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Is Ministry Ruining Your Marriage?

So, how do you keep church conflict from impacting your home life?

The short answer is, you can’t.

If you’re in church leadership, serious church conflict will, in various ways, impact your family life.

Church leaders, however, are not alone in this. Nearly all employed adults in America experience tensions and conflicts in their workplace that, at times, spill over to impact their home life.

Church conflicts have characteristics of both workplace conflicts and family feuds. They can be conflicts over power, programs, strategic direction, allocation of resources and dysfunctional patterns of corporate communication. And some church conflicts involve people exhibiting the emotional characteristics of neglected children, abused spouses, jilted lovers and betrayed friends. This is the dark underside of the tightly connected family-friendly church. Corporate fights might be ugly, but family fights can be downright brutal. And, as is true of family conflict, damage in relationships during church conflicts can take a long time to heal.

The Bible contains ample examples of religious or workplace conflicts impacting families. Zipporah was not thrilled when Moses informed her that their two sons needed to be circumcised. Saul’s conflicted relationship with David ultimately impacted David’s marriage and his relationship with his best friend. Old man Zebedee was suddenly left short of fishermen. The apostles’ wives were never granted the opportunity to tell us how they felt when their hubbies went gallivanting off on evangelistic tours or mission trips.

So, some impact is unavoidable. If the conflict is serious enough, it is likely that major impact in family life is unavoidable. Nevertheless, there are a few things leaders, together with their spouses, can do that may make the difference between getting squeezed and getting crushed.

Boundary Intrusion.

Cameron Lee and Jack Balswick, in Life in a Glass House (Fuller Seminary Press, 2006), point out that an ongoing problem in ministerial family life is boundary intrusion. In simple terms, this means that the line between work (church) and family is blurred to a degree not present in families where the parents are schoolteachers or work for an insurance company or deliver floral arrangements.

For many Americans, work is work and home is home, and everyone in the family knows the difference. You leave one to go to the other. In ministry, the distinction is necessarily blurred. A Bible study may meet in your home. Your Saturday evening social event is with a Sunday school class. Since this involves church people, is it just an ordinary social event? What if you didn’t feel like going or had a close friend who wanted to take you to a movie that same night?

Much of ministry defies the simple “at work” or “not at work” dichotomy that many people use to make sense of their lives. Some things are clearly one or the other. But sometimes the boundaries are blurred.

One tactic for the full-time church leader is to choose your terms carefully, especially with your family. Say “I’m going to church” only when you’re attending a worship service or general church meeting. At other times, say you are going “to work.” Hospital calls are “going to work.” A cleanup day in the children’s education wing is “going to work.” An elders’ meeting is “going to work.” A string of difficult discussions or confrontations bring the report of a “tough day at work,” not “the church is full of idiots.”

Life in a Glass House offers a number of other common sense approaches to lowering (but not eliminating) the pressure of boundary intrusion. I highly recommend this book, which combines quality research with down-to-earth advice. The book also dispels a common myth by demonstrating that ministry marriages are measurably happier and more stable than the marriages of almost any other vocation.