When the Pastor's Family Goes Without Shoes

The Need to Care for the Pastor's Family

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the August 25, 2008 issue of the Christian Courier)

“The blacksmith's mare and the shoemaker's bairns are aye the worst shod,” proclaims an old Scottish proverb. When members of a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastor-spouse peer learning group saw themselves in this proverb, they decided to do something about it. Neglect of marriage and family happens far too often in pastor’s families, they say.

Meeting together to discuss their work and home lives, the members of the peer group say they quickly came to realize that the health of a pastor’s marriage and family life is an important determinant for the health of ministry. “We realized that many church councils weren’t taking seriously enough the task of caring for the pastor and the pastor’s family,” says Rev. Ed Gerber, a member of the group. “We also concluded that many pastors neglect to care for their marriages and families to the extent that they should.”

In response, the pastors set out to create a training tool on the topic of marriage and ministry, jointly contributing content for a publication that urges pastors and councils to work together to create conditions where both the pastor’s marriage and the church’s ministry can thrive.

“Ministry is hard,” explains Gerber. “Ministry with a strained marriage can be harder still. Experience has taught us that healthy marriages contribute to healthy homes and healthy children, and happy homes support and contribute to healthy and vibrant pastoral ministries.” Gerber points out that the training tool they created is based on a simple concept.  “A pastor with a healthy marriage is better equipped to provide effective leadership for the church,” he says.

“It could be said that neither a pastor nor a pastor’s family has a pastor,” says Rev. Stan Sturing, one of the training tool’s authors. “We don’t want the pastor’s family to go without spiritual care because the pastor is busy taking care of everyone else except himself or herself and his or her family. It takes time to work on relationships.”

The needs identified by the pastors and their spouses are also ones that resonate with the peer learning group’s mentors, well-known author Eugene Peterson and his wife, Jan. The peer group spent time with the Petersons discussing the topic of marriage and ministry during a retreat in Montana. The Petersons also wrote the forward for the training tool, a publication which they refer to as “most timely.” And, after 50 years of being married and in ministry, the Petersons speak from experience.

“Elders and deacons routinely pay more attention to visible matters like church finances or building maintenance than to the invisible dynamics of the pastor’s marriage and family,” they write. “Many of the complexities of being married as pastor and spouse are hidden from public view. This training tool provides a wise and accessible way for pastors and church councils to strengthen the great gift that a pastor’s marriage can bring to a congregation.”

Marriage and Ministry will be published by the CRC’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project and will be made available to churches later this year. The pastors and spouses who created the publication hope it will help churches realize that preventive action is worth the investment.

“Without focused, preventive action, the results for pastors and churches are predictable: pastoral burn-out, frustration, division in the church and home, neglected children, failed marriages, and more,” Gerber writes in the introduction. “We believe that this training tool, if used as a starting point for discussion and intentional action, will help prevent the conditions that often contribute to the breakdown of marriage and ministry.”

Each chapter of Marriage and Ministry explores a different practice, issue or strategy relating to the topic of marriage and ministry.  Chapter titles like “Balance,” “Boundaries and Expectations,” “Sabbaticals,” “Retreats and Seminars,” “Relationships,” “Peer Groups,” and “Burnout” demonstrate that the men and women who created this tool understand that building up the pastor’s marriage and family life requires a holistic approach.

Each chapter ends with a “Pastor’s Action Plan” and “Council Action Plan,” check lists that provide practical steps each can take to create conditions in which both marriage and ministry can thrive. The publication also provides reference lists for a variety of published, web-based, and organizational resources that churches and pastors can consult to learn more about the topic covered in each of the chapters.

As the authors of Marriage and Ministry point out, burnout is far more costly—in both human and financial terms—than its prevention. Setting up some of the systems and supports presented in the publication will definitely take some time and effort on the part of pastors and churches. However, as the authors point out, that will be time well spent.

“A key ingredient in preventing the burnout [of pastors] is to build up the things that make for a happy and healthy marriage,” writes Rev. Kenneth Prol in his chapter entitled “Burnout.”  “A pastor with a positive and nurturing marriage and family life will have greater vitality for ministry. If the demands of the church leave little or no time for family needs, burnout is on the horizon.”

Prevention is crucial, agree the Petersons, and this publication provides tools for that task. “This training tool provides a wise and accessible way for pastors and church councils to strengthen the great gift that a pastor’s marriage can bring to a congregation,” their foreword states. “It is obvious that good preaching and teaching, faithful visitation, and counsel are important—and there is much encouragement and affirmation to do these things well. This training tool places marriage on churches’ agendas, too, along with these more public aspects of ministry.” 


Marriage and Ministry was written by Al and Jan Gelder, Ed and Michelle Gerber, Dick and Kathy Oberg, Ken and Diane Prol, Stan and Melody Sturing, Derek and Shirley Van Dalen, Jim and Alyce VandeLune.

For more information about Marriage and Ministry please contact:
Faith Alive
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