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When Ministry feels like a Mistress

When Ministry feels like a Mistress

Dinner and a Conversation

Have you ever had one of “those” conversations with your spouse? The kind which leaves you numb and wondering how on earth you arrived at this place?

The night was to be a celebration.   Naomi and I decided to go out for dinner marking the end to a long season of ministry and transition which had included 6 years of youth ministry, a move to another state and the birth of our daughter Grace.  We were both beyond tired to say the least.  More than that, it had been almost a year since we had any significant quality time alone as a couple.


Our night took us to a place called Al’s Upstairs, a culinary dream perched overlooking the Broad River and the City of Columbia, SC.  We had some amazing food and conversation, the kind you have when your one and half year old son and your ever-crying new born aren’t demanding your attention.  In the midst of the time, our conversation turned to reflecting back on and evaluating the season we had just left, more specifically we started talking about our marriage in the midst of ministry.

I’ll never forget my wife’s haunting words. With great authenticity and a certain level of hurt, Naomi looked at me and said, “I felt as if you were having an affair with the church!”

I remember the sinking feeling which washed over my body.  For six years I had stayed faithful to my wife in the classic sense, no physical affairs, being careful around other woman, making sure my eyes and thoughts were pure, yet as the words flowed from her heart that night, I knew she was right.  For the past six years, I had given my best to the church and not my wife. I had devoted myself to the ministry and offered her what was left.

For many serving in ministry with a spouse, these words ring all too familiar.  Ministry demands much of us, and constant emotional drain and dual relationships often become a way of life.  If you’re not extremely intentional about giving your spouse the best, very quickly we all drift into simply giving the leftovers.

For Naomi and I, the next season of our marriage became one of redemption, as we learned to create healthier boundaries, be intentionally present, and learned to say, “No” for the sake of each other. What we learned from those difficult years of ministry was to pay attention to some old, familiar warning signs. The following are three markers which we find ourselves looking for as we continue to manage the balance between marriage and ministry.


1. You need to stop obsessively filling the calendar.

No one needs to tell you demands in ministry are significant.  Each and every one of you understands that.  I like to call it bleeding; bleeding outside the lines.  Bleeding happens especially in our calendars.  One more event, one more trip, one more meeting… they’re all good things individually but together they add up to unsustainable living, bleeding outside the lines.

Often set far in advance, these commitments crowd the leaders calendar and push other things to the back burner. This often has the side effect of making your spouse feel as if they can never gain spontaneous access to you.  When the ministry comes first constantly, a subtle but clear message is sent to the spouse, YOU ARE NOT AS IMPORTANT!

2. You don’t have an unlimited supply of emotional energy.

Working in the high touch field of ministry, leaders often expand great amounts of physical and emotional energy.  Endlessly giving without seasons of rest and sustainability can leave us with nothing left for our spouses. We may want to give, but we simply have nothing left to offer.

Often, leaders give their best when others are watching, pressing hard into areas where life can be measured.  Yet once no one is watching, a form of release or let down happens – usually where it feels safe, usually at home, which leads to giving their spouse the scraps.  When our emotional energy is consistently and predominately given to another, whether a human being or an organization, it can be felt as an affair.

3. Are you even here with me right now?

Have you ever been talking with your spouse and realize after some time there has been no response?  Have you ever caught them with that glazed over, vacant stare? Have you ever been guilty of it yourself?

Working with people as a profession comes with many challenges.  For most ministry leaders, the complexity of managing dual relationships can preoccupy their thoughts.  An unresolved conflict, a conversation that ended awkwardly, an anticipated confrontation… they have a way of sticking with us long after we leave the church parking lot, and with our minds working overtime, we seldom experience moments in which we are fully present.  In this restlessness, our spouses are often left to be alone, even as we share the same space. Half-attention, vacant stares, and relentless multitasking can all send messages to our spouse about their value.

Years later, Naomi and I still talk about that conversation.  We’re both committed to making sure we don’t cheat each other again. When any of these markers begin to emerge in our marriage, each of us has permission to speak boldly and directly into the situation so that we can “course correct.”  Authenticity and vulnerability is essential to not leaving either spouse behind.

Rick Rhoads
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Rick is the Director of the Student Ministry Majors at Lancaster Bible College. He has served as an Assistant Professor in Student Ministry at LBC for the past 7 years. Over the past 18 years, he has served in various Student Ministry roles at Lebanon Valley YFC, LCBC, Calvary Bible Church, and Riverbend Community Church. Rick, his wife Naomi, and their two children Grace and Eli live East Petersburg, PA.
  1. Dan Puz02-18-14

    Great stuff Rick. Really wish Molly and I could be at the next project event. What a great idea and focus for the project. This post is also a great reminder for me especially in this season of my life. Thanks Rick! 🙂

    • Richard_Rhoads02-18-14

      Love you my friend. So excited for you and Molly in this new season of life. You’re a dad!!!!!!!!!!! So cool. Look forward to connecting soon, Rick