Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Church Leaders and Marriage

            How many times have we heard the same story?  A preacher or youth minister or elder or deacon or key ministry leader gets caught up in an affair.  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  But it did.  His wife and children are devastated.  The church is rocked to its core.  And a congregation of people don’t know quite how to react since the one who was supposed to be teaching and exemplifying God’s design for marriage has destroyed his own.
            Sometimes, through a lot of hard work, prayer, grace, forgiveness, and change, those marriages can be saved.  Sometimes they can’t.  But what could have been done to prevent the situation to begin with?  When these tragedies happen, our reactive nature kicks in and we talk about ministry structures, how programs are carried out, who should or shouldn’t be recruited as volunteers, and how we can prevent a man and woman who aren’t married to each other from being put into a tempting situation.  And we do need those safeguards.  We need to learn from the mistakes that were made and do what we can to prevent them from happening again.  But how proactive are you in helping the leaders at your congregation focus on and strengthen their own marriages?
            When was the last time your congregation insisted that one of your ministry leaders go on a weekend marriage enrichment retreat, just that person and his/her spouse, for the sole purpose of focusing on his/her own marriage?  Many ministers can’t even imagine a congregation letting them go for a weekend retreat where they aren’t speaking, or organizing, or in some way running the show; a weekend where they are 100% free to focus on their own spouse.  Yet, every church ought to be doing that for their married ministers.  And the church should help make it happen by volunteering or paying for child care, and NOT charging the days off against the minister as vacation or personal leave days.
How can we insist that our ministers stand up before the congregation as examples of strong marriage if we don’t allow them to tend to their own marriages first?  How can we say that we are serving God if we allow the busyness of church work to make a minister’s spouse feel as if she/he is no longer important or cherished?  Are we fooling ourselves into believing that we are doing God’s will if we press our ministers to save the world while their own marriages go to hell?
Now, I understand that a weekend getaway is not everyone’s cup of tea.  But it’s imperative that you ask the question, “Are church leaders (elders, ministers, church staff, deacons, lead volunteers, or whatever terminology your church fellowship uses) encouraged or required to do something on a regular basis for the sake of their marriage?  I would even advocate that a church should require a leader and his spouse to have an annual visit with a marriage counselor?
            This is where the rubber meets the road.  A fun weekend retreat might be okay, but many church leaders balk at the suggestion of having an annual marriage health check-up and some downright rebel at the idea of it being mandatory. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is often a strong negative stigma associated with going to counseling. Undoubtedly, many leaders will say, “We’ve been married a long time, and we have a good marriage.  Everything is fine. We don’t need to see a counselor!” Yet, what does it communicate to the congregation when the leadership hedges at insuring their own marital health? And, being married to a minister’s wife, I know there is a level of stress that falls on a church leader’s spouse that those spouses often feel they cannot openly discuss.  If the leadership does not model strong, healthy marriages, you cannot expect the rest of the church family to follow suit. Lord willing, a yearly check-up will take a little time, create some healthy conversation between the church leader and his/her spouse, and result in an “all’s fine” diagnosis. And if a leadership couple does discover there’s a problem, wouldn’t it have been a far worse thing to have failed to ask?
            Please understand, I’m not out to just fill up the open spots for the marriage enrichment weekend below.  I just want you to do something (whatever it is, just DO SOMETHING) for your church leaders and their marriages.  Open up the conversation.  Share this post with the decision makers in your church.  If you are a ministry leader, ask your fellow leaders to help find avenues to insure healthy marriages among the leadership.  But please don’t “do nothing” and watch a leader in your congregation become the next story we’ve all heard.

A Marriage Enrichment Weekend
August 31-September 2, 2012
Fall Creek Falls State Park Inn
Email dfcamp@gmail.com for more info.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sex and the Church

When was the last time you thanked God for your sex life?  When was the last time you and your spouse together thanked God for your sex life?  For some people, this is a really, really weird question.  After many years of pastoral premarital counseling, I’ve noticed that often couples who grew up with a strong church background are the ones most reluctant to see sex as a spiritual blessing.
For the sake of full disclosure, let me say up front that I believe sex is meant to be a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman and kept within the context of marriage for the purpose of procreation and recreation.  I believe that from the beginning God created husband and wife to engage each other sexually.  Because God created sex, sex is good.  But I also believe God, knowing infinitely more than us, provides boundaries for sexual expression between a husband and wife.  Those boundaries protect us and enhance intimacy and spiritual growth.
The problem is, most churches only teach about sex from a negative aspect, and only address the physical side of the act. I get it why they do that.  I really do. The desire is to protect the sanctity and integrity of marriage, and also to keep teens from making potentially life-altering choices before they are ready to make them.  But if all a person ever hears growing up is “Don’t do it,” and if we remove the spiritual aspect from sex, then (whether intentionally or unintentionally) we label this gift of God as “shameful feelings that must be controlled if they can’t be squelched altogether.”  Think about it.  Did you ever have a Bible class on 1 Corinthians 7 in which the main message of the class was “When you’re married, you should have sex, and have sex often because this brings you closer to each other and to God.”  Instead, when a couple marries and they suddenly have “permission” to engage each other sexually, sex is seen as nothing more than a strictly carnal act that is no different than the way the world views it.  Physical pleasure becomes the only goal and we have inadvertently robbed the sexual relationship of any real intimacy.
There is another epidemic problem associated with separating the sexual relationship from the spiritual relationship.  The shame-culture created around sex through constant negative teaching contributes to a “forbidden fruit/guilt” mentality that can drastically affect a couple’s sex life.  After marriage, a couple engages each other sexually because it is expected and even “okay,” but at least on some level one or both partners may still feel a sense of having done something lewd or inappropriate.  These negative feelings can then open the door to pornography.  Often Christians who are addicted to pornography feel shame because of what they are doing, but if shame is connected to sex, then through pornography the shame can at least be kept private (and with today’s technology, the addiction is easily hidden), thus creating a self-perpetuating, destructive cycle.  In essence, the person trades one kind of shame for another.  Since the person was never taught the spiritual/intimate connections to the physical act, he or she engages in a “now-acceptable, shameful action” in the marriage bed, but still pursues a hidden shame through pornography that seeks a heightened physical response.
So what’s the answer?  Obviously every marriage situation is unique, and I certainly don’t believe that everyone who was told “don’t do it” as a teen will have an unfulfilled sex life or become addicted to pornography as an adult.  Also, discussions with children about sex should always be age appropriate.  But when you teach your children about sex, teach them that God created sex.  Sex is good.  But God put boundaries on our sexual expression; boundaries that give us better, more fulfilled, more intimately connected lives.  And, if we wait until marriage and keep our sex lives fully enmeshed in our marriage relationship, then sex will become a foundational part of a wonderfully fulfilling union that will draw us closer to our spouse and to God.
           Certainly there is much more to this discussion than can be covered in a short blog entry.  And there are many good sources out there for further information.  But if we hope to break the shame-culture that can damage a marriage for life, we have to consider how we talk and teach about sex in our churches and Bible classes.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Motivation in Marriage

In marriage, we often try to motivate our spouses. It doesn’t matter what the goal of the motivation is.  It could be anything from losing weight or paying better attention to physical health, to not giving up on a job search, to paying more attention to spiritual growth, to helping with household chores, to going back to school for a new job opportunity, to minding the way he/she communicates, or anything else.  The important question is, how do you try to motivate your spouse?  The way you try to motivate your mate says a lot about your relationship.  Respect, mutual submission, what you value, how you view your marriage covenant, and so much more comes into play.
Sadly, many people try to motivate their spouse in negative ways. When you try to motivate your spouse, do you repeatedly point out her faults?  “I don’t have much hope that this will work because you never stick with anything you start.”  Do you compare him unfavorably to other husbands? “Leah’s husband helps around the house without her having to ask.  What’s wrong with you?”  Do you make her feel stupid or worthless with your comments? “Wow, if everyone thought about that like you do, we’d be in a real mess.”  Do you yell at him or try to shame him into a different way of behaving? “What kind of man are you!  A real man wouldn’t do that!”  Do you try to make her feel guilty?  “Fine, I’ve worked all day and I’m exhausted, but I’ll take care of it because obviously you aren’t going to do it.”  Typically, negative motivation yields negative results. Rather than making a change to escape the negative berating, many times a spouse will just dig in his/her heels and sink deeper into the undesirable behavior.
Now and again, we do all need “a wake-up call” and more direct and straight-forward communication is required, but when you attempt to motivate your spouse, don’t forget three things:
  • First, the primary calling lived out in marriage is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Since your spouse is your closest, most intimate neighbor, that is the place to start living out God’s love, graciousness, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness.
  • Second, don’t forget you are one flesh.  Don’t say or do anything to your spouse that you wouldn’t want said or done to you.  Words and actions carry an impact, so carefully guard how you choose to motivate your spouse.  What you say and do in anger or frustration can have a lasting effect.
  • And third, we all need motivation from time to time.  Marriage should be a place in which we are challenged; but make sure you are challenging your spouse in ways that will allow you to grow together toward holiness and Kingdom living.
            Next time you need to make changes in your life, I pray that your marriage will be a safe harbor of loving motivation.  Next time you want to motivate your spouse, I pray that you do it out of a selfless desire to better your relationship in Christ, not a selfish desire to make your spouse conform to your wishes.  I pray that we never allow anger, shame, guilt, frustration, or selfishness to become our driving force in helping our mates change for the better.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Price of Marriage

We live in a capitalist culture, so money is necessary to survive. A young couple might think they can “live on love,” but Wal-Mart does not take “love” at the checkout counter. Love doesn’t pay the rent or mortgage. And the utility companies couldn’t care less how much you love your spouse; they’re still going to cut off your lights or water if you don’t pay the bill.
Since a large majority of marital problems and divorces can be traced back to money as a root cause, it is important to remember a few key principles:

  • Money is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. It is neither moral nor immoral. It is all in how you view money and what role wealth and material possessions occupy in your relationship.
  • If you do not find joy and contentment in your marriage without money, you will not find it with money.  Money might mask or suppress certain issues, but problems that existed before you have money will resurface after you have money, and often in worse ways.
And most importantly,
  • Money is a spiritual matter. The two biggest indicators of your priorities are how you spend your time and how you spend your money. You can tell me what is important to you, but show me your daily schedule and your checkbook register, and I’ll clearly know what is really most important to you.
I know that what I’m saying is no great epiphany, but typically it is the simple day-to-day things in marriage that we need to be reminded of most often.  Take an honest assessment.  What does the way you spend your money say about your relationship with your spouse? About your relationship with God? Your answer could have both immediate and ongoing consequences for your marriage relationship.

There are still a few spots left for the
Marriage Enrichment Retreat Weekend at
Fall Creek Falls State Park Inn,
August 31-September 2.
Call 615-631-2511 for more info.