When the Vow Breaks

Meet three ministerial couples on the verge of divorce. The names have been changed, but the stories are all too familiar.

Relationships are hard work. Conflict arises. Stress abounds. People problem-solve differently. Values vary. Expectations aren't always realistic. And let's face it, most of us are still trying to figure out who we are and what we need--much less how to deal with another person.

As a trained marriage and family therapist, I have listened to hundreds of couples in distress in the last 20 years--including many pastoral couples. Each story, although unique in its presentation, becomes strikingly familiar.

Let's take a look at the stories of three ministerial couples I once counseled. Their names have been changed, but their stories, unfortunately, are common enough that some people reading this article could probably insert their own names. In these stories we find several common reasons ministry marriages fall apart. We will also uncover some important keys to divorce prevention.


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Each of the following three stories of pastoral couples in crisis reveals issues that commonly lead to relationship crisis and even divorce. Studying these couples' lives carefully could help raise some "red flags" of dangerous trends in your own marriage relationship.

Couple No. 1: Dan and Ann--the craving for power. It's always sad when any marriage fails, but sitting across from Dan and Ann was heartbreaking. This once high-powered ministerial couple, the model of covenant and fidelity, was struggling to be civil to each other. Their secret shared unhappiness was becoming more visible despite their efforts to keep it undercover. The couple was separating, fully convinced that God wanted them happy.

Pastor Dan proceeded to explain how the separation would not hurt the church. After all, he was responsible for the unprecedented church growth, the church was now more technologically savvy and the administrative staff he assembled was highly competent. God was blessing his leadership.

By all outward signs, the church was thriving. Nothing would stop him from bringing this church to the greatness to which it was called. Nothing, I thought, but his own craving for power and success.

Ann's reaction to these words of self-accomplishment was embittered: "You see--It's all about him and what he has done. He'll stop at nothing to reach his goals. He works long hours. I never see him. He's obsessed with success and building a megachurch.

"When he preaches I want to scream, 'Pastor, heal thyself!' He describes our family as some ideal that doesn't exist. I know what it's really like to live in our home, and I can't live this lie any longer. He is nothing like the man who stands on that platform. And my children see it too. He can have the church because he's clearly chosen it over me. I'm tired of pretending."

Couple No. 2: John and Debra--the seduction of sexual addiction. Pastor John had a heart for the youth. He desperately wanted the church to be relevant to today's culture. He and his wife, Debra, prayed for direction and believed God was leading them to address the struggles of the next generation.

As they surveyed the problems of the culture, they knew they had to deal with pornography and the interface Christians encounter on the Internet. In John's brief senior pastorate, he encountered many men who confessed to sexual addiction. Most started innocently on their home computers.

John wasn't sure his church board would support the passion he felt in this area, so he decided to make the breaking of sexual addiction his personal agenda. His wife, Debra, was uncomfortable with this direction, especially without intercessory support and discussion with the church board. John insisted he had read enough, attended seminars and knew what he was doing.

Dealing with Internet pornography was controversial. Too many board members wouldn't understand the need, and he couldn't risk that. He would begin his own campaign, show them a modicum of success and then later involve them in his efforts.

So, going against the wisdom of his wife and seeking no other counsel, he began counseling men in the area of sexual addiction. Because he felt compassion for the men who struggled, he believed he was doing the right thing. But the more graphic the details he heard, the more curious he became as to the pull these men felt toward the Internet.

One morning he decided to check out a few porn sites to see what grip these men were under. The images were compelling, and soon he found himself logging on daily. Debra noticed a change in his behavior. And John was becoming more forceful in their sexual life. He seemed to be covering up something, so she probed.

But when confronted, John insisted nothing was wrong. He was simply empathizing with the men he counseled. Once again, she pushed for support and advised him to involve the board.

He insisted everything was under control. She worried too much. But the grip of addiction had taken hold. More time was spent visiting porn sites, and John found himself lying to cover up his trail.

Feeling uneasy in her spirit, Debra prayed. As she stopped by her husband's office on her way to do errands one day, she left him a note on his desk. Her hand hit the computer keyboard, and what appeared on the screen horrified her. As she clicked the history tab, she soon discovered a multitude of pornography sites that had been visited. In tears, she left the office.

That night, as she confronted her husband, he just stared at her and maintained his innocence. How could she accuse him, a pastor, of such degradation when she knew his intent--to help the men in his congregation? She was overreacting--the very reason he didn't want to include the board.

Couple No. 3: Tim and Rita--the power of denial. Rita pleaded with her husband to go to counseling. Their 16-year-old son's rebellion was pulling the family apart, and they needed help. Perhaps a counselor could get at the root of their son's rebellion. After all, they referred families to Christian counselors all the time.

But Tim resisted. "It's not that bad, Rita. He's just going through a difficult period of development. He'll bounce back. You'll see."

"Have you talked with your son lately?" Rita persisted. "Have you seen the images on his walls and the friends he keeps these days?"

"You are overreacting," John replied. "He's a preacher's kid. What do you expect? Rebellion is normal. In time, he'll come out of it."

Rita sat alone in the counselor's office. "Tim won't come to see you or take our son's problems seriously. And my son resents him for spending all his time at church and constantly saying God will take care of things.

"He wants his dad involved in his life, but I can't convince Tim of this. He preaches intimacy with God but has little intimacy with his family. I've learned to live without it, but my son feels the void. And he's angry. Why does God get his dad's attention and he doesn't? He doesn't want anything to do with a God like that. Can you blame him?"

The hurt in Rita's eyes was painful. Tim was a good man who wanted to please God and be a committed pastor. His difficult childhood with a father who abandoned the family early in his life left Tim struggling with intimacy.

However, he was wonderfully gifted when it came to addressing a congregation and showing his affection in a large group. His public life was easier to manage than the private demands of a family. He felt affirmed in the ministry and awkward at home.

As we talked, Rita also made an admission. Through their married years, she minimized her needs and those of the family's. She believed this was noble, "for the sake of the gospel." Whenever Tim ignored a problem at home, she made excuses for him.

She rarely, if ever, took him to task for his lack of balance between the church and home. She believed she didn't have the right to ask anything of Tim. He was a pastor and burdened with so much. And as the child of an alcoholic, she was used to meeting her own needs.

How wrong she had been. She needed a husband, and her son needed a dad. Her part of the problem had been her lack of confrontation and repression of needs. Tim's part was lack of balance and ignoring his problem with intimacy.

The son's rebellion was rooted in anger toward a father who loved his church but showed little affection to him at home. Like his mother, the son had learned to swallow his needs, believing God wanted his dad's attention and that he was unimportant. His rebellious friends gave him the sense of community and affection he desired.


These three true stories concern ministerial couples on the verge of break up or marital distress. While each story is different, common threads can be found. Knowing them can help prevent divorce. Let's examine these common themes.

1. Denial and secret sin. The calling to the office of pastor includes ministry to your family. In fact, the demands of ministry along with parenting and marriage can be overwhelming at times. The enemy will go to extreme measures to destroy your testimony.

Families are easy targets. You can't be complacent toward the spiritual battle, minimize problems and deny the powerful seduction of sin. Instead, confront denial, and deal with problems directly.

In Dan's case, he allowed the craving for power and success to dominate his life and ministry. He was so blinded by this that he honestly believed his marital break-up wouldn't negatively impact the church or his family. His wish for personal happiness took precedence over God's Word.

Furthermore, the attempt to cover up marital problems and present a false marital impression was a playground for the devil. Satan loves secrecy and darkness. The more hidden things are, the more deception he weaves.

This dishonesty will eventually be found out. The betrayal and coverup will devastate members of his congregation. Denial and deception have serious consequences--sometimes immediate, other times delayed.

Tim denied his need for wise counsel and intercessory prayer. In addition, he minimized the power of pornography and falsely believed he needed no protection, putting himself in a position of spiritual risk.

John was in denial about his family problems, past and present, sweeping them under the proverbial rug. They were now catching up with him, as his son refused to accept his dad's lack of intimacy. His son would find it somewhere, perhaps among those equally wounded.

John was too busy preparing sermons to notice the lack of intimacy with his wife and carefully monitored the response of the congregation. His affirmation came from those to whom he ministered, but he failed to get it from those with whom he should be intimate--God and his family.

2. Lack of accountability. All three of these pastors suffered from what I call a lone ranger mentality of leadership. They only sought direction from boards and others when they knew it would agree with their plans, or if they could persuade others to go their way.

It isn't uncommon, in my experience, to see pastors surround themselves with "yes" men who won't hold them accountable. So many elders and deacons fail to live up to their godly duties or stand for righteousness and speak up when the pastor goes off on a tangent. Boards and accountability groups should be encouraged to speak in every church in order to prevent this lone ranger acting out. And every pastor should have two to three other people in his or her life who can speak honestly and truthfully to him or her without consequence.

In every case above, the pastors did not listen to their wives. Couples are called to minister together, and spouses serve as spiritual checks and accountability partners. In many cases, it is the wife who has the gift of discernment and needs to be called upon for her insights. Too often, her opinion is devalued.

3. Pride. All three of these cases involved pride. Dan believed in the power of his own efforts. He built the church, the staff and took credit for the growth.

Pride is a powerful root of destruction present in many of our churches today. God hates it and wants to purify His body from our trust in determination and self-effort. God is a jealous God and doesn't want to share His glory with any of us.

In Tim's case, pride kept him from seeking needed help. While he was comfortable referring his congregants to counseling, he couldn't bring himself to face the baggage from his own family of origin and marital problems. He refused to deal with his experience of abandonment and lack of intimacy. The couple's problems were exacerbated by the fact that his wife was a child of an alcoholic who was comfortable being complacent regarding her needs.

These past woundings were presently impacting the marriage and the family. Refusal to work on them left an emotionally and spiritually unhealthy pastor to lead his flock. If Tim would let go of his pride and get help, the congregation would benefit from his leading by example and pray for his family.

4. Deception and lies. Satan's game plan hasn't changed since the Garden of Eden. He tries to deceive and seduce. Dan believed his personal happiness was all that mattered. He was deceived.

While we can have joy in the Lord and His constant presence, happiness is not a constant state for the Christian. There are times of trouble, affliction and suffering.

God is with us and always gives a way of escape. Was there a way out of Dan's marital unhappiness? Yes. And divorce wasn't the answer.

John believed giving in to sexual temptation wouldn't hurt him. The path to death is very clear in James chapter one. Each one is tempted by his own desires. Desire, when conceived, gives birth to sin. Sin, as it matures, brings death.

Our instruction is to flee temptation, not try it out. I don't have to shoot up heroin to know the powerful addiction it holds. Pornography's compelling attraction to the visual make-up of men is known. To try to resist that temptation in your own power is foolishness.

In Tim's case, his belief that God would fix his family problems was true--but God still expected his participation in the process.

Throwing around spiritual clichés with no action attached to them has created a generation of adults disillusioned with the gospel. When the gospel has no feet, it isn't real. People are looking for genuine, authentic pastors who live what they preach.

It's never too late to turn your situation around. It may take crucifying your pride, mutual submission and respect for your spouse. It will mean bringing all things hidden into the light and then allowing God to do what He can only do. But these are the keys to divorce-proofing your marriage.

How to Keep From Growing Apart

Practicing these six helpful hints will go a long way in maintaining a close relationship with your spouse.

While therapy is certainly a recommended option if you are at an impasse in your relationship, that doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of your life on a psychiatrist's couch. The following six tips will help rid your relationship of the negativity that often causes couples to drift apart.

1. Remember your history. Most likely, you and your spouse started out as friends. How would you treat your best friend if you started having relationship problems? Hopefully not by being critical and defensive. What attracted you to each other? What made you fall in love?

2. Talk about positive moments in your relationship. Purposefully identify the good qualities about your partner and speak them aloud. Then build on those moments with caring, kind and considerate behavior and speech. Don't wait for your spouse to do this first, and don't gauge your reaction based on what he or she does. Determine to line up your tongue and thoughts according to God's Word. You have more power to change your own perceptions of your partner than you realize.

3. Build caring behavior into the relationship. There is an old exercise therapists give to marital couples called "caring days." In this exercise developed by Richard Stuart, each spouse writes a list of things that would make him or her feel good, such as, "Kiss me when you come home from work," or "Tell me you love me every day," or "Help with the children's baths."

They trade lists, and the other spouse is asked to do as many things on the list each day as possible. The purpose of this exercise is to help couples define and restore caring moments to the relationship.

4. Love your spouse as yourself. This is a guiding principle for all relationships--love your spouse as yourself. If you don't love yourself, work on that first. Find out what God has to say about you and what blocks you from a positive view of self. Then love your spouse with God's love. He loves you unconditionally. Do the same for your spouse.

5. Understand the sowing and reaping principle. What we sow we reap (see Gal. 6:7). As long as the earth remains, there will be seed time and harvest. That's another foundational principle. If you sow words of hurt, insult and harm, you'll eventually reap them as well. Does that mean your marriage will break up? Maybe not, but you will feel the repercussion of this behavior somewhere in your life because God's principles work every time.

The best thing is to sow good seeds of kindness, gentleness, love, patience, faithfulness, goodness, joy, kindness, longsuffering, peace, self-control--all the fruit of the Spirit. You will reap a good relationship harvest from these seeds.

If you don't deal with conflicts, over a period of time bad feelings may build up. Enter the four relationship bad guys: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. God tells us not to have a critical spirit, not to feel contempt toward anyone and to solve our differences. When we are disobedient to God, we open the door for problems.

6. Understand the power of the tongue. The Bible is clear about the power of the tongue. Read James 3, and you will learn how the tongue guides your entire body. We are instructed to get control of it, which includes not letting it run rampant against our spouse. Words, as you know, can create deep wounds. We can't praise God and then verbally blast away at our partner.

The battle to bring a marriage back from emotional distance is fierce because it requires submission to several spiritual principles. Many of us don't want to submit to what God says about the tongue, behavior and love. It's hard work to conform to the image of Christ, and we feel our flesh pulling us to behave other ways. But if you want to divorce-proof your marriage, you need to get control of your tongue and not allow "relationship killers" to permeate your marriage.
Adapted from Divorce Proofing Your Marriage by Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D., published by Siloam Press (www.charismawarehouse.com).

24 Relationship Killers: Don't Be a Victim!

Could one or more of these attitudes or actions be deteriorating the health of your marriage?

Willingness to change is often pre-empted by something I call change-stoppers. These are attitudes and actions that block change and can kill a relationship. Review this checklist to see if any of these prevent you from making necessary changes in your marriage.

1. Denial of a problem. This is a sure relationship killer. The bottom line is, you can't change problems you won't own.

2. Self-centeredness. Change doesn't fit your agenda, and it certainly doesn't work in your favor. You do only what's good for you, never considering the impact your choices have on others.

3. Pride and stubbornness. You couldn't possibly be at fault. You rarely give in or admit wrong. Oh, you know there is a problem, but you refuse to deal with it due to pride or stubbornness.

4. Fear of rejection. You worry that if you make changes, your spouse won't love or accept you.

5. Lack of trust. Whether it's distrust of God or another person, it doesn't feel safe to make changes. You fear change may disrupt your relationship in a bad way, a way you can't handle.

6. Unforgiveness. You refuse to forgive your spouse for specific hurts and behaviors. Holding on to unforgiveness eventually leads to bitterness and blocks your ability to grow. It wreaks havoc on your physical and emotional self.

7. Anger. You may refuse to change because you are angry with God, a circumstance or somebody. Anger that stews over time or isn't addressed in relationships becomes destructive.

8. My way or the highway. You want everyone to be like you. Individual differences are not tolerated. It's your way or no way. You don't need to change--the other person does.

9. Prejudice. It comes in all forms. You think you are somehow better than someone else. This sense of entitlement blocks empathy and leads to judgment.

10. Insecurity. Change equals uncertainty and raises your anxiety. You aren't sure of your decisions and actions. Therefore, you become ambivalent, making change more difficult.

11. Money, power, and prestige. Why change when you have these things? You think they validate your current condition.

12. Judgment and criticism. These attitudes allow you to focus on the flaws of others--and not your own.

13. Emotional shutdown. This makes marital work very difficult, if not impossible.

14. Deliberate rejection of God's will. When you know what you need to do and refuse to do it, you are setting yourself up for trouble.

15. Too comfortable and satisfied. Change is harder when we are comfortable or satisfied with the status quo. Comfort zones are inviting, even when they are dysfunctional.

16. Lack of knowledge. The Bible says we perish for lack of knowledge. Sometimes we don't change because we aren't familiar with the Word of God. Other times, we don't know how to problem-solve change.

17. A sorry but unrepentant heart. "Sorry" is a confession of the mouth. Repentance is a turning of heart direction. Repentance means you take action to change things or yourself. You move beyond confession to action.

18. Adolescent perspective. You may not want to grow up and accept responsibility. Why delay gratification? You are still living and thinking like an adolescent. Many addictions begin this way.

19. Refusal to submit to God. You refuse to make Him Lord of all your life. You want to be in control, and you think you can manage your life by yourself.

20. No resistance. You are easily defeated, give in and allow negative influences in your life. You don't recognize your authority in Christ. Not only are you told to resist the devil, but you have also been given complete authority over him in Christ. But you don't exercise that authority.

21. Neglect of relationship with God. You don't spend time in worship, prayer and meditation on God's Word. You can't live a transformed life without an intimate relationship with Christ. Prayer, worship and meditation are vital to your growth as a leader.

22. Lack of commitment to change. You may have good intentions, but when the going gets rough, you revert to old habits.

23. Stress. Stress can wear you down if you don't manage it well. As a result, change is a low priority when you're all about surviving life's more pressing problems.

24. Idol worship. We're not talking little statues here. You put other things before God--even your ministry. And what about worshiping money, status, leisure, entertainment or sex?

Linda S. Mintle, Ph.D., is author of Divorce Proofing Your Marriage (Siloam Press) and the new "Breaking Free" book series (Charisma House), all of which are available at bookstores everywhere or online at a special discount. Buy it at www.charismawarehouse.com.

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