Pastors' marriage problems are sadly all too common: the demands the full-time ministry can put on a couple are immense. Read the story of how a ministry marriage heading towards divorce was reconciled and made joyful once again.

Ministry-Proofing your Marriage: Preventing Pastors’ Marriage Problems

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As a vicar’s wife, I’m all too aware of the demands that full-time ministry can put on a marriage. I’m saddened, but not surprised, when I read about pastors’ marriage problems – the challenges of maintaining a healthy family life when you’re also pastorally involved in lots of other people’s lives are huge.

If anyone has any wisdom in this area, it’ll be the awesome Penelope Swithinbank. As a vicar herself, and married to a vicar, she and her husband know what it is to feel the strain. In fact, the story of how they walked across rural France to repair their marriage, when it looked like it was heading for divorce, can be found in her latest book Walking Back to Happiness. (I read this recently and couldn’t put it down: it was such a joyous and uplifting read, with plenty of wisdom about marriage along the way.)

Anyway, although I’ve never met Penelope, she’s fast becoming one of my favourite 60-somethings, for her depth of insight, grounded in reality, and embellished with plenty of humour and warmth. Read on, so that you can get to know this wonderful woman too!

Pastors' marriage problems are sadly all too common: the demands the full-time ministry can put on a couple are immense. Read the story of how a ministry marriage heading towards divorce was reconciled and made joyful once again.

Welcome to Desertmum, Penelope! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hallo Lucy – and thank you; it’s great to be on your wonderful blog today!

In theory I’m now retired and loving having more freedom. I’m a chaplain at Bath Abbey; and a spiritual counsellor for clergy – and some normal people too! I’m having piano lessons again after many, many years; and my second book, Walking Back to Happiness, has just been published. It’s the story of backpacking 18 months ago, across France from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, as my husband and I found ways to renew and restore our ailing marriage of over 40 years. We met on a blind date as students in Cambridge way back in 1975!

Since becoming a vicar nearly 20 years ago, I’ve worked in churches in the UK and the USA, and I’ve led pilgrimages in the UK and in Europe. All that has led to some amazing experiences. I was only the third woman, and the first ordained, and the first English one, to open the US Senate in prayer.

I’ve also been a secondary school teacher, a business woman (I set up a franchise company named Bumpsadaisy for maternity wear and had franchisees all over the UK), a clergy daughter, a clergy wife; and mother to three. But better than all of that, I’ve been present at the births of three of my six grandchildren!

Tell us a bit about your journey to ordination.

For many years, I didn’t even think women should be ordained!

When my husband had a three-month sabbatical in 1998, I did a lot of reading and praying about the second half of my working life – I was mid 40s, and felt I was half way through the professional part of my life. What might the Lord be calling me to be, to do, that might be significant (as opposed to successful)?

I had a strong calling to full time ministry; and assumed I would miraculously be offered paid full-time employment by our church when we returned home! Of course that didn’t happen and I wondered if I had misheard the Lord.

Praying this through with my prayer partner, she suddenly said, “Have you thought it might be a call to ordination?” I was amazed, horrified and ‘strangely warmed’ all at once! So I pushed a few doors with the Bishop, with my husband, with the ordination process – and within a few months I was training for the ordination in the Church of England. God is certainly a God of surprises!

What have been some of the joys and challenges of being an ordained couple?

There have definitely been both.

One challenge was the logistics of being in different churches – meetings on different evenings, praying for different people and situations, who should have the car etc.

But we learned to appreciate and benefit from the differences. And sometimes I was glad not to be intimately involved with any difficult situations in my husband’s church.

Then when we were on the same church staff (it was a large church with over 50 on staff!) it was hard hearing my husband being challenged or criticised, yet wonderful to be working together with the same goals and vision.

Can you share with us some of the ways in which your ministries as pastors led to problems in your marriage?

Some of the areas of strain will be the same no matter what the work situations. Working long hours, in demanding jobs, with little or no time for one another, can cause enormous difficulties.

We found it too easy to take the marriage, and the marriage partner, for granted, and didn’t realise how we were drifting apart. Being too tired at bedtime for anything more than a quick peck on the cheek. Rushing out in the morning with no time for a prayer together. Concentrating so much on the people and the ministry – because, after all, it’s an important High Calling into Ministry! – and then each feeling we had been relegated by the other to second place, or ignored, or were of less importance than the church and its people.

Many people reading this will be church pastors, or married to church pastors, or heavily involved in church ministries. What wisdom can you share with us for ‘ministry-proofing’ our marriages?

Ah! If only! The wisdom and the ‘ministry-proofing’ – both! But three things in particular have helped us.

  • Having the same day off; and making sure you take it. And not Saturdays. Have it on a weekday; Saturdays can be a light day, but often there are weddings to take or sermons to finish. Have a day off during the week, and escape somewhere else: go for a walk; visit a museum; go out for coffee. Just get away from the church house, the church, the people, and BE together, doing something, other than ministry, together. And if you have small children, who have to come too, still make time for a ‘date-night’ at home that evening, after they’ve gone to bed. (Lucy says: “Check out my post 25 Stay-At-Home Date Night Ideas for lots of suggestions!”)
  • Every January, write the word ‘something’ in your diary for every day off throughout the year. And do the same for various times each week for the current week. Then when someone asks you to do something, you can in all honesty say, “Thank you for asking; there’s something in my diary then. Let’s find another time that‘s good for us both.” Then the time with spouse and family is protected more easily.
  • Make the most of the fact that while clergy are often out late at night at church meetings and come home shattered, they are often at home at lunchtime! Especially once the children are at school, lunchtime can be a GREAT time to go to bed. If you start planning on Monday morning to have sex on Friday at lunchtime, you can almost guarantee a special time! There’s something wildly wicked about a knowing glance or comment that indicates to your spouse, ‘can’t wait til Friday lunch time!’ Switch phones to silent, lock the front door (I have known parishioners assume they can just walk in to church homes) and enjoy!

You’ve just made my day!

On a serious note, if anyone reading this feels it’s ‘too late’ for their marriage, what practical advice can you give them?

Have three or four close friends who can be trusted with confidentiality, to commit to pray for you and your marriage daily for the next little while.

Find a Christian counsellor and go regularly – perhaps one for the two of you together as well, although not all couples find that helpful or easy.

Use this as a time to ask God what He can teach you in and through this horrible and painful experience; particularly, ask him to teach you to trust him as you walk this path; and to help you to forgive any hurt and pain caused by your partner. “Fast from recriminations and feast on forgiveness” was what the Lord taught me.

Is there a secret to a happy and long-lasting marriage – and, if so, what is it?!

I’ve learned not to take my husband or my marriage for granted: even after 43 years I need to work at it!

Hug (properly hug, at least 25 seconds of proper hugging!) at least four times a day. It sounds prescriptive, and yet it makes such an enormous difference to the relationship! So, on waking and on retiring to bed, on leaving the house and on returning.  Leave what you’re doing and for those 25 seconds concentrate solely on one another with a big wrap-around hug. 

Make a specific daily list of three or four things that make you grateful to God for your spouse. You begin to see your partner in a new way. And then verbalise your thanks occasionally to your partner. Let them know how grateful you are for little things about them.

But we‘re each different in what we need and in what we can give and in how we receive love. Learn what your partner needs to feel loved and appreciated – I’d recommend doing The Marriage Course or reading The Five Love Languages. And then acting on what you learn!

Penelope, it’s been an education. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!

To read more of Penelope’s story, why not read Walking Back to Happiness? Or check out her blog here and sign up for her wonderful devotional emails – they’ve been restorative balm to me ever since I signed up.

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  1. Wow, thanks so much Penelope (and Lucy for facilitating) – this is massively helpful! I’m not a church leader or married to one, but will certainly now pray more informed prayers for much-loved ordained friends, colleagues and their spouses. You are all so deserving of loving prayer support! I’m so glad things are going better for you and your husband now Penelope x

    1. Ah, but you are working in ministry, are you not?! So you are totally included in this! PLUS, I think there are huge pressures on people who are juggling secular jobs with voluntary serving in their churches – and marriage and family life, of course. So definitely very relevant to many! x

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