The Ministry Spouse Myth

As many of my usual readers know, I’ve been in full time paid ministry for 20 years.  One thing that makes my story unique is that I served in that capacity as a single person for the first 17 1/2 years.  Because of that I’ve been privy to a lot of different experiences interacting with married folks.

As is the case with most protestant and/or evangelical churches and organizations, most people serving in leadership in my organization are married.  I don’t know what the percentage is, but it has to be 80%. Probably higher for everyone over 25 in our mission. It’s an expectation in our evangelical culture that the pastor/leader/staff person be married. As such we make a lot of statements an assumptions that while often well intentioned are often false and misleading and frankly usually contradicting.

I was recently at staff conference where they were honoring people who have served in different capacities.  At one point, the person leading the time said something to the effect of, “Can we have all the staff spouses stand.  Let’s all give them a round of applause because we know that none of this happens without them.  They are just as important to this work as anyone else.”

This was followed by a time of honoring certain staff and of course their spouses.  “We all know that Joe wouldn’t be who he is without his wife Sally”.

I just sort of cringed.  And I’m now married.

How would they honor the person who wasn’t married.  “We all know that Joe would be even better if he were married?”

Let me be clear.  I’m not suggesting that the staff spouse or pastor’s wife does not have a key role to play or that they shouldn’t be honored.  It is a unique role that gets played out in many different effective ways.  If a minister is married, they are indeed partnering in one form or another with their spouse. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to keep doing it.  Fair enough.

But to say that someone can’t do ministry or be successful in ministry without a spouse is crazy.

First of all it’s a job.  I mean you go to work and do your job.  Yes it is a unique calling in the Kingdom.  No doubt.  But still at the end of the day, I hold the title and all that comes with it, not my spouse.

Secondly, it can be done and done well without a spouse.  I know this because I did it for nearly twenty years.  While far from perfect God has used me in the ministry as a single person every bit as much as a married one.  Every time someone says, I couldn’t do this job without my spouse I think, “Um actually you could and probably would.”  Would it look different?  Yes.

The funniest part about this is that many of the married people in ministry I know have spent time telling me over the years how much they wish they could do ministry the way I can.  In other words, they would tell me that I had an advantage because I didn’t have marital commitments.  So basically as a single full time ministry person I get to feel bad twice.  First, I’m not “complete” because I don’t have an equal partner in the deal, and as a bonus, I should be able to do more because I don’t.  Oh and of course, I guess if I get married then I will be less effective.  So confusing.

The inconsistency is amazing.  I can only think of one person who put it together.  He said to me, “I don’t know how you do this job without a wife.  I couldn’t do it single.”  While I think he was wrong at least he was consistent.

We should start with the knowledge that if we are following God’s call to ministry then we can do that single or married.  I’m not sure we can make the case that either is preferable from a pure ministry context.  It sort of depends on the person and their calling.

In addition we should indeed thank the spouses of these people. Seriously. They are often sacrificing in one way or another.  I know my wife does.  Not only that but if you are married and doing ministry you need to know that your spouse is on your side.  I could name a ton of people who are not doing ministry because of their spouse.  That to me is why we need to honor them.  Not because the minister couldn’t do their job without them, but because their spouse plays an important role that supports that ministry.

We should honor the actual role they play but do it in a way that doesn’t dishonor anyone else.  We need to be able to say that the spouse’s role is important without saying that it is the same role or without suggesting that the minister’s role is dependent on it.

Finally, we need to understand that anyone who is called to the role can with God’s help do it.  Otherwise we are undermining that call in one form or another.

4 thoughts on “The Ministry Spouse Myth

  1. Yes, in most protestant and/or evangelical churches and organizations, most people serving in leadership positions are married. And as you know, many denominations require pastors and deacons to be married. We even have a huge billboard in town advertising a local Church of God with a picture of their “husband and wife team.” Churches around here do communions by calling up individual families to take their cracker and grape juice. Valentine’s Day is used as an opportunity to celebrate God’s gift of sex. They’ve got their red ribbons around the pulpits and chocolate candy for the kiddies. When benediction is finished and church is dismissed, guess who’s waiting at the door to shake your hand – Yep, husband and wife team. I have to fight back nausea until I get home. So in my opinion, it’s gone way beyond dishonor.

  2. For myself…..it took YEARS of being IN church every Sunday to be finally ALLOWED to run the Cub Scout program we charter as the ‘Cubmaster’ because I WASN’T married. For those not in the know…..Cub Scouts is for boys aged 6-10. Boy Scouts 11-18. and I still get “looks” from the women mostly because we all know in church that “Christian men cannot work with children because that’s ‘women’s work’ (the church again being “tough” about “real” manhood) AND a single man who is not dating, not married and doesn’t have a messy divorce behind him no children MUST be gay…or you know……….must be “closeted gay” and we can’t have any unmarried man working with little boys!!!!!!”

    My church, and countless churches allow and encourage single women to serve and work with children. Even The Cub Scout program can be run by a woman……..but in Sunday school for kids / teens, in my church if a man teaches he MUST be married, and HIS wife must be there with him.

    Yet a single woman. A divorced woman. A single mom can teach, work with, and be “allowed” to teach the children and teens with no other adult leadership around…………and women who do teach or run a ministry in this capacity who are married never have their “husbands” acknowledged 😉

  3. My church has several pastors, all married, most with young children. I’m serving in our equivalent-of-a-deacon position so I see a handful of them as they find the balance in spending time with a growing church and their growing family.

    From my perspective, being married makes the job much harder because their family takes priority (Paul in 1 Cor. 7). I’ve heard a lot of grumbling from the single folks in our church that it seems like the pastors have checked out from more personal ministry (mostly unfair, rash statements). You wrote that some said you had an advantage. I’d say you definitely did time wise; but your closing statement holds true: God supports a single pastor equally to a married pastor. Proven in my church when pastors are guided to sacrifice family time for the good of our church. They rarely say “no” when a need is brought to their attention.

    Side note – Happy to see you writing more often. Everything on here is very directly – the writing/speaking style I respect most. Thanks bro.

  4. Why doesn’t anyone else notice the contradiction between “married people are better because they have spouses” and “single people are better because they don’t have spouses”? Good on you for highlighting that! A blog friend of mine once wrote that, when she was single, a group of women introducing themselves only talked about their spouses and kids. She started saying she didn’t “have a family”—but of course she did, just not a husband. You can define yourself outside of your marital status.

    I also have a huge, huge problem with married people who insist that singles have more time. Any time we allegedly have is used taking care of everything in our lives (because if I don’t go grocery shopping or make more money so I can pay someone to do it, it’s not getting done) and filling in for married people who have spouses and kids that come before everyone else (and rightly so).

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