Several patterns of thinking throw marriages off-balance, and the unique demands of ministry—especially missions—complicate one’s work/life balance, threatening paralyzing guilt at every turn.
Consider a few of these scenarios that effect work/life balance drawn from our experience visiting missionaries on the field:
You are traveling for two days to a seminar where you are the speaker. Do those travel days count as “work”?
You are having dinner with friends who support you for $100/month. Is it personal time with your spouse and friends or ministry?
After a church function, you go out to eat with your sending church pastor and his wife. Are you “on the clock”?
The family of one of your teammates is sick, so you bring them a meal. Was that work?
It is not important how you answered the above questions, because there are no right answers. Ministry is complicated. What is important is that you and your spouse answered them the same way.
Take a moment to reflect on these questions with your spouse:
Have you struggled with these types of scenarios, as we have?
What circumstances tend to trigger guilt about your marriage?
What circumstances trigger guilt about your ministry?
Danger, conflict, miscommunication, and hurt feelings lurk nearby when you and your spouse disagree about ministry. When one spouse begins tracking time differently, it won’t be long until simple ministry tasks become sources of frustration and guilt. These innocent differences of opinion can turn arguments into fights and fights into bitterness.
How can our marriages and ministries be freed from constant guilt? We have relied upon these guidelines when our roles as spouses and ministry partners come into conflict, and they have been game-changers for us, sustaining us through seasons of complexity in life and work.
1. Make expectations crystal-clear
Unmet expectations are a leading reason for struggle in ministry. When ministry and marriage fail to reflect our dreams of what they should be, we become easily disillusioned. Balancing ministry and marriage means managing these expectations.
We all tend to envision ministry idealistically. We daydream of impact, growth, and receiving human praise. We do the same with our marriages, assuming conflict will never arise and romance will never subside. When reality hits, these uncommunicated expectations are dashed, and we are tempted to blame our spouse.
When expectations go unmet for long periods of time, our minds become breeding grounds for bitterness, resentment, anger, and discontentment. The consequence is that we disengage from marriage, ministry, or both. We think to ourselves:
This isn’t what I signed up for.
Is ministry worth the cost?
This job was supposed to be fulfilling.
Why am I so lonely?
The solution? Talk about the elephant in the room. Realize that ministry is complicated. Grow in your understanding of your spouse and their expectations of your personal time versus ministry time. Be as explicit as possible with your expectations. Some expectations should be made explicit, agreed upon, and be set in stone; through conversation, others will be revealed as unhealthy or unrealistic, and should be suppressed. Either way, the specifics need to be addressed.
● Can you look at your phone during “personal” time?
● Can you return an email during “personal” time?
● Can you listen to music during “work”?
● Can you wash the dishes during “work”?
● Can you have a baby on your hip during “work”?
Having conversations about each other’s expectations for time and attention will help you see how much personal time is needed—and when it is needed. This helps eliminate the undue guilt that arises from unclear expectations.
This is an area in which spouses can truly minister to one another. Do not suffer in silence, nor allow your spouse to suffer alone either. We all have unmet expectations. Talk about them.
2. Practice Sabbath rest
Understand the Sabbath principle. Sometimes, the very best use of your spiritual gifts is for them to stop. Biblical rest is about ceasing from work and realigning your priorities.
Prioritize, first, your personal walk with God and, second, your personal walk with your spouse. Take these verses seriously from Deuteronomy:
“Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-14, emphasis added)
It’s interesting that the command for Sabbath is the only commandment in which each member of the family is listed. You, your spouse, your children, your servants—even your animals—are all commanded to rest, and rest together (cf. Exodus 20:8-11).
Sometimes, we need a reality check. Ministry is meant to be demanding, and as a result, it is necessarily emotionally and spiritually draining. You must rest and realign every week. Be honest with yourself: if you are leading a church, Sunday is not typically restful.
Set aside a day that works for both you and your spouse, and rest unto the glory of God as a couple devoted to following his call. Practicing Sabbath delights God as much as ministry, because it honors both his command and his design for human flourishing.
3. Set boundaries that best serve you
Every game has rules. Without boundaries, there would be nothing to distinguish football from baseball, or the field from the parking lot. Good boundaries make for good games.
Boundaries can also make for good marriages. While some bristle at the concept of rules, we have found that personal boundaries are what make our marriage enjoyable—even fun. Every couple needs to tailor specific guardrails for themselves.
For many couples, 11 p.m. may not be the right time to ask a spouse about their plans for the following day. If one spouse tends to make calendar inquiries as the other is heading to bed, completely unprepared or too exhausted to think, a personalized boundary may need to be erected here. Achieving balance is all about timing. Perhaps the couple should hold themselves accountable to sort out their schedules over dinner instead. Healthy limitations like these maximize the potential for growth in the marital relationship and increase the potential for ministry fruitfulness.
This will look different for each couple, but boundaries must still be clear, particularly those that govern when it’s time to work hard and when it’s time to shut down. Establishing clear, proactively-defined boundary lines helps prevent nagging remorse.
4. Remember why you got married: to glorify God
This is simple, but critical: you must get on the same page about who God is, why you are married, and why you are serving him. Be serious and intentional about growing your relationship with the Lord, your theology, and your view of marriage.
In his book Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?, Gary Thomas’ premise is that your marriage is not about your personal happiness; it is about God helping you know and trust him more fully. Adopt this approach, and address you and your spouse’s disparate, piled-up expectations of each other by building a deep, rich theology of marriage. Don’t neglect the degree to which your marital expectations flow out of your theology. Don’t neglect your personal spiritual formation or that of your spouse.
5. Engage in proactive life planning
Go back to the basics and ask your spouse these questions:
Who are we?
Where are we going?
What are we doing?
Why are we doing this?
If you and your spouse’s answers vary widely, do the hard work of getting on the same page. Without doing so, it will be impossible to be truly intimate and to minister together.
Two years into pastoral ministry, I (Paul) was ready to quit. I was frustrated with another pastor and frustrated with my wife. I worked harder and harder to please both, and ended up pleasing neither. I lost track of who I was, where I was going, and what I was doing. I was exhausted, and I thought I might even be done with ministry.
Then, Martha and I started talking about life and what we would do together if we could do anything. We asked ourselves honestly: “Why are we in ministry?” We ended up leaving that particular role but staying in ministry for the last 28 years.
Many couples feel lost because they haven’t yet decided on a direction for their marriage and ministry. Without a unified direction, no amount of communication skills or counseling sessions will save a marriage from wandering off-course. Devote time to prayer together, asking the Lord to make clear what he has called you to do together. Listen to each other. Listen to the Bible. Listen for what the Lord may be leading you to do. Then, act on that call. The rest is simply details.
Ministry can put a lot of pressure on a marriage. Take it all in stride.
In all the chaos that can come along with ministry, remember that God created us as limited creatures. When he calls a couple to ministry, he does not call them to be boundless superheroes with limitless energy, focus, and time. Everyone has limits.
Every divinely-ordained vocation is fitted to the couple and their calling. Through clear communication, patient conversation, Sabbath rest, shared vision, and healthy personal rules, Christian husbands and wives can live faithfully, both in ministry and the covenant of marriage.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019.