clergymarriage

How to Take Your Relationship from Striving to Thriving

frisbiesLess than a year into his second pastorate, Jacob is worried that he never sees his wife and only rarely connects with his two young children. “I’m bi-vocational,” Jacob tells us. “So if I’m not working at one job, I’m working at the other one. And since almost everyone at church knows what hours I work at Ace Hardware, it seems like they all start calling me the minute I walk in the door at home.”

Jacob is not alone in his struggle. An increasing number of Nazarene pastors are bi-vocational, bringing home two incomes yet often struggling just to survive financially. “With so little money,” Jacob laments, “it feels like we can’t really make our marriage a high priority. Even something simple like having a date night once in a while seems like a luxury we just can’t afford.”

The irony of his situation is not lost on Jacob. “I’m trying to preach and tell people they should love their spouses and make their families their main focus,” Jacob says with a wry grin. “But the truth is, I’m not doing a very good job of it myself. So I’m talking the talk, but I’m not really walking the walk. So far, no one has called me on it, but they don’t need to. When I look in the mirror, I know I’m not the husband and father that God wants me to be. But what can I do about it? It seems like I don’t have any good choices; I’m trapped in this whole bi-vocational lifestyle.”

Whether bi-vocational or not, many ministers struggle to find a good balance between conflicting priorities like employment, outreach, time with kids, and bonding as a couple. With Jacob’s situation in view, here are some practical ways to improve the quality of your marriage and family life, starting right where you are. These tips and ideas are field-tested, proven to work in challenging pastorates just like yours. Are you ready to build some new habits? Here are four ideas for your prayerful consideration.

1. Create and enforce a Family Meal Zone (FMZ). No matter how impractical this seems at first, begin with one night a week, then add additional nights if you possibly can. The core idea of an FMZ is simple: you set aside a block of time for a “Family Meal Zone,” say from 6 PM to 8 PM on Thursdays. During those set hours, you do not answer the phone, reply to any text messages, or do any work on your computer. You do not answer your doorbell either.

It’s helpful if you announce this policy and explain your boundaries during a church service, board meeting,

It’s also helpful if you say what you mean, then back it up by showing that you mean what you say.

or both. It’s also helpful if you say what you mean, then back it up by showing that you mean what you say. Allowing “exceptions” to occur will only create more and more “exceptions”—which largely defeats the purpose of an FMZ. Unless the church is on fire or someone is being hauled away to the hospital in an ambulance, you should let it be known that you’re with your family, dining together, playing games, and getting some quality family time. That’s an FMZ.

Here’s a testimonial: “Watching Allen play with our two small children during our FMZ, I fell in love with him all over again,” Shelley tells us. “He’s so great with the kids! Watching him down on his knees playing with them, I realized what a great dad he is and how blessed I am that

Who knew that watching my husband play with our kids could be so romantic?

he’s my husband. Who knew that watching my husband play with our kids could be so romantic?”

2. Outsource pastoral duties whenever possible. Larger church pastors have part- or full-time secretaries, staff members for various age groups, and a host of other support people to call upon when needed. Try not to be jealous of these good Christian brothers and sisters with their BlackBerrys and their iPads. God loves them and so should we. Meanwhile, in the church where you currently serve as janitor, secretary, parking lot attendant, furnace repair person, and so on, strive to outsource some of your more peripheral duties.clergymarriage3

Being bi-vocational, you’d be wise to keep pulpit time for yourself. Keep doing hospital visits when you can. These highly visible pastoral moments help you accrue valuable “street cred” in your community and your congregation. However, are you really the one who ought to be cleaning the kitchen or fixing the copy machine? You’ll argue that these things won’t get done unless you do them, and you may be right. But isn’t it time someone else learned how to help? You may have seniors with time on their hands or teens who aren’t busy after school. Outsource simple but necessary tasks whenever possible.

3. Learn the beauty of a great date night substitute: the $4 banquet. Take your spouse to Panera Bread and order two Muffies (sliced-off muffin tops), one cup of coffee, and one water (not bottled, not sparkling, not French). The total outlay for this feast will be approximately $4. Sit in the booth, chew your food very slowly, sip some coffee, and reconnect with your life partner. Don’t have a Panera or a Starbucks nearby? Go where you can: Dairy Queen, Daylight Donuts, or whatever local equivalent may exist in your area.

The trick is to keep it cheap, keep it simple, and keep it frequent. Both of you will begin looking forward to these times together. If you can somehow find the courage, leave the cell phone in the car. If you have children, trade off with another couple, find a teen who will work cheap, or allow a friend or family member to get some face time with your kids. The change of pace is good for everybody, but especially for the two of you as a couple.

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4. Hire a sitter, drop off the kids, and stay home together on purpose. If your current home is an older parsonage in poor repair, so be it. It’s still your home. Fling a grocery-store pizza in the oven, rent a Redbox or Netflix movie, and stay home together. Knowing that the kids are gone for a few hours can be a powerful romantic stimulant. And don’t worry: falling asleep during the movie is not only allowed, it’s encouraged!

Spoiler alert: If you begin trying these at-home nights, you should be aware that sometimes these evenings end up creating future children. Remember, there’s no such thing as safe sex! Having said that, stay home and enjoy. Connect as a couple and try to ignore the tasks, chores, projects, and debris that seem to distract you. Focus on just each other: Right here, right now.

To sum up, we often make marriage enrichment more complicated and more expensive than it really needs to be. Of course, your marriage would improve if the two of you ran off to Maui for a week and didn’t take the kids. But let’s get real; how often is that going to happen? Meanwhile, you can find a way to get to Starbucks once in a while, and you can learn how to stay home and

Take the small steps now, and let the big blessings happen where they may.

eat pizza, just the two of you. Take the small steps now, and let the big blessings happen where they may.

Somewhere along the journey of ministry, you may actually encounter a board member or parishioner who owns a time share and just can’t get rid of it. He or she may actually offer you a week in a condo somewhere, with or without your kids. Wouldn’t you find a way to make it happen? Of course you would!

In the meantime, in the real world of two jobs, no life, and a seemingly forgotten spouse and kids you rarely see anymore, learn how to take small steps in positive directions. Do so consistently, and before you know it, you’ll be able to respect the pastor in your mirror. You will not just be talking the talk; you will be walking the walk.

Happy pastoral families and fulfilled clergy couples are their own reward, but as counselors, we believe that health begets health. Modeling a healthy marriage and a positive family life in your ministry will most likely lead to healthier marriages in your congregation and happier families in your community. People will learn from your example as much as, or perhaps more than, your sermons. Let your life speak by showing people that you value, cherish, and respect your life partner.

Get out there and lead—try a $4 banquet this week!

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DAVID and LISA FRISBIE are Christian family counselors and authors, with 12 published books and dozens of articles to their credit. David Frisbie also teaches family studies at Southern Nazarene University. Their recent book, The Soul-Mate Marriage: The Spiritual Journey of Becoming One, has been recommended by leading Christian ministries and organizations, including Focus on the Family. David and Lisa serve the Nazarene denomination as Coordinators of Marriage and Family Ministries, traveling throughout North America and many parts of the globe to speak at retreats, camps, and conferences.