If you’re human, you’ve experienced it: The pain of betrayal. The disappointment of unmet expectations. The sting of relationships gone sour. The frustration of good intentions gone awry. Being in a vocational ministry role does not protect you from any of the above.

In his book, Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp captures the dynamics that set up relational pain, disappointment and discouragement. What follows is a paraphrase of Tripp’s insights on the unhelpful assumptions and unrealistic expectations placed on clergy couples.

Tripp points out that the cycle of isolation and danger begins when a church makes incorrect and unhelpful assumptions about the person they have called. The biggest is that many churches simply don’t expect their pastors to struggle with sin. They don’t expect them to get discouraged. They don’t expect them to be tempted toward bitterness or envy. They don’t expect that there will be moments when the pastor would be tempted to doubt the goodness of God. They don’t expect that in a meeting or in the pulpit, fear of man will keep them from doing or saying the things that God called them to do and say. They don’t expect to hire flawed persons who are still desperately in need of the very grace that they are called to offer and exegete for others.

Tripp further expands on the expectations of the church. They expect pastors to be a model spouse and parent. They expect that they will be able to joyfully carry an unrealistic job description that would overwhelm anyone this side of Jesus’ return. The church expects that pastors will be content with significantly less pay than most people with their level of education. And they expect that their spouse be so fully committed to ministry themselves that their coming to the church is actually a two-for-one deal.

These unhelpful assumptions and unrealistic expectations are toxic situations that can quickly erode even the most optimistic and well-intended relationships, turning them into toxic relationships. This can happen in as little as a few weeks! Not knowing how to navigate these relational challenges can inflict lifelong damage.

There are a number of strategies that can be helpful in avoiding toxic circumstances, toxic relationships, and toxic thinking. Before we take a look at some of these strategies, it is worth pausing to consider this: You know you are potentially in a toxic situation or toxic relationship if…

…before or during an encounter with a specific person(s), you often find yourself feeling irritable or wanting to withdraw.

…you dread or fear being around them.

…you emotionally check out.

…you find yourself personally affected by someone else’s drama.

…you are constantly trying to rescue or fix the person(s).

…you ignore your own values and find yourself thinking and behaving in ways that are not like you.

…you don’t like who you become around them.

…you feel that your boundaries are not respected.

…the person does not seem to respect the word “No” even when stated directly.

…you feel controlled by the person.

…you feel like you have to walk on eggshells whenever you’re around the person.

…whenever you leave the person(s), you feel exhausted.

  • Answer the questions below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.
  • Looking back at Paul Tripp’s observations about expectations and assumptions of clergy, can you relate?
  • Which expectations and assumptions have caused the greatest stress in your role?
  • Of those, which were expectations or assumptions YOU held of others? THEY held of you?
  • What can you do to level expectations and clarify assumptions?

Though you cannot necessarily control the toxic situations in your life, you can exert a significant and positive influence over a situation that has the potential of becoming toxic. One way to do this is by using an exercise called the toxic triangle, a tool that has been helpful to thousands of individuals and teams who work together serving others.