “What do you think?” She said, “This relationship feels one-sided. You’ve spent so much time helping this young couple. It’s hard to see them as friends.” As a ministry couple, the relationship becomes one-sided when you pour into church members. You need friendships that go in both directions—relationships that mutually edify and build up each other. Find another couple you and your wife can do life with. If you have difficulty finding that in your church, is there a mature couple outside your church who can become good friends? Pick people you can be brutally honest with about your marriage and anything you’re struggling with.
- Find a mentor couple. Do you know a ministry couple who is a few seasons ahead of you? Would they be willing to get together a few times a year? If you think highly of their character, respect their wisdom, and want to learn from them, ask them to mentor you.
- Pastors, give your wife permission to talk about your faults. I told my wife early on in ministry, “I trust you, so you should feel free to talk to whomever you need to about me.” I gave my wife the freedom to have genuine, honest friendships. I trust her judgment, so I can free her to talk about me when she’s frustrated or upset with me. I know she’ll be careful and her friends won’t gossip. Her godly and mature friends will extend my wife and me a ton of grace.
- Talk to a counselor. Some ministry couples work in unhealthy church settings. Sadly, there’s no one to talk to within their church. In the U.S., we’re fortunate to have trained counselors who love Jesus, love God’s Word, and are very capable of providing a safe place for a pastor and his wife to sort through their troubles. Often the obstacle for ministry couples is not that help is unavailable but that Tony and Jillian are not seeking it. Sometimes pride keeps them secluded in a corner. Humility brings them out of hiding and propels them to seek out godly counsel. Sometimes they feel overrun, overworked, and overwhelmed. They don’t have the margin to take care of their own marriage. Tony and Jillian should make time for counseling, even to force it into their schedule if needed, before the burdens of ministry cause their marriage to crumble.
A pastor and a pastor’s wife cannot survive apart from God’s grace. Jesus died on a cross, giving ministry couples a chance to say, “The gospel gives me hope. My marriage doesn’t have to suffer.” Glory be to God: The gospel gives every couple, including the pastor and his wife, a chance to fight for a better marriage.
 Ministry couples, if they are fruitful in their ministry, are extremely busy. So you likely only have time to get together a few times every year. The key is consistency. Maybe you only see them twice a year. But if you are consistent and persistent, and make sure this happens every year, after five years, you’ll have had ten face-to-face conversations. It adds up quickly!
 This thought is not original to me. Our beloved senior pastor, Mark Dever, modeled this for me by doing the same thing with his wife years ago. When he told me that he told her, “Feel free to talk to anyone about me,” I went home and did the same!