Healthy churches reflect healthy families and few churches will be healthier than the pastor’s marriage, according to Eddie Thompson, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s (BSC) senior consultant for marriage and family ministry since April 2008.
“If we want healthy churches, those start with healthy families,” Thompson said during an interview, in which he said a “healthy church actually starts with the pastor’s marriage … a healthy pastor and his wife.”
Ministry demands, misplaced priorities and life in a fishbowl strain clergy marriages and the inability to be transparent with the church members they serve strain them further. Consequently, Thompson found a quick and eager audience for the pastor/wives retreats he is sponsoring.
Pastors tell Thompson that couples in their churches are hurting in strained and fragile marriages. Still many pastors do not teach on marriage and family issues because, they tell Thompson, their own marriages are in bad shape and they don’t feel they can “teach something I’m failing at.”
Thompson, who feels such testimonies confirm his ministry direction is on the right track, said pastors and wives often neglect working on their marriages as they respond to the constant tug of ministry and feel their marriage is untouchable — that God will protect it somehow. They struggle because their marriage is not above problems and pain, yet they want to model a good relationship for the church.
Leave and cleave
“All marriage problems actually come down to two things,” said Thompson, married to Janet since 1981 and doing marriage retreats together since 1993. “Either the partners are not leaving competing relationships or they’re not cleaving together.”
It is biblical and necessary to leave behind relationships and habits of a single life and cleave to your spouse, Thompson said. He counseled one apparently model clergy couple who no longer had a spark between them.
She was a puddle of tears when Thompson pointed out they never ate meals together, had no family time and did not even vacation together.
“You’re not married to each other at all,” he told them. “You’re married to your church.”
Sixty percent of pastors say they would stay in ministry even if they had a chance to leave, yet sixty percent of pastor’s wives say they would get out if given the chance, Thompson said.
The difference in those figures illustrates the “disconnect” between pastors and their wives, he said. While wives love God, they secretly resent the ministry toll on their family and “wish we had more of our own lives back.”
Thompson, who was pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Charlotte for three years before joining the BSC staff, said it is “easy for a pastor to let the church be his primary lover, to give all his time and energy away.”
The wise pastor counters time spent in night meetings with afternoons or mornings invested with his wife or children.
Thompson is not focusing exclusively on clergy marriages in his role. The marriage weekends in churches are church wide and in them he teaches there are four primary actions for healthy marriages: leaving, cleaving, love and respect.
He calls these the “four dynamics laid out in God’s word for oneness.”
Thirty-nine percent of 1,400 young people aged 18-26 in a major survey said their biggest problem was parents who would not let them grow up. That hovering tendency of modern parents makes it difficult for young people to “leave” family and “cleave” to their spouse.
“If you don’t leave financially, physically and emotionally you can’t cleave to your mate,” he said.
Thompson’s conferences begin with dinner on Friday night and go through early Saturday afternoon. He often preaches in the church on Sunday.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, Thompson makes the weekends fun. Hopefully, he said, the pastor will take a next step, which needs to be more than a 4-week sermon series on marriage.
Thompson and the BSC have reached agreement with Focus on the Family to cooperate in marriage weekends.
Thompson will conduct his events in conjunction with the Colorado Springs based organization, utilizing their material and helping to identify “family champions” in each congregation.
To multiply himself and to strengthen North Carolina Baptist families, Thompson wants to identify and train in each church a “family champion” to assist the pastor in the area of marriage and family. Focus on the Family is seeking a similar effect, but does not have the resources to penetrate the approximately 220,000 Christian churches in the country. Working with the BSC will give Focus on the Family an opening to the 4,200 BSC churches.
“The body should be helping itself,” Thompson said. “In most of these things, if our people were trained, they could minister to one another.”
Usually at least one person in each church tells Thompson he or she would like to do what he does in family ministry, and asks to be shown how to do it.
“Family champions” would be the vehicle to carry people to that need.
Thompson predicts time is running out and if something doesn’t change within 10-20 years in how churches deal with clergy families, pastors may be divorced at the same rate as the general population.
Pastors juggling act
Thompson’s own marriage was not idyllic from the beginning. He and Janet struggled for three years before Thompson “met the Lord on a men’s retreat in 1984.” When Janet opened the door to their house upon his return he was overwhelmed.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I love you, but I don’t know why I love you so much more now than I did before.’” He knows now he couldn’t give selfless love until he had received it from God. In 1990 God called him into ministry.
Thompson, 50, is a graduate of UNC Charlotte with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He earned a master of ministry degree from Bethany Theological Seminary in Alabama, and has taken additional classes at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Evangelical in Charlotte.
He was pastor at Union Baptist Church in Monroe, then started Fairview in Apex before going to Cornerstone in Charlotte.
Thompson didn’t intend marriage counseling to become his niche, but couples kept approaching him and Janet as their pastor family.
“We always shared our life with them,” Thompson said.
“We told them where we’d failed. God met with us and changed not only our lives, but our marriage. If He can do that with us, He can do that with them, too.”
Thompson said good marriage counseling is really just good discipleship training.
Connecting to the Lord will draw couples close together, he said. Without individuals moving closer to God, “any attempt they make toward repairing their marriage is probably not going to work,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — For an audio synopsis of Thompson’s ministry visit www.youtube.com/.)
Celebrating Marriage God’s Way
That’s the name of Eddie Thompson’s foundational church marriage weekend. Cost is $20 per person and each participant receives a notebook. The major cost for a pastor is committing a weekend to the event, clearing from the schedule any competing event.
The pastors and wives retreats Thompson is sponsoring will be limited to about 30 couples at a time and he will do at least two per year. Contact his office at (919) 459-5644 or [email protected].
Related to this story
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