How Ministry Can Damage Our Closest Relationships
The upcoming movie ‘Indivisible’ includes important lessons for leaders
Army Chaplain Darren Turner and his wife Heather did not expect to be the couple whose marriage was on the rocks.
He was a seminary graduate and chaplain. She was raising their three children and serving in a support group for Army wives. They were—it seemed—the perfect military family.
But barely a year after he deployed to Afghanistan on a 15-month tour, it became obvious that their relationship was strained. Things didn’t improve when he returned home, either. His mind now was filled with thoughts of grief and regret—of friends he lost, horrors he saw, and the stress he experienced.
The loving husband and father had been replaced by someone who was distant, angry, and depressed—and who argued a lot. Things came to a head one day when Heather told him the words she thought she’d never say: You’re no longer welcome here.
The couple separated for several months but didn’t divorce, and during that time Darren left the Army and got a job at Home Depot. Eventually, they reconciled and moved back in together. They also reentered Army life—something each felt called to do.
The film Indivisible, coming out October 26, tells the story of Darren and Heather’s battle for their marriage, from his deployment and return home to their separation and reconciliation. It stars Justin Bruening and Sarah Drew (both from Grey’s Anatomy). Provident Films—which released War Room and Courageous—is the studio behind it.
“I got out of the Army not because I didn’t like the Army. I got out because it was really my only chance to save my marriage and family,” the real-life Darren told me.
Of course, Darren and Heather aren’t the first couple negatively impacted by the stress and regret of ministry. A 2015 survey of 1,500 pastors by LifeWay Research found that 20 percent say their family resents the demands of pastoral ministry, and 35 percent say the demands of their position prevent them from spending time with family.
All forms of ministry present unique challenges to families. As we see in Indivisible, ministry—if not given the right perspective—can damage even our closest relationships.
So, how do maintain the right balance? Here are three ideas:
1. Don’t Let Ministry Eclipse Your Family
In Indivisible, Darren returns from deployment but remains so engrossed in his ministry that he neglects his wife and children. When his wife asks why he is rarely present at home, he shouts: “Those men need me!” Of course, his wife and children needed him, too.
A 2008 LifeWay survey of pastors found that 65 percent of them work 50 or more hours a week. That includes 27 percent who work 60 or more hours and 8 percent who work 70 or more hours. The question begs: How much time is left for the family?
It can be easy to rationalize extra-long work weeks. After all, the minister is doing God’s work. But such rationalization overlooks the priority God places on the family in Scripture:
- Key verse: “The overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife … He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” (1 Timothy 3:2-5).
- Key point: When we place ministry ahead of our family, we reverse God’s order. Scripture says we are to demonstrate faithfulness at home before we consider a life in ministry. (See also Titus 1:5-9.) This doesn’t mean sacrifice isn’t sometimes necessary, but it does mean the rule—and not the exception—is for family to come first.
- Challenge: Tell those over you and around you that you want to be intentional about prioritizing your family, and that you need help and accountability to do it. Delegate responsibilities. Ask for help. Learn to separate true emergencies from less dire situations.
2. Prioritize Your Children
In Indivisible, Darren neglects not only his wife but his own children, who miss the joy-filled dad they once knew. Instead of playing with them, he sits in the backyard, contemplating his regrets and the friends he lost. He also refuses to undergo counseling.
Even if you’re not a military chaplain, your ministry can be time-consuming and stressful. Between counseling sessions, hospital visits, and funerals, a pastor can easily get overwhelmed, seeing and hearing things the average layperson does not. Children can become collateral damage.
- Key verse: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
- Key point: The Israelites were challenged to teach their children about God throughout the day, every day. It wasn’t a one-time event. The commandment applied to everyone—even the priests. As ministry leader Roger Hernandez has written in the February 2014 edition of Ministry magazine: “Your family needs you more than your church does.” Are you regularly taking time to listen to your children’s thoughts about life? Are you teaching them a biblical worldview that will guide them through the storms? Are you acting as if they are a “heritage” from God?
- Challenge: Set aside substantial time for your children—time that cannot be interrupted with ministry. Perhaps this happens during evening hours or on your day off. Go on a “date” with them. Play with them. To make it even more special, silence your phone. Tell others how important this time is, so they won’t disturb it.
3. Prioritize Your Spouse
Indivisible shows Darren and Heather slowly drifting apart, unsure why the other one isn’t meeting their needs. Darren wants respect. Heather wants support.
The real-life Darren told me he failed to keep his ministry in perspective. “I kind of believed those people who patted me on the back, and so I thought more highly of myself than I should have,” he said. In the same way that ministers neglect their children, they can neglect their spouse, too.
- Key verse: “ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ … So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:5-6).
- Key point: Are you exhibiting with your spouse the patience and kindness of love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, just as you strive to do with the people you serve?
- Challenge: Go on a weekly date with your spouse, hiring a babysitter if necessary. Or just put the children to bed early and have a date at home. Cook a special meal or order out. Above all, talk … and listen.
Indivisible has similar themes to the 2008 faith-based movie Fireproof, but from the perspective of a military chaplain. It can serve as a “reset” switch for families.
“I would hope people walk away with a freedom to be broken—a freedom to be honest about our failures,” the real-life Heather told me. “I believe that is the beginning of healing—and being able to recognize and admit that we walk in a dependency on Christ. Apart from acknowledging those weaknesses and failures, it’s not possible.”
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