Ministry and Marriage: Authentic and Fulfilling

By Randy Hamm

My colleague was burning out. Ministry had been his life, with countless hours poured into the lives of others. He had a powerful and effective ministry, serving so many alongside his ministry-minded wife. What I didn’t realize was that the ministry wasn’t all he was burning out of. Their marriage was also dead.

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This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard a story like this. It wasn’t my first time either. Though it was a lot closer to me this time. Close enough that I might have been able to speak into the situation and offer the everlasting life that Jesus proclaims for us.

If I could go back, what would I say?

What could they do differently as they started into ministry?

What is needed for a marriage to thrive in the midst of ministry?

First thing I’d say is this: Conflict is a Gift

When I asked a group of workshop participants what the difference between an authentic marriage and a Christian marriage was, I received some interesting answers. The temptation we, especially pastors, fall into is to believe that a Christian marriage is one with minimal conflict, close to perfect intimacy (spiritual, physical and emotional) and abounding in selfless love. We are all on a journey toward these ideals. Though we have to admit, even as Christians, we are not near as far along that journey as we’d like to be.

When we said our vows, we really had no idea what challenges would lie ahead as we wrestled with the tensions of joy and struggle as we seek to live and love authentically.

Mike Mason, in The Mystery of Marriage, says “To keep a vow means not to keep from breaking it, but rather to devote the rest of one’s life to discovering what the vow means, and to be willing to change and to grow accordingly.”

If we are willing to say, “wow, I’m not getting this marriage thing right, I have a lot to learn,” two things happen.

  1. We offer an incredible gift to our churches. As they struggle with their marriages, they no longer feel alone. They realize that even the pastor and their spouse have these struggles and need to rely on God. In my work with couples, I’ll mention something that I learned when we saw our counselor recently and they will stop me confused: “Wait, aren’t you the one we are learning from?”

    And I’ll respond, “aren’t you glad that I’m continuing to learn too?” If we can learn to live humbly before our congregations, what an example  we offer them. Instead of perpetuating the lie that they too can have the perfect marriage like we do, we can offer them a much more realistic view of marriage.

  2. When we are humble, we truly rely on God and are willing to learn, change and grow. If we can get past the lie that we don’t need help, that we shouldn’t need help, then we can actually get the help we need. We can turn a good marriage into a great marriage. We can face hidden conflict with the help of a district supervisor or counselor. We can ask for prayer from our deacons and friends. We can request to go on a marriage retreat. And more than anything, we can talk with our spouses about the reality of our marriage and seek God’s wholeness together.

Psychologist and author Dr. John Gottman has learned that 69% of the conflict we experience in marriage is perpetual. The majority of differences originating from our family of origin, personality and preferences cannot be merely resolved. We must learn to love each other in the midst of these particular tensions and conflicts, mutually submitting as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21. Though this research can initially cause much frustration and discouragement, in the end it leads to freedom, growth and joy. We no longer have to strive for that perfect conflict free marriage, but can learn instead what God is doing in us through it.

This leads me to the second thing I’d suggest: Don’t Expect Your Spouse to Make You Happy

I love officiating weddings. The highlight of every wedding is when the couple offers vows to each other. Unfortunately, more often than not, couples are commenting on how the other fulfills them or offering to fulfill the other. We often fall into the trap that this person will be the one who fills up the emptiness within us. When they inevitably do not, we are confused, hurt, frustrated and can get quite angry.

As a child, I remember watching the film Love is a Decision by Smalley and Trent (also a great book). The image of a cup with water being poured into it came on the screen. They teach how we can often look to our spouse as the one to fill our cup. Yet, through their little or big actions and lack of fulfilling our expectations, they often end up drilling holes in our cup. They go on to talk about our hope that kids will fill us up. Of course, they can drill even bigger holes.

My people have committed a compound sin:
they’ve walked out on me, the fountain
Of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—
cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves (Jeremiah 2:13)

I’m not encouraging you to call your marriage a broken cistern, not on a date night anyway! But remember that there is only One who truly fills us. God calls us to live an authentic life of seeking that fulfillment in Him. Of course, that could mean some hard honesty here as well, admitting that we are dry, confused, empty and asking for help. I’ve found that having a Spiritual Director helps so much: one who encourages me to look at what God is doing through all areas of my life. The more we learn to receive our identity and love from the One who can truly give it to us, the more we can offer that to the one we love, instead of expecting it from them.

Finally, See All of Your Marriage as a Gift From God

Of course, we all believed this when we got married. That was when we were overjoyed that this person loved ME! Tim Keller tells us, “The reason you get a thrill, it’s your ego. Someone I like is responding to me. That’s not love. It’s ego….When someone you admire, admires you, the praise of the praiseworthy is the most satisfying of all. It’s sexy.”

I’m sure that you still see your spouse as a gift to some degree, but perhaps some of what they offer you’d rather not receive. Perhaps some of that sexiness has worn off.

There is a wonderful complexity to marriage that is often messy and confusing. We see our spouse as a gift to us but do not realize that this gift includes disappointment, frustration and hurt. If we are to truly live a fulfilled life, we need to learn to receive the gift of journeying alongside someone who is fallible, broken and learning to love. In the midst of our shared hurts and failed expectations, we may find that we are also accepting each other as we are, and learning to love without the conditions we first brought to our marriage. This not only mirrors God’s love for us (true covenant), but it enables us to become more like God, to be more whole and holy.

How the two of you work together in ministry will often include balancing out your own weaknesses with the other’s strengths. Of course, we must be willing to admit them first. In no other relationship do we have the pressure of being with someone 24/7. We thought that was the gift of continual loving companionship and support, and though we do receive that, we also come up against the frustration of our egos, when we are not loved the way we think we should be. In ministry this can even be worse, when they are not supporting us like we think they should. If we are open to see what God is doing in us through that frustration, we might be able to see what God is truly doing in our spouse.

This work is deep, but can be done in us through the gift of our marriage, if we are only willing to receive it. As Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, likes to say, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

Expecting Conflict, Not Expecting Our Spouse to Make Us Happy , and Seeing Our Marriage as a Gift From God, will enable us to continue in ministry as an authentic partnership with our spouse. Yes, I do believe these tools are helpful in saving marriages, as well as thriving in sustainable ministry. Much more than that, I believe that viewing our marriages this way opens us up to God’s wholeness in amazing ways and allows us to live out the Kingdom of God more fully.

Space to be Truly Present

By Cailey Morgan

Over the past several articles, I’ve been taking a look at some of the paradigm shifts that Brad Brisco suggests in Missional Essentials are crucial to us as God’s people learning to live out our purpose as His sent ones.

We discussed how our posture must change from doing ministry to, or even ministry for, to ministry with. With is a much more patient and intimate way of gospelling, that takes place wherever we happen to live our lives—our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our shopping haunts.

But practically, what does this look like for us? How do we live out ministry with in a hyper-individualized, over-scheduled culture of fear and isolation? Again, my themes arise from Brad Brisco’s work, as well as thoughts from Ray Oldenburg, Tim Keller and Richard Swenson. In the next few posts, let’s take a look at our homes, our workplaces and third spaces—and ultimately our hearts—to explore opportunities for mission in each sphere of life.

First Places: Our Homes
Our homes and neighbourhoods are a very basic building block for living as missionaries. Jesus exemplified radical hospitality, and had a lot to say about how we are to treat our neighbours, and the opportunities that our homes present us for genuine witness. Having people into our homes, and finding ways to be present in the community in hopes of being invited into others’ spaces, is an avenue for evangelism we all should be living out.

Home Sweet Home by jlhopgood CC BY-ND 2.0

However, most of us are not.

As Brisco says, “How on earth can we expect to love our neighbours if we don’t know their names?” We all have neighbours, but everyone I’ve talked to has said it’s a struggle to get to know those living near them. Some of us don’t like initiating new relationships. Some of us see our neighbours in their gardens as we drive by, but never have the time to stop and chat. Some of our neighbours operate under “stranger danger” and don’t trust us—or sometimes we’re the ones who have built walls to “protect” our families, which really end up perpetuating the lack of trust.

So how do we grow in using the first space—our homes—as part of our life of mission? I think there are three elements we can evaluate.

1. Trust. What are three ways that your willingly offer your time, talents, treasures and relationships to the Father? What are three ways that you take matters into your own hands? This evaluation can be sensitive, because we need to look at who’s really in control of our iCals, our kids, and what we turn to for identity and value.

In the book Untamed, Deb Hirsch does not mince words in her evaluation of whether we trust God with our home life:

the family has effectively become a pernicious idol…missional hospitality is seen as a threat, not an opportunity…our families and our homes should be places where people can experience a foretaste of heaven. Where the church is rightly viewed as a community of the redeemed from all walks of life.

2. Relationship. Do you know your neighbours? Shannon and I love the neighbourhood mapping exercise of drawing the street and seeing how many neighbours you can name. This exercise becomes especially helpful when you use it as a basis for prayer. Lord, how should I pray for the people in that home? What are my opportunities to be the answer to those prayers? Sometimes, the next step is to just knock and say hi.

3. Space. How about an audit of your home and how it could be used creatively to bring people together? Some of us might need to roll our barbecues onto the front porch so that we’re more visible from the street. Others could throw a neighbourhood party in the garage.

I have some friends in an apartment building who got permission from the manager to turn an unused piece of courtyard into a community garden. Not only are they spending evenings sowing and weeding with their neighbours, but they also bring their morning coffee out to the patio table in the garden and hang out with whoever joins them.

A helpful resource here is Don’t Invite Them to Church: Moving From a Come and See to a Go and Be Church by Karen Wilk. This flexible guidebook will help you, your small group, or your church get started in neighborhood ministry and missional living.

Next time, we’ll work through the major roadblock to neighbouring: our time, or seeming lack thereof.

This is the fourth article in a series. Read the other posts here:

  1. Why, Oh Why?
  2. The Missionary Nature of God and His Church
  3. Incarnational Presence
  4. Space to be Truly Present
  5. Missional Margin
  6. Missional Mindset in Everyday Spaces

Mission is Slow

This article by Preston Pouteaux is reposted from Forge Canada’s Missional Voice newsletter, December 2015.

As a pastor I’ve made it a practice of mine to write letters to people. I used to write cards by hand, but that changed when I bought a used Lettera 22 typewriter. It’s old, and a bit finicky, but oddly satisfying.

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When I meet new people, or want to encourage a friend, there is something good that happens when I pull down my typewriter and take it out of the case. It takes a few minutes to set up, find a nice sheet of small typewriter paper, and adjust the ribbon. I take that time to think about what I want to write, how I want to convey my thoughts. Then, clack, clack, clack, I write. It’s nothing like writing a column, email, tweet, or essay. It’s slow, methodical, and strangely raw. Typewriters have no “backspace” or way of correcting mistakes. If I make an error, it stays on the sheet, perhaps crossed out, but there nonetheless. Typing takes time and I find myself getting to the point of what I want to say. Maybe, “thanks for being my neighbour” is all I need to say sometimes.

The real magic comes from sending the letter in the mail. In a world of emails and junk mail, a personally written letter sent with intentionality is a powerful and countercultural gesture. My typewriter, a stack of paper, and some stamps have transformed relationships and conversations. Sending letters or cards might seem like a grandmotherly kind of activity, right there along with crochet or 1000-piece puzzles. Yet I’ve found that a moment spent sending a letter, expressing my thoughts in simple and kind ways, can shape the way I see others, and allow God space to speak.

Years ago I painted portraits of people in our church congregation. It’s a project that turned into something larger. But at the time I would simply sit down with some watercolour paints and a blank piece of paper and create. It was slow work, each painting would take days or weeks. But as I would sit and paint I would find myself praying. Almost like sitting with the person in real life; I was asking God to bless them, I would wonder what God was doing in their lives, and I would just be present to God’s nudging in my own heart. It was a unique experience in my life and I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so much for other people as I had when I was painting their portraits. It was a function, I believe, of simply being present and patient with them, before God.

When I’m in my office clacking away on my little blue typewriter I find myself entering a similar place of prayer for the people I am writing to. The slow work of writing this way allows me a moment to listen, reflect, and allow God space to speak. My Lettera 22 typewriter is a little altar of prayer.

A few years ago I wrote to Eugene Peterson. He is a voice of wisdom for pastors and his books have taught me to reflect about the pace and posture of my life as a pastor and neighbour. By slowing down and living intentionally with the people and place where God has brought me, I’m more likely to see and participate in what God is already doing all around me. Eugene Peterson has long since been retired and I heard he was living somewhat off the grid. Or at the very least, he wasn’t checking his Twitter or Facebook feeds like the rest of us. So I pulled out my typewriter and wrote him the old fashioned way. I had been thinking a lot about what it means to love my neighbours, slowly, patiently, and attentively. I asked for his advice, and surprisingly, received a letter back. He wrote two pieces of wisdom in his letter that I think about often: “being a pastor is the most context-specific work there is” and “the most dangerous thing is impatience…keep it slow.”

Writing letters to people is deeply contextual. Social media and sharing articles go out into the world and can be read across contextual lines, and there is a place for that. But letters bring us back to the local places where God is working among us. They are written to a particular person, in a particular place. They are hyper-contextual and that makes them deeply powerful. Personal letters declare that the small, the unseen, the personal, and the kind are values we hold dear. From God’s perspective, these activities are never done in vain, in fact, they may be the most life transforming activities we can engage in. Never underestimate the potency and beauty of deeply context specific work, like being a pastor with a typewriter.

Going slow is never a waste. By being impatient with the people we seek to encourage or comfort with our letters, we rush past what God may be doing. I’ve had people come up to me months after I had written (and forgot that I had written) them a letter.

The slow process of intentional communication doesn’t have a built-in immediate response and gratification mechanism. You can’t click a button to publicly “like” that I sent you a note. You can only engage in the same intentional way. Slow builds trust, friendship, and life.

Living missionally requires that we think differently about many of our practices, and try on new practices that could help us engage in the patient way of Jesus within the places where we live. How we speak, write, or care for others reflect what we value and believe to be true about God’s work in our midst. What does slow and intentional communication look like between you and your neighbours? In what ways can you reflect the Kingdom of God in the way you speak and encourage others?

Preston Pouteaux, DMin. Tyndale Seminary, is a National Team member with Forge Canada, and is a pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church in Chestermere, Alberta. He studied at Briercrest College, Regent College, Tyndale Seminary, and Jerusalem University College in Israel. Preston is the author of Imago Dei to Missio Dei. He’s an avid beekeeper. @prestonpouteaux

Neighbourhood Front Porch

This past summer my husband and I intentionally decided it was time to meet our neighbours and get to know them. We have lived in our neighbourhood for 20 years and every year I have wanted to throw some kind of summer party and invite the people who live around us.

We live on mountain acreages and for the most part we can’t actually see our neighbours and even after 20 years here, have no idea what some of them even look like!4038233322_68f53080e4_z

So I came up with Neighbourhood Front Porch, made up invitations and put them in the mailboxes on a stretch of our road. My husband got the yard ready, likely wondering what I’ve gotten us into! The premise was that in days gone by, neighbours would gather to enjoy the summer evening by sitting on one another’s front porches, sharing cool drinks. That had become a lost art form in our remote control garage door, multiple activity, internet community society. To my utter amazement, people came! We talked, played yard games, ate, drank and enjoyed learning about one another.

And we did it all summer long! Thus the beginnings of community, though embryonic, has come to life.

It is my hope, that this blog will become a type of Front Porch for all who are curious and/or committed about being the presence of Christ in the places and spaces where we all live, work, play and pray. That we learn together what it means as followers to be incarnational and missional in our unique contexts and communities and how Christ Communities can grow organically out of our shared spaces in everyday, ordinary life.

This space is for conversation and dialogue. For story-sharing, idea sharing and exploring-
sharing. For wrestling. For encouragement. For praying for one another. And for sipping lemonade!

Come join us on this journey to watch the presence of Christ among us deliver God’s peace, joy, love, healing, hope and salvation in us and through us.

Here’s a question to perhaps get us started: What would it take to reach into your neighbourhood/community context for Christ?

I look forward to hanging out here with you. Pax!

Shannon