The Pastoral “Three-Year Glitch”: Ecclesiological Divorce

Tom EwellAs I prepare this week to preach from Matthew 5:21-32, I have been thinking about divorce.  Having only pastored for five months, other pastors always say to me, “Oh, you’re still in the honeymoon phase!”  They mean well, and they’re being honest.  A pastor’s ministry in a church is quite similar to a marriage in many respects.

Which is why I believe the tenure of the typical SBC pastor is around 3.6 years (according to a poll done by Thom Rainer, head of Lifeway Research).  Dr. Terri Orbuch, a psychologist specializing in marriage relationships, says 3.5 years is just about the time that any lingering effects of the ‘honeymoon’ phase of a marriage have worn off.  She has coined the phrase “three-year glitch” because it is around this point that many marriages begin to head toward the slaughterhouse of divorce.

Most of us recognize the fact that men and women today seek that “in love” feeling in their relationships.  Once it wears off, and the troubles of fitting two completely different (not to mention sinful) people together in a crazy one-flesh union, they begin to chafe, argue, and squirm at the ill consequences of the rash commitment they made when their clear thinking heads were clouded with the butterflies and emotional highs of heady romance.  Throw a screaming baby into the mix, and stick a fork in it.  That marriage is DUN.

I wonder whether this same thing doesn’t happen all the time in a pastor’s relationship with his church.  He meets the search committee, the church puts on its best makeup, covering any problem areas with a bit of powder, and the pastor’s shining resume speaks volumes to the fact that he is the answer to their every need.  The first year, everyone is so excited to get to know the new pastor, they love his family, and they are excited about his vision.  Then, as a couple of years go by, a few bad confrontations occur, and the pastor steps on a few toes, the pastor falls out of love with his congregation, and the congregation likewise.

Fortunately for him, infidelity to his congregation is not so much a sin as it is “business as usual” in the modern ministry, so he begins to send out his resume in search of a new bride.

The sad thing about all of this is that a marriage really starts to get good after three years.  Once two people finally let down their guard and begin to love one another, forgive one another, suffer together through trials, and experience hurt and redemption, God begins that painful yet joyfully rewarding process of “sanctification by way of spouse.”

I write these words as much to encourage other pastors to push through the tough times and to stick with their people, as I do to discourage myself in the future, when the honeymoon is over, from seeking the easy way out.  God’s church is a bride, and though imperfect, she gets better with age.  May we pastors treat her with the delicate love and tender compassion that the bridegroom Jesus Christ requires.

(photo credit)

Note: The inclusion of this photo of Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch (1955) is in no way meant as a promotion of the film, but as a visual commentary.  I personally haven’t seen the film, but its iconic status goes without saying.  Unfortunately, I felt compelled to include this disclaimer, as “subtlety” is only a stumbling stone in today’s public arena, and “generosity of discourse” is often exchanged for the rock of offense (in other words, these days you can’t leave things you wish to be unspoken for fear of your intentions being wrongfully misinterpreted!).