How can a pastor and his church have a healthy marriage?
Maybe “marriage” is a strange way to describe it, but since the Bible uses the image by saying, “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church,” pointing to marriage as a way of explaining how a pastor and his church are connected makes a certain kind of sense.
Like a husband and wife, a pastor and his church are two unique entities—one individual and one corporate—in covenant, growing in love and service to one another, their relationship building a platform for God to display his glory. That’s more like a biblical marriage than many people realize.
The problem in many churches today is how the marriage isn’t healthy.
Like real marriages, some pastors and their congregations become dysfunctional. They view one another with distrust and disrespect and get locked into cycles of conflict. At times, abuse isn’t too strong a word to describe the situation.
Sometimes the problem is unfaithfulness. As happens in a real marriage, maybe the pastor views his present congregation as a stepping stone to a better one. Or maybe the congregation grows tired of their pastor and can’t wait to find a fresher face to lead them.
Forced pastoral terminations are a large and growing problem. One report says up to 25% of all clergy today have been pressured to resign their church or been fired. Like real divorce, a forced termination can leave scars that last a lifetime for both parties.
But there are many places where the relationship between a pastor and his church is healthy, warm, and a powerful witness for the Kingdom. Sure, there are times of conflict and confusion—just as in any normal marriage—but the partners always get back on course. They fulfill their spiritual covenant with each other.
I’m blessed to have that kind of marriage with my wife. You can read more about that in a previous blog.
I’m also blessed to be in that kind of setting in the church I serve and have discovered several keys to a healthy marriage between a pastor and congregation.
Communicate clearly. Churches and pastors often don’t communicate clearly with one another about their needs, expectations and problems. Instead of getting to know each other as they really are, they create an idealized version of one another. The pastor may view his congregation as more spiritually mature than they really are. The congregation may think of their pastor as a more capable leader than he really is. Of course, the opposite may be true as well, with pastor and congregation thinking less of one another than is accurate. But until they really listen to one another and do the hard work of building a healthy relationship, they’ll never know. Poor communication doesn’t work out in churches any more than in real marriages.
Pastors and churches are in a covenant relationship—like a marriage—where God’s purposes for each are worked out in an environment of love, truth and honor.
Treat each other with respect. Pastors can use their congregations for personal gain, career advancement, financial gain or even building up their own ego. Congregations can do the same thing and view their pastors as figureheads to give the church stability and stature in the community or denomination. In other words, some pastors consider themselves larger than their congregations while some congregations consider their pastors little more than employees. Neither perspective is one of respect. Pastors and churches are in a covenant relationship—like a marriage—where God’s purposes for each are worked out in an environment of love, truth and honor.
Stick around long enough to let God work. Like many marriages today, pastors and their churches often are too quick to split up. Times get hard, dry or painful, and instead of staying together and working through the challenges, they separate. Of course, there are times when they stay together too long but in today’s churches it’s usually the opposite problem of them separating before things really start to move forward. That’s the reason many congregational studies all point to the same conclusion: healthy, growing churches are the result of lengthy pastoral tenures.
We don’t have guarantees in this broken world—even in ministry—and pastors and churches are subject to the same problems, stresses and sin that affect real marriages. Still, there are ways we can get healthier, and the more we pay attention to improving the relationship between pastors and churches, the more effective our churches will be.