Tony Ashmore, Lead Pastor of LifeGate Church in Villa Rica, GA, shares his thoughts on how to to create and maintain a healthy marriage while in ministry. Though these tips are mainly directed at pastors, they are beyond valuable to anyone who desires a healthy and lasting marriage.
Sheryll and I have been married over 40 years and have been senior pastors for over 25 years. During that time we have seen 3 children grow up, get married and give us 7 grandkids. As our kids grew up, we went through the normal highs and lows of parenting–basking in the glow as our wonderful children achieved amazing things and shrinking back in horror and disbelief when they discovered previously unknown depths of depravity. We have served in every area of the local church and have started 5 churches. As senior pastors, we have experienced great success that made you feel invincible and devastating failure that made you wonder how you ever thought you were qualified to lead anybody. Marriage and ministry are both wonderful adventures and we have learned to enjoy the journey.
I think pastors and other ministers sometimes tend to put their marriage in the “Oh, yeah we got this” category, thinking that they, of all people, should be able to do this well. But it also seems far too common for pastors and spouses to struggle, and too often I hear of another ministry marriage taking a hit. We all know our marriages are a major strategic target for the kingdom of darkness and along the way Sheryll and I have learned a few things that will help make your ministry marriage bulletproof. You probably know them all, but sometimes we just need to refresh our memory on these important keys.
Make the ‘D’ word off limits. Don’t take it for granted that divorce is not an option. Instead, be intentional about removing it as an option. Our marriages are sacred, representing way more than our love for our spouse, as both Paul and Jesus pointed out in the New Testament. And every time one of us decides to call it quits on the vows we made to each other, it hurts every other pastor and church, giving us one more negative expectation to overcome. Treat your marriage as a holy commitment and take it seriously when Jesus says, “Let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
Remember the old story about the explorer Cortez burning his ships after landing on the Yucatan shores in Mexico in 1519? He knew if his men had no other option than to press forward, then the likelihood of their success would be much greater. If you intentionally remove the divorce option—the ‘D’ word—from the table, you and your spouse will figure out how to navigate even the worst storms. You don’t have any other option but to get through it together.
Set and keep appropriate boundaries. It’s simple: if you’re a man you don’t counsel or meet alone with any woman who is not your wife. If you’re a woman, you don’t counsel or meet alone with any man who is not your husband. Pastor, don’t let your ego set you up when some woman says she can’t be counseled by anyone but you. If you feel you really need to meet with her, then tell her she can meet with you and your wife. It’s amazing how many times the lady decides she really didn’t need to meet with you anyway.
Here’s the deal—set and keep boundaries that create a culture of honor concerning your spouse and marriage. Things like not belittling each other, even in jest and especially not in front of others; being openly flirtatious with your spouse but refusing to go anywhere near flirtation with anyone else (there’s no such thing as ‘innocent flirtation’); and making a ‘covenant with your eyes’ that means you turn your head or close your eyes during inappropriate scenes on something you are watching, or when you walk by Victoria’s Secret in the mall or when a scantily clad female walks by you on the beach. Making sure you only have eyes for your spouse not only honors and protects your marriage today, it will pay great dividends as you go through future seasons. If you do this, when you’re old and wrinkled you’ll still think your spouse is the sexiest thing alive. Surrounding your marriage and spouse with honor is like wrapping it with a bulletproof vest.
Quit looking for “balance!” “How do I find balance between ministry and marriage?” That question, in all of its various forms, is a trap designed by the enemy who hates your ministry marriage. ‘Balance’ seeks to make either marriage or ministry a competitor against the other.
I’m not talking about things like making sure you take off days, have daily times when you turn off all technology, and setting aside times to give all your attention to your spouse and family. Those are healthy boundaries you need to set and keep. I’m talking about this balance idea based around the ‘quality time’ concept. The first flaw is the idea of ‘quality time’—does that mean only parts of your time are supposed to be quality? Secondly, is the idea that you are supposed to be balanced.
Let’s face it folks—if you’re in full time ministry you have already proven you are imbalanced! Jesus’ own family tried to take Him home, thinking He had gone off the deep end, and look what He said, “My family are those who are doing the will of God.” Ministry and marriage aren’t something you do, they’re both something you are. Embrace them fully and enjoy them together. It’s who you are. The only reason you ever would need balance is when you’re not sure you are all in on one of them. Balance is for those who are trying to straddle a fence instead of jumping in. Instead of seeing ministry as a competitor for ‘quality’ time, see everything as part of the ministry marriage adventure and make it all quality time. There is a grace for every season you will encounter and you have to embrace the grace.
At one time, Sheryll and I were both staff pastors, overseeing major areas of ministry, including a very active youth ministry that required lots of time and a worship ministry requiring rehearsals, etc. We had 3 kids at home, each of them heavily involved in sports, dance, and the other things kids do. And we were involved with them—coaching, team parents, and all the other things parents of busy kids do. And, at the same time, I was a full time college student taking a full load. It was a crazy season but it was a fun one. We have great memories from those years because we chose to embrace the grace rather than look for some unobtainable ‘balance’. Instead of seeing all those things as competitors for our time, we chose to treat them as important aspects of a great life. Our kids never saw our ministry obligations as something that was stealing us from them. They were with us, having fun and seeing ministry as a great life. Make the choice to quit falling for the ‘balance’ trap and just go all in and have fun being imbalanced!
Make Sure Your Spouse is Your Best Friend and Most Important Accountability Partner. You hear a lot about surrounding yourself with accountability partners, good friends who will challenge you when they see something going south. But honestly, if you can look your spouse in the eye and lie to them, there is not another person in the world you can’t deceive. And if your answer is, “No, I have a friend who would know even when my spouse didn’t,” then I would challenge you to make your spouse a better best friend than that one.
If we aren’t intentional about this, our spouse becomes our work partner and not our fun partner. We work together through the tough times of ministry and marriage, we work together to parent children, we work together to build a life. But we have our most fun when we are hanging with our buddies, doing something away from our spouse. Nothing wrong with that, it’s healthy and should be part of our ministry marriage life. But your spouse should be your go-to fun buddy, the person you intentionally make sure you have fun times with every day, the person you plan to go off with for a few days for a fun trip, and the person your most fun memories include.
And here’s another aspect about making your spouse your best friend, specifically for the guys—listen to your wife. Whether she is called co-pastor or not, whether she ever steps in the pulpit or not, she is your partner in pastoring and she has been gifted by God to do so. Listen to her and make a place for her input. You’ll be glad you did. She will protect your blind spots and save you, and the ministry, a lot of heartache. When both of you make sure your spouse is your best friend, marriage and ministry win.
Several years ago I was sitting alone in our living room watching TV and saw a commercial about the then new Dodge Challenger. You know, the one that is a throwback to the 70’s muscle cars and has over 500 horsepower. Unconsciously I said aloud, “I want one.” I thought I had said it under my breath, but I was so much under the spell of this wonderful car that Sheryll heard me say it all the way upstairs in our bedroom. Since then we use that example to encourage younger ministry couples to make sure their ministry marriage is so wonderful that others, and most importantly our own children, look at them and say, “I want one.” I hope these tips help you accomplish that as you continue to honor Jesus with your ministry marriage by making it bulletproof to our enemy’s attacks.