If you were in business or accounting or teaching or healthcare, you wouldn’t have this problem. No other profession or calling so directly ties one’s marriage to their role. Periodically every spouse of a pastor asks themselves, “Is this what I signed up for?”
Being able to navigate marital challenges and expectations well is one of the twelve essential competencies of a senior pastor: cooperating spouses. Difficult or unhealthy marriages can bring down even the strongest churches, resulting in gossip, division, and a lack of focus on the vision. Even marriages that may be strong between the two individuals require them both to be on the same page when it comes to ministry. In this role, the spouse has some type of involvement that must be negotiated and clarified.
For the purpose of the Senior Pastor Profile, cooperating spouses means supporting one another in God-centered marriage and ministry.
As is written in Proverbs:
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord. (19:14)
A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies. (31:10)
This second passage extends through the end of the chapter, extolling the many and varied benefits of a good wife.
We see—both in scripture and in our daily lives—how important it is to have spouses working together well as they engage in ministry. Consider Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple ministering together in Corinth. The Apostle Paul stayed with them and worked alongside both of them while he was in the city:
Aquila and Priscilla
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Acts 18:1-3
Paul stayed with them for some time and then traveled with them:
Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. (Acts 18:18)
Priscilla and Aquila taught others and raised them up in the ministry:
When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. Acts 18:26
And to the end, Paul considered them as co-workers in the spreading of the gospel.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. Romans 16:3
8 Habits that Demonstrate Cooperating Spouses
What does cooperating spouses look like? Although it’s a bit different for everyone, here are some of the features held in common:
1. Arrive at a common vision and values regarding ministry
Different couples work together quite differently in ministry. In some cases, the spouse feels just as called and just as involved as the pastor and they functionally co-pastor. Other times, the spouse has a full-time job of their own or has taken on primary responsibility for raising children. In that scenario, they cannot also be expected to co-pastor… there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Pastors and their spouses will need to have intentional discussions around vision and values in ministry if they are to work effectively together.
2. Agree on each spouse’s roles and expectations in ministry
Once the couple has considered their vision and values, they’ll need to take the next step and flesh out what that will look like in the real world. Will the spouse be spending all day Sunday at church? Will the spouse have designated (or unofficial, but nonetheless real) roles that they are fulfilling? Depending on the size of the church, some expectations often include: administrative help, pastoral care for same-gender congregants, organization of men’s or women’s Bible studies, overseeing childcare, and hosting events and cooking. If the couple doesn’t agree on clear expectations and roles beforehand, many arguments and tensions will arise within the marriage.
3. Negotiate the church’s expectations of spouse in ministry
It’s one thing for the senior pastor and their spouse to agree on expectations. It’s another thing entirely for the congregation to understand and accept those expectations. Most regular attenders with church backgrounds will assume–usually without conscious thought–that the marriage follows the same pattern as that of their previous pastor and spouse. This assumption can lead to hurt feelings: “The pastor’s spouse is ignoring me,” or anger, “Why is he/she not more supportive?” It’s the role of the senior pastor–not his or her spouse–to set clear expectations and communicate them repeatedly to the congregation.
4. Function as a team
Whatever has been agreed upon, the pastor and spouse need to be able to operate together harmoniously, backing each other up and working toward the same vision rather than at cross-purposes. When there’s tension in the marriage, the congregation will absolutely feel it.
5. Protect family life
Especially when there are children involved, family life and marriage must be protected. The best senior pastors set aside time for date nights, focused conversation, attention spent with family members, and intentional time invested in being a parent. One of the biggest strains on the marriages of senior pastors is a result of ignoring this element.
6. Maintain a healthy relationship
Leading directly from protecting family life is setting aside enough time to intentionally maintain healthy and harmonious relationships. That means taking off the pastor hat sometimes and just being a husband or a wife. That means relating at deep interpersonal levels and understanding how your spouse is feeling.
7. Constructively and proactively address family tensions and stresses
In any close relationship, tensions will arise. The question is whether the senior pastor is paying attention to those or ignoring them. Pretending tensions don’t exist is the first step in destroying a marriage. Look honestly and pay attention: no one is immune to stress. It’s just a matter of what you decide to do with it.
8. Seek out help and resources for fostering holistic family health
Just like in every other marriage, sometimes extra resources are needed, even–and especially– for senior pastors. That means making use of counseling, marriage seminars, time away, and reading about how to improve a marriage.
How well are you demonstrating Cooperating Spouses?
If you would like to assess yourself in this area, take some time to reflect on the following questions. Write out your answers for more complete processing, or talk them through with someone if you’re more of a verbal processor.
- To what degree have you arrived at a common vision and values regarding ministry?
- To what extent do you agree on each spouse’s roles and expectations in ministry?
- How have you negotiated the church’s expectations of your spouse in ministry?
- How do you effectively function as a team?
- How do you protect your family life?
- What practices do you engage in to maintain a healthy marriage?
- How do you constructively and proactively address family tensions and stresses?
- In what ways have you sought out help and resources for fostering holistic family health?
Cooperating Spouses is 1 of 12 qualities that have been proven to be essential to successful and healthy senior church leadership. To learn more, read The BEST qualities in a Senior Pastor. Next week, look out for another crucial quality for senior pastors.
If your spouse is experiencing stress from ministry, we highly recommend you prioritize your marriage and get help from a qualified therapist.
There are also ministries that focus on helping pastors and their spouses. Standing Stones Ministry is an excellent resource that connects couples with ministry leaders who are trained to walk with you to help unpack the challenges and opportunities you face, without having to fear the loss of your job or reputation—at no cost.