Ministry marriage: It’s … complicated.
We both share this eternal passion!
He comes home exhausted from caring so well for people. I wish he still had room to care for me. Sometimes I wonder who the real “wife” is—me or ministry.
No sex in weeks—#ministryexhaustion.
Our marriage feels so purposeful and reminds me of all I admire about my wife. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Packing up and moving our life again. Does God care about me—or just what I do for Him?
Ministry marriage perks are real. And so are the risks when we don’t labor against them.
That Proverbs 31 woman whose husband “sits among the elders of the land” (verse 23)? She may eat alone again tonight. Or maybe she’s hosting Bible study with him in the living room, but he couldn’t feel farther away.
Since dating over two decades ago, my husband and I have never not been in ministry. It’s assumed various avatars and levels of formality.
Most of it? I love. I love my ministry marriage.
But I grinned without malice as my introverted husband headed to his elder meeting last week. “Make sure they know how valuable your words are, because you won’t have any left when you get home.”
Typically, I don’t mind giving from my marriage to outside ministry. I’m happy to share! Yet that flexibility and generosity flow best when marriage and ministry work as a team—not as competitors.
And like I said, ministry marriage comes with its fair share of perks and dangers.
The perk: The ministry marriage can be on mission together.
I love being (mostly) of one mind with my husband in our mutual goal of intimately knowing God and bringing others along. Marriage can be so much more than a vehicle for personal happiness.
I like verbally swapping notes together as we’re swept along in the adventure God planned for us (Ephesians 2:10). I love seeking first God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33)—at least trying to—with my best friend. (Maybe your spouse isn’t your best friend because of ministry. Keep reading.)
When God created Eve, He called her Adam’s ezer—a word used elsewhere to describe a military ally or God as a helper. I feel this intensely in my ministry marriage: We’re in a sweaty, critical foxhole together, strategizing and waging a common battle, bleeding together, exulting in crazy victories. Purpose and synergy seep through our entire relationship.
Yet just because one or both of you is in ministry doesn’t mean you’re on mission together. Aside from your spouse’s endorsement, you may not share that passion. Some spouses’ ministries and lives are largely separate.
Conversely, neither of you could be in formal ministry, yet have a missional, here-am-I-send-me marriage. (Consider signing up for FamilyLife Local for great ideas to guide those around you.) Formal ministry or not, God beckons every marriage to be missional.
The danger: The gospel isn’t displayed in your own home.
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson emphasizes relentless busyness is “the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection … a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for Him.”
Overcommitted, I shun the humility of God-given physical, emotional, social, and spiritual limitations; of seeing myself with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).
I go through the motions of love, rather than love being genuine (Romans 12:9)—with God, kids, husband, and others.
I ignore Jesus’ warning, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Then, my marriage wilts. I do not preach the gospel to myself. Instead, I am what I do, or what others think of me, or what I have (popularity, control, security, comfort, a vast ministry, a following). I reject Jesus’ work and statement of my worth.
But surely it’s just me who pays the price when I run too hard … right?
As my husband pointed out, “Your overcommitment affects the way our family sees Jesus.”
Actions requiring grace or energy wane: gentleness. Creativity. Libido. Flexibility. Thoughtfulness. Enjoyment of my family. Board games with squirrely kids. Listening to meandering stories or emotional concerns.
Families need more than clean laundry and someone to play catch. They need a shepherd with capacity. (Even when you’re oh-so-done shepherding around the clock. Compassion fatigue, too, is real.)
Like a bride grouchy from wedding prep, ministry beyond what God’s asked sacrifices delight in both God and spouse. Habits of constant motion defy God’s margin-creating rhythms for me and my relationships—like sleep or holidays or Sabbaths, reminding us we’re no longer slaves (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Home carries ministry only we can fulfill.
The perk: Spiritual resources as a way of life.
Spiritual nutrition infuses my husband’s and my jobs and ways of life.
My marriage benefits from the boot camp of books, podcasts, trainings, commentaries, speakers, conversations, even managing ministry conflict or disappointment. My career as a writer and speaker naturally increases my biblical literacy and understanding, my relational IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence). Both of us mature daily in spiritual aptitudes.
It means I’m frequently baffled by my husband’s ability to respond so gently and wisely in our arguments. I apply his learning to conversation or an article the next day. And from his practiced leadership in church or our missions organization, our relationship blooms large and vibrant.
The danger: Knowledge that “puffs” up.
Like the Pharisees, puffed-up spiritual knowledge can show up in a ministry marriage as white noise, sheer arrogance, or egregious hypocrisy.
Venerated in ministry, we can subtly ease out of “Have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13)—and the presence of a God who dwells with the lowly and contrite in heart (Isaiah 57:15; see Matthew 23:1–39). To our spouses, we have no “bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our intimacy with God,” as Ruth Barton observes.
We’re used to admiration, decision-making, control. We may wash feet on the outside, but stand up on the inside. As fixers and teachers who “always have something to offer,” we lose the holy act of listening: to others, to God.
And it leaves a spouse hurt. Angry. Rebuffed. Humiliated. Ignored.
The perk: Tag-teaming service.
As a united, purposeful team with my husband, I carry rich memories of watching God move before our eyes. It’s a mini-Body of Christ. And it’s exhilarating.
We utilize each other as a resource when someone needs help. We network about discovered needs and help each other serve more wisely or lovingly.
And honestly? I ride the coattails of his wisdom, leadership, and gentle care of others. He says my people skills and networking benefit his introversion.
Together, we’re more than the sum of our parts: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3).
The Danger #1: Inability to “turn off” ministry.
Recently while corresponding with financial supporters, I declined a phone call.
My husband walked in. “Why do you look … guilty?”
When I explained, he responded, “You’re present with our supporters right now. Presence comes from not being present elsewhere.”
If we can’t turn off ministry, always considered “on-call” or our home never without guests—it’s hard to be present in marriage. Or with God.
Blogger McKay Caston points out a ministry marriage can become one of co-workers rather than co-lovers.
And without vigilance, “ministry”—especially workaholism with a “God” label—can eat your marriage alive; can obstruct your marriage from experiencing God.
We see Jesus turn away from crowds. He says strategic noes so He can participate in God’s yeses—the race marked out for Him (Hebrews 12:1).
The Danger #2: Your ministry marriage becomes intricately entwined with unresolved ministry pain.
It’s also not uncommon that pain in either of you from ministry—coworkers, church members, conflict, ministry-related sacrifices—festers into bitterness against ministry.
Sometimes, an organization saddles expectations on an unpaid spouse’s attendance, talents, or ability to move locations. A spouse may feel used or unseen—perhaps by you or the church presuming their time, gifts, home, and life are free for the taking. (Is it time to advocate for your spouse to church leadership, protecting your spouse from the assumed two-for-one deal?)
Your spouse may even feel used by God. (Does He only want me for what I do for Him? Does He care about whether I feel connected or happy?)
Sometimes one or both of you possess experiences or knowledge about others that may leave few outlets to process pain, confusion, even joy. Perhaps your spouse frequently witnesses the church underbelly as you unload your stress. You witness resolution. She doesn’t.
But isolation is spiritual dysfunction: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). We might need trusted confidants outside our organization to lighten our marriages—or allow them to heal.
Sometimes we avoid ministry- and God-related loneliness, anger, sadness, or fear—and fail to process our own spiritual trauma, doubt, injury, or alienation.
And because God and ministry are part of our marriage’s DNA, unresolved pain and isolation yawn between us.
For the sake of your ministry, spouse, and especially your relationship with God, remember the call of Hebrews: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” Through solitude, counseling, time off, and processing with trusted friends, do the hard work of cleaning and tending what’s damaged “so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (10:22, 12:13).
Ministry to your own marriage: Big payoffs. Big happiness
Your ministry marriage can flounder—or flourish, should you invest in displaying the gospel intently there.
Sure, that reciprocates in every area of service you put your hands to. But even if you were only experiencing Jesus more in your own marriage? That alone honors and pleases Him greatly.
Will you do the hard work to deeply nourish the relationships that matter most?
Copyright © 2021 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write On Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.