Avoiding three common traps will help your marriage not just survive
In the beginning, Karen and I were lay members of the church I now pastor. I worked in my family’s electronics and appliance business until one day, the pastor of our church asked me to come on staff as a marriage counselor. Karen and I had been leading a large Bible study, and many couples in the church had been coming to us for counseling.
So in August 1982, I joined the staff of Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas. My official role was marriage and pre-marriage counselor. Ten months later, the church’s senior pastor resigned and I was selected to take his place. Within a year, I’d gone from selling appliances to leading a church with 900 members. I wasn’t prepared, to say the least.
Karen and I had a strong marriage before I went on staff, but the burden of ministry had taken its toll on us almost immediately. After I became senior pastor, it intensified. I made a lot of mistakes as a husband and father. I saw the negative effect those mistakes had on Karen and our two children.
As a young pastor, I tried my best to succeed in ministry and be a good husband and father, but I found out quickly that those two goals aren’t always compatible. In fact, ministry itself was the biggest threat that my marriage and family faced. We learned quickly that we needed to make a few crucial decisions to keep our public and private lives from imploding under the strain of ministry.
By God’s grace, we were able to survive those challenges, and it has become one of my greatest passions to help others in ministry avoid the same mistakes. The problems we faced are not unique. In fact, they are common traps for anyone in ministry. I’ve seen three specific traps wreak havoc again and again in the lives and marriages of ministers.
1. Confusing the priority of God and church. Being good Christians, when someone asks what our first priority in life is, we don’t hesitate to give the right answer: God. And of course, that is the correct answer. But it can present a special challenge for those in ministry because we tend to confuse God and the church. We begin to assume they are one and the same. We’re wrong. When it comes to the proper priorities of marriage, Karen and I are learning to put things in the following order: God, marriage, children and ministry.
We invest the first fruits of our time and energy on seeking God. This includes our personal prayer and devotional lives, but not our ministry. This is the relationship we have with the Lord regardless of whether we are in ministry or not.
Next, we put time and energy into loving each other, spending time with each other and meeting each other’s needs. We prioritize this above everything but God. Our relationships with God and each other serve as the foundation for our ability to love our children and minister to others.
After prioritizing marriage, we then invest time and energy into loving our children, spending quality and quantity time with them, and raising them properly. We have learned that our relationships with God and each other are the most important things we model for our kids. This creates the greatest level of security in their lives.
After putting God, marriage and our kids first, we then invest our time and energy into serving the body of Christ. It’s my firm belief that ministry should not take us out of the home more than two nights a week—unless there are special short-term circumstances that demand it. No ministry should take more than 50 hours weekly on a regular basis.
Maybe that list surprises you, but I believe in this simple statement: It isn’t what we can make happen that will produce success, it is what we can keep happening. By cutting corners at home and sacrificing our relationships with God and family, we can make some great things happen in the short run. But we will pay for that ministry obsession. We simply cannot sustain ministry while drawing from an empty well. That’s why even among successful churches and Christian organizations, ministry marriages are failing in record numbers. We must get and keep our priorities right if we want to experience long-term blessing and success in marriage and ministry.
2. Death by pedestal. We are examples. Everyone in ministry knows this, and we work hard to remain positive role models to those we lead. But a fine line exists between being a good example and being placed on a pedestal of perfection. It’s not always our fault. Sometimes naive believers put their ministers on a pedestal. Sometimes we put ourselves there. However we get there, the pedestal is a dangerous trap.
I was 28 years old when I started in ministry. Karen and I didn’t have a perfect marriage at the time, but it was relatively strong. Ministry hit it hard. As soon as I began, I found myself on the pedestal—and that’s when the pressure arrived. We couldn’t avoid it.
As things in our marriage became more and more tense, I knew we needed help, but I tried to hide it from those around us—worried it would cause me to fail. Becoming paranoid, I didn’t trust anyone around us to keep it confidential. I imagined our struggles being used later as a weapon against us. And I had no idea of where to go for help. If I pursued it, would someone find out? My fear of man and failure kept Karen and me trapped on the ministry pedestal, suffering in isolation.
Thankfully, we survived those days. How? One reason is because, eventually, I repented of my fear of man and I jumped off the pedestal before I fell off. I never revealed all of our difficulties to those around us, but I did share that we had some tension in our marriage and were seeking help. Not only did it not cause those around us to reject us, it actually took our ministry to a new—and healthier—level.
Being a good example means admitting our problems and getting help. At some point, every married couple will encounter problems beyond their ability to solve on their own. That’s when the wise seek counsel. It’s only the prideful or afraid who suffer in silence, pretending things are OK.
Through our church as well as our ministry, Marriage Today, Karen and I minister to millions of people around the world. When it comes to the subject of marriage, we are very public examples. But we still do not have a perfect marriage, and we refuse to allow people to get the impression that we do. Just like anyone, we have to work at our marriage and deal with problems. This truth sets us free from the pedestal and allows us to get help when we need it.
3. Leaving home thirsty. Everyone knows of a minister who has had his career wrecked by an affair or some other form of dysfunction. Here is what I tell ministers to help them avoid this all-too-common snare: There is too much water at church to leave home thirsty.
Our most important spiritual, physical, emotional and social needs should be met through our relationships with God and our spouse. Only after this happens are we ready to minister to others in a healthy manner.
But, when our personal needs go unmet—and when we leave home in that condition—we are in trouble. This is especially true when the unmet long-term needs fall into the categories of affection, affirmation, communication and sex. We thirst for these things. When we don’t find them, we get thirsty.
It is an undeniable reality of life that we will work hard to quench those thirsts; but where? Only God can meet our deepest needs of acceptance, identity, security and purpose. That is why we must keep Him first in our lives.
If we don’t, we expect these needs to be met by our spouse—or someone else close to us. When this happens, we have set up those relationships for frustration and failure. People cannot be God for us. They cannot take His place in our lives, and we cannot take God’s place in the lives of others.
Second to the Lord, our spouse should be the one to meet our basic emotional and physical needs. When we take on ministry work with unmet needs, two dangerous things happen. First, our ministries become dysfunctional because we become overly dependent on those around us for life satisfaction.
Second, we usually become attracted to someone of the opposite sex—someone who seems like they can meet our unmet needs. We’re thirsty; we long for water, and as I stated earlier, there’s a lot of “water” at church. Drink from the well of God, and you and your spouse will minister life to others in a functional and secure environment.
With God’s help and many mistakes, Karen and I have learned that it is indeed possible to have both a great marriage and a successful ministry. But in order to do so, you have to avoid the traps. Keep your priorities right, stay off of the pedestal and don’t leave home thirsty.
Jimmy Evans has served as the senior leader of 10,000-plus strong Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas, for the past 29 years. He also serves as an apostolic elder of Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. Additionally, Evans is an overseer of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he presides over the Trinity Fellowship Association of Churches. He is the founder and CEO of Marriage Today, a ministry that is devoted to helping couples build strong and fulfilling marriages and families. Evans and his wife of more than 38 years, Karen, co-host Marriage Today with Jimmy and Karen. Evans has authored more than 10 books.