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What Your Marriage Says About Your Ministry

Why so many church leaders’ marriages are train wrecks—and what they can do about it.
Picture of Greg Stier
Greg Stier

Church history is full of bad marriages.

John Wesley—founder of the Methodist movement and one of the three key preachers in the First Great Awakening (along with George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards)—had a notoriously bad marriage that was full of fights and fits. He and his wife, Molly, relentlessly insulted each other, and their arguments went from private to public.

John thought Molly was a rebellious woman who should quietly wait for and on him. Molly was tired of being home alone while he was gone for months at a time on preaching trips. Once, in 1758, when John was preparing to go on another preaching tour, his parting words to her were:

I hope I shall see your wicked face no more.*

Not quite pillow talk, Mr. Wesley.

John and Molly separated again and again, until she finally left once and for all. He wrote in his journal:

Finally, she left for good. I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.

An Unacceptable Excuse

This is sad indeed. A man who is considered by many to be the organizing force behind the First Great Awakening could not organize his life in such away as to prioritize his wife and could not bring a great awakening to his dead marriage.

Wesley pathetically tried to excuse his long absences and cold demeanor behind a ministry mantra: “for the sake of the cause.”

According to Robert Southey, in his book The Life of John Wesley, Wesley compared his own ministry impact with the impact of his wife’s life with these cut-to-the-heart words:

…of what importance is your character to mankind? If you were buried just now, or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?

Ouch.

My Own Turning Point

Tragically, Wesley is not the only man of God to have a marriage ruled by the Devil. And this is not true just of church history—it’s true all across the world in many churches today.

It was true in my marriage early on. For the first several years of my marriage, I was busy preaching at my church on Sunday and leading Dare 2 Share the rest of the week. When I wasn’t on the road or in the office, I came home to collapse on the couch and watch television. I, like Wesley, subconsciously excused my lameness in loving my wife and leading my marriage on busyness with “the greater cause” of Christ.

Then one night, it all blew up in my face when our argument spilled over into public, literally during a Bible study. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I ended up in the fetal position in the middle of the Bible study circle, crying unconsolably for 30 minutes. Why? Because I knew she was right and I was wrong. I was a jerk! I hadn’t been paying attention to her and her needs. I had been pulling a Wesley, “for the sake of the cause.” I wanted my wife Debbie to just suck it up and submit so I could go on the road and save lost souls.

It was my soul that needed to be saved, not from the flames of Hell, but from the ice-coldness of a marriage on life-support.

That moment marked a turnaround point—not an immediate, full 180, but more like a Wall Street graph headed in the right direction. Yes, there have been—and continue to be—ups and downs. But my wife is the love of my life, and we’ve now been co-laboring side-by-side for soon-to-be 33 years!

Now we’re together “for the sake of the cause.”

What the Word Says

King Solomon was right:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Fellow pastors, preachers, evangelists, youth leaders, and Christian husbands in general: What does it profit a man to gain the whole ministry world and lose his own marriage? May we harken to the words of the Holy Spirit through the pen of the apostle Paul:

For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up His life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s Word. He did this to present her to Himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man who loves his wife actually shows love for himself. No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. And we are members of His body. As the Scriptures say, ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.

Ephesians 5:25-32

Whether we like it or not, our marriages either testify to the truth and power of the Gospel or call it into question in the eyes of those around us. May this fact cause each of us to examine our marriages and take the steps necessary to bring them into line with God’s will.

Prayer = Life Support

On our own, we can’t live out God’s design for marriage. But as we ask God for help, He grants us the desire and the strength. I pray the following prayer for my own marriage, and I invite you to do the same for yours:

Lord, help me to love my wife like Jesus loves the church, to sacrifice for her like Jesus sacrificed for the church, to work for her sanctification like Jesus works for it in the church, and to be one with her like Jesus is one with the church. In Jesus’s Name. Amen!

_________________________________________________

*Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Biography, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003, page 155.

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